GMB Young Member Ross Holden in Cuba
13 July 2016

From 28th April to the 10th May 2016, 28 Young Trade Unionists representing millions of workers from across Britain and Ireland visited Cuba on the annual May Day Brigade organised by the Cuba Solidarity Campaign. I was one of them, representing the GMB North West & Irish Region and joining trade union and political activists from 34 countries around the world to show their solidarity with the Cuban people.

A taste of Cuba’s revolution:

Political, cultural and historical education formed one of the main activities on the brigade and brigadistas got straight into the history of the Cuban revolution on the first day by visiting the Martyrs Mausoleum in Artemisa. The Mausoleum pays tribute to the revolutionaries who lost their lives during the attacks on the Monaca and Carlos Manuel de Céspedes army barracks in Santiago de Cuba on 26 July 1953 – the beginning of the July 26 Movement – which eventually led to the successful Cuban Revolution and the ousting of the US-backed dictator, Fulgencio Batista on 1 January 1959.

Later in the trip the brigade also visited the city of Santa Clara and the memorial site for Che Guevara, the famous revolutionary hero and international icon. The staff at the memorial importantly noted that the site is a celebration of the life and work of Guevara and his fellow comrades fighting for a socially just Latin America, free from the economic imperialism they saw around them. The site was a moving and emotional experience for many and brought delegates from across the world together in solidarity with the aims of the Cuban revolution and the continuing the liberation of many around the world who still suffer hardship.

Cuba’s economy under the US blockade:

The brigade also spent much of the trip learning about the current Cuban economy where the biggest challenge to the island’s economic development is the continuing US blockade against them. The blockade, despite Obama’s visit to Cuba, is still in full swing and has a huge impact on Cuba receiving key resources such as oil, machinery and new technologies. To survive, Cuba has prioritised boosting their productivity by relaxing some forms of control over agrarian and small-scale industrial production such as farming and construction materials. The brigade learned how co-operatives are playing an increasingly important role in this, running many agricultural projects where their profits are shared between the workers and the state. This was shown at the Rigoberto Corcho brick-making and sugarcane farming co-op in Artemisa Province, where the primary purposes of brick making is to help people in bad accommodation, those living in homes damaged by natural disasters and to reduce the cost of brick.

Delegates also learned about Cuba’s longstanding commitment to environmentalism and sustainable growth when they travelled to Las Terrazas, a sustainable-living village and eco-tourism site in the Sierra del Rosario mountains. The site is located in a vast forest region which was designated a UNESCO biosphere reserve in 1984. The brigade learned that this biosphere was not naturally formed but actually came from a government reforestation and sustainability scheme. Before the revolution, the whole area was barren from the timber industry, leading to Fidel Castro ordering 5 million seeds to be planted after the revolution. The site is now a sustainable source of income to the Cuban economy through eco-tourism and as an eco-friendly coffee producer.

Building solidarity with Cuba:

Brigadistas also got stuck into showing their solidarity with Cuba on the trip, firstly by carrying out agricultural work in the local community. One of the working days was spent on a lettuce and radish farm in the nearby village of Caimito and after work the brigade were warmly welcomed by the farmer to his home which was built by the community for his family with a library education centre also built for the local workers. Brigadistas were treated to a round of Guyapo juice which is made from the pulp of local sugarcane as well as tasting honey straight from a live beehive (luckily Cuban bees don’t have stingers!)

On May 1st, brigadistas had an early 3:30am start to get to Revolution Square for the May Day rally. A million Cuban workers gathered to march past the Jose Marti monument as well as Cuban President and hero of the revolution Raul Castro including trade unions, co ops, hospital and school workers and young activists. The brigadistas were esteemed international guests at the rally Celebration where they enjoyed prime position, a short distance from the podium where Castro and CTC (Cuban TUC) General Secretary Ulises Guilarte greeted the huge crowds.

The next day, the brigade attended the International Meeting of Solidarity with Cuba conference at the Conventions Palace in Havana, where Cuba’s parliament meets. The conference was broadcasted on Cuban television, with speakers such as the Cuban Vice-President Salvador Valdes, the General Secretary of the Cuban Trades Union Congress and Deputy Foreign Minister Ana Teresita Gonzalez. The conference was attended by 1,000 international trade unionists and also two of the Miami Five, Gerardo Hernandez and Fernando González, who were freed from US prison with the help of international pressure by UK trade unions. The conference was incredibly insightful for learning about the political situation currently facing Latin America as well in Cuba, as any trade unionists spoke on issues such as the right-wing coup taking place in Brazil, massive austerity cuts and ‘shock’ therapy in Argentina, and the continuing US intervention and right-wing destabilisation against President Maduro in Venezuela.

What we can do in the UK to help Cuba:

I would like to say a massive thank you to the GMB North West & Irish Region and the Cuba Solidarity Campaign for giving me this once in a lifetime opportunity. What I have learned and experienced on this brigade and the friends I have made has ensured that I will always have a bit of Cuba with me wherever I am!

For me, this brigade is only just the beginning. More and more GMB branches are signing up to the Cuba Solidarity Campaign to help support Cuba here in the UK. The CSC has noted that one of their current campaign actions is to put direct pressure on our Foreign Minister Hugo Swire to invoke law already passed by Parliament that overrides the US blockade placed on Cuba, therefore allowing the UK to support the Cuban economy and its people with trading resources, machinery and foodstuffs etc. This, along with other current initiatives being pursued by CSC and affiliated trade unions like the GMB are good examples of action that anyone can get involved with and would make a massive difference to the solidarity cause. I encourage everyone to help show UK solidarity with Cuba in these difficult but not unconquerable times!

Find out more about the CSC and how you and your branch can get involved by visiting their online pages below:




Ross Holden

GMB Young Member