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Issue #1582      February 20, 2013

30th Southern Cross Brigade to Cuba

In late December 2012 and January 2013, 29 people from Australia attended the 30th Annual Southern Cross Brigade of solidarity with the Cuban people and their society and unique socialist Revolution.

Brigadistas, at Camp Julio Antonio Mella, clearing the sweet potato herbiage with machetes prior to harvest. (Photo: Richard Titelius)

Since 1983 groups of people from Australia and New Zealand have been going to Cuba to participate in social and cultural activities and meet representatives of various Cuban government and non-government organisations. The international brigades of solidarity are organised by the Cuban Institute of Friendship with the People (ICAP), which also organises solidarity brigades with people from many other parts of the world. The brigades are usually accommodated at the International Camp of Julio Antonio Mella located in a rural setting near the town of Caimito located 50 kilometres west of Havana. Tours are also made to other provinces to experience life and engage in social, cultural and historical activities with the Cuban people throughout the country.

The notion of a brigade in solidarity with Cuba is for non-Cubans to know what life is like for Cuban people and to experience a taste of this life and what it is that makes it an example of a society that is a beacon of freedom to people the world over – from Europe to Africa and Australia to the Americas and Asia.

To achieve this end the people of ICAP have over the years created a program of activities for brigade members to participate in and enjoy. The schedule of activities is different each year so that people who wish to enjoy the brigade multiple times can do so and still experience something new and different each time. This year’s brigade was held over 23 days with activities from Artemisa province in the west to Havana and Granma province.

This year’s Southern Cross Brigade did not have any New Zealanders though it did have participants from all mainland states including the ACT and of all age groups (the youngest being 20 years old and the oldest being 79) and a variety of walks of life from students to a retired engine driver, teachers and a former politician. Politically the brigade members were also quite diverse in their beliefs – from Communists to people who were centrists and libertarians which made for lively question times at the many forums on Cuban social, economic and political life.

This however did not detract from the overall cohesiveness of the brigade which was lead by West Australian Primary School teacher Rhonda Andrews. From the Cuban side of proceedings the ICAP official in charge of the brigade was Rigoberto Zarza, who was ably assisted by a number of other staff including our interpreter in chief Ezekiel Morales who hailed from Bayamo in Granma province where we were to spend several days seeing the area’s many important historical sites.

The many forums on Cuban society presented to the Brigade ranged far and wide. From labour relations, taxation and working life, the role of women in Cuba, the media in Cuba, the plight of the Cuban Five, the Cuban economy and the role of foreign investment, international relations including with the US, agriculture and food production, urban recycling, civil defence in times of natural disasters, education, public health, permaculture, human sexuality, biotechnology, the environment and renewable energy production and Cuban film and television production.

At each of these forums brigade members were not only able to receive comprehensive information on this diverse range of subjects but could also ask questions. Brigade members would need to be armed with the answers to questions about life in Cuba when they return to Australia when much of their side of the solidarity bargain would begin.

This was when we returned to Australia and would give public presentations on our experiences in Cuba or simply when we met with friends, family and the communities and/or workplaces in which we are located. The true value of the Brigade becomes evident when one returns to Australia and is confronted by the misconceptions and disinformation that the corporate or conventional media puts out about Cuba.

Though more enlightened yet still capitalist countries such as Germany, which I visited following the visit to Cuba, are also not immune from inaccurate reporting on news about Cuba. This characterises most conventional media reporting by developed Western nations on events in Cuba.

Cases in point spring to mind and the first is the recent elections to the National Assembly in Cuba. In Australia and in Germany the election was seen as not being able to bring about any real change as there was only one party. However, on national Cuban TV there were regular slides about the facts and figures of all the candidates for positions on the national assembly and each one is in the same format as the others.

