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Issue #1632      March 26, 2014

Notes from a Brigadista in Cuba

Arriving in Havana city from the airport there is a big billboard announcing “The Cuban blockade the longest genocide” and this year is the 56th year of the inhumane blockade against Cuba. Only one country in the UN assembly – the USA – is using its the power to veto the rest of the world on the blockade. This means the Cuban people are living with constant shortages of materials for construction, cars, medical equipment and medicines to save lives. Surely this is one of the cruellest things that a country can impose on another.

Mario Brigadista from the first literacy campaign.

The 22 members of the Australian brigade, ranging in age from 19 to 88, came from Canberra, Victoria, NSW, SA, WA, Queensland and Ireland. They were from a wide range of professions with many different experiences: teachers, nurses, students, welfare workers, publicans, engine drivers and union members.

ICAP (Cuban Institute for Friendship with the Peoples) organised, supported and guided us during the trip. ICAP was founded in 1960 to promote friendship and solidarity links with people of the world, respecting people’s right to self-determination. At present there are 2,100 solidarity organisations in 150 countries.

We attended the 53rd anniversary celebration of the foundation of ICAP with a great performance by over 20 young performers singing songs of the revolution. I met there the first president of ICAP, Giraldo Masola, who told me how he remembered coming to Australia many years ago to sign the agreement of cooperation with Cuba. It was Bill Hayden he had met and he remembered that the politician later became Governor General.

We were given a special treat when on New Year’s Day we were taken to the National Theatre for the performance by one of the world’s best companies – the Cuban National Ballet – with a gala representation of the Nutcracker with excellent choreography and direction by Alicia Alonso. Certainly it was art at its very best, an unforgettable event as I only had previously seen ballet on TV.

At the camp we had the opportunity to work alongside camp workers in the agricultural fields collecting tomatoes, cutting yucca, weeding lettuces, chopping banana leaves. I also learned that some of the field workers had a number of degrees like accounting, history, philosophy and different roles in their communities such as when there are cyclones. One of the workers was responsible for allocating safe shelters and he had to visit every family in the village and assess their situation.


We visited a cooperative near Julio Antonio Mella camp and learned about the different types of cooperatives. This one was CPA – a cooperative of agricultural production. We were told how they are important to the economy and their efficiency in creating local employment and utilising the land for food production. The food is either consumed by members or is sold in the markets around the area and exported.

This cooperative invests 50 percent of its product surplus in new cultivation. Everyone gets the basic salary and food, plus extra if a worker has worked overtime. All the workers are members of the cooperative and the decisions are made in the assembly. They try to mediate before any problems escalate.

They do not use transgenic seeds and the reason why the cooperatives are going so strongly is because the government has given them a guarantee to purchase their products for local consumption and the surplus for export. Promotion of the local product rather than imports is a key to the survival of local economies and since 2000 they have been working harder for their agricultural products to be organic.

We also visited an organic farm cooperative in Havana with 170 members living in the community nearby. They had 230 different types of vegetables and legumes: everything is organic including pest control by microorganisms and soil diversity.

They told us they were connected with 17 research centres and some universities organised courses, study groups on agro-ecological protection. They receive about 8,000 visitors per year and they have not used chemicals since 2000. Their message is “united we multiply our results” and their motto is “to live with the land not off the land”.

Professor Julio Torres Martínez talked about Cuba and the Renewable Energies. The non-government organisation was founded in 1994 and today it has more than 500 medical centres in remote areas powered by photovoltaic and 2,364 schools and 1,864 Community Television rooms.

Another afternoon we had a presentation about Cuba and the process of integration in ALBA (Bolivian Alliance for the Peoples of the Americas), CELAC (Community of Latin America and Caribbean States) and the TCP (Tratado de Comercio de los Pueblos – a trade treaty for the people).

Their aim is to end poverty and social exclusion, end illiteracy and support human rights, to improve the working conditions of women, to care for the environment, and promote economic integration and the formation of grand-national enterprises to create a front against the transnationals.

Anais Quesada from the first Marianas (left) with Maria Hilario.

Cuban 5

The relatives of the Cuban 5 came to the camp to meet the Brigadistas:

  • Antonio Guerrero’s mother Mirta, whose son won’t be released until 2017;
  • Gerardo Hernández’s niece;
  • Rene González’s mother. He was released last year and now he is living in Cuba. René is very much involved in the return of his fellow compatriots; and
  • Ramon Labañino’s wife: Elizabeth Palmeiro

Fernando González was released on February 28.

We learned about the hypocrisy of the US system and why this is a political case. In the United States the Cuban 5 uncovered terrorist groups in operations supported by the United States and they saw the likes of Posada Carrilles boasting about “criminal” activities on US TV and freely walking the streets while the Cuban 5 with charges and spurious allegations against them damaging their defence and a fair trial.

The Cuban 5 have been in jail for over 15 years. During our Brigade trip I met – on beaches and in hotels – tourists from Canada and the USA; and I spoke with them. Many did not know of the Cuban 5; the mainstream media is remarkably silent on this important news!

There are three important actions this year in support of the Cuban 5 such as: on the fifth day of each month tweeting Obama, or writing a letter demanding their release.

Other activities this year include:

  • June 4-11 – “5 days for the 5” in Washington
  • October 27-31 – the third solidarity conference in Havana.

We visited Santa Clara in Villa Clara province and saw the Ché Guevara Mausoleum with the impressive six metres high statue on a 25-metre pedestal on a hill in the big square looking south to his beloved Argentina. We laid flowers and saw the museum and the mausoleum where his remains rest with 32 of his comrades including a woman, Tania.

All have the same niches – no grandeur, just simple and very moving, reflecting on the way Ché was tortured, killed with his fingers and hands cut off. A child though is asking why did they want his hands cut – such hands that had helped heal the sick and wounded.

Later we met four guerrilla men and one woman who fought and struggled with Ché and listened to their stories. These included: Anaïs, a member of the first women’s guerrilla group. She told how it took Fidel seven hours of talk with the other guerrilla leaders to convince them to accept women as equal and not in the supportive role that they were doing like cooking or washing for the men. Eventually the first women’s guerrilla group, the Marianas, was formed.

At night we visited the school of medicine in Santa Clara where some students from Pakistan were doing the final exams for Medicine in Year 6. They had been doing the course since the earthquake in Pakistan when Cuban doctors were there to help in remote areas and the governments agreed on the scholarships. There were other students from Argentina, Vietnam and South Africa.

We had many questions for the students, as some Brigadistas were nurses and wanted to know about the impact for terminally ill persons not being able to access medications because of the embargo. We were told they often have to pay three times the price as they may need to get it through third countries.

The blockade has made them more determined and they have created their own research in treatments for illnesses. Their laboratories produce their own medicines; they have improved some treatments for, example, diseases of the feet.

Another aspect the students told us is the focus on prevention and education so that they often deal with the problem at a much earlier stage and because doctors provide home visits, they also have a greater understanding of the whole family. They are able to make referrals for other services and, importantly, the patients do not have to worry about the purchase of medicines as the service is free.

Representatives from People’s Popular Assembly in Matanzas province. Left is the Vice Presidenta Mileidy Denis Perez, next is the Presidenta Juanita Ortiz and the Matanzas ICAP delegate Teresita Rubio.


At Varadero beach we were able to swim in 25°C winter water and much enjoyed the free bar service; we also visited a protected fauna and flora area with the oldest cactus tree in Cuba that has survived more than 20 cyclones: over 500 years old with an impressive root system.

We visited Matanzas with 17 bridges over three rivers known as the “Venice of Cuba”. The local authorities met