The Communist Party of Cuba’s nomination for Raul Castro in Santiago de Cuba looks the same as any other candidate running for a position on the National Assembly. The ads which are also posted up on local shops, which look similar to the slides on TV, mention what organisations they belong to and these include the local Committee for the Defence of the Revolution (CDR), the Cuban Federation of Workers (CTC) and the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC) as well as the Communist Party of Cuba(PCC).

Though voting is not compulsory, 90% of Cubans participate in the elections and approximately 70% of those elected are members of the Communist Party, the other 30% are members of other organisations.

Most Cubans are well educated and take an interest in local and national affairs. What decides in their minds who should be elected is whether the person who nominated or renominated is up to the task and is a hard worker.

In Australia and other countries of the capitalist world the elections in Cuba are seen as a forgone conclusion and that real change in Cuba will not come from the elections – as if voting Liberal or Labor in an Australian election with its so-called multi-party system brings about any worthwhile or necessary change. Most parties are parties which support the rule or reform of capital, so no surprises there either.

In 1961, at a public rally in Havana, Cuba Comandante en Jefe, Fidel Castro said that there would be no need for elections as the West sees them as the people have won – and the people support the Revolution, as most Cubans continue to do to this day.

This brings us to our second case which is that of the announcement on January 12, 2013, by the Cuban government that without almost any restriction, any Cuban is now allowed to obtain a passport and if they are able to obtain a visa from another country, may travel to that country. The media in Cuba showed Cubans lining up outside the Interior Ministry to obtain passports and outside embassies to obtain visas.

The Western media seemed to portray this as the beginning of the end of communist Cuba as once Cubans had seen what the rest of the so-called free world was like they either would not want to come back or once they returned to Cuba they would not want their lives to be the same and would seek a society which would emulate the societies which they had visited in the West.

Far from it, many Cubans have already been allowed to legally visit the US if they had relatives there and most of those who had been there, saw the dark side of those societies, heard the falsehoods that people tell them about Cuba based on the lies that media such as the Miami Herald, New York Post and Fox (Faux) News put out about Cuba and know that it is not the reality they live.

Apart from the many varied forums Brigade members attended, they also visited many historical sites, including the Comandancia La Plata in the Sierra Maestra Mountains from where Fidel and Che carried out the Cuban Revolution in the first six months of the campaign in the mid 1950s, the Che Monument in Santa Clara, and the landing place of the Granma boat near the town of Niquero in Granma province.

Also, the birthplace of Carlos Manuel de Cespedes in Bayamo, Granma Province, who was the landowner in the 1860s who first kicked off the struggle for Cuban independence by freeing his slaves and organising a revolt against the Spanish.

We visited the Mausoleum dedicated to those many young men from Artemisa province who so valiantly joined Fidel Castro in the failed storming of the Moncada Barracks on July 26, 1953, an event which precipitated the successful revolution six years later.

However, the Southern Cross (in Spanish Cruz del Sur) Brigade was not all information forums and historical sites, members were also required to spend some mornings doing field work which involved pulling yucca (a sweet potato like plant), cleaning weeds out of the sweet potato (boniato) and banana patches, picking tomatoes and planting seedlings.

In the evenings there were occasionally dance classes, afternoon visit to museums and art galleries and one evening a visit to the National Theatre in Havana to see a spectacular presentation of the Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite opened by the nonagenarian Director of the National Ballet of Cuba herself, Alicia Alonso.

Now the real work of the members of the Southern Cross Brigade begins when they return to Australia to spread the word of the reality of Cuban life and Cuban society and to return serve on the misinformation and misconceptions that abound in much of the Australian media.

We owe it to the Cuban Five who remain imprisoned in the US for defending their country from terrorists, the people of Cuba who wait for the US economic blockade to end and for the US to return 117 square kilometres of territory at Gunatánamo Bay back to Cuba which it illegally ceded to itself in 1903 as part of the Platt Agreement.

* Richard Titelius is a Brigade member Cruz del Sur, member ACFS and member CPA   

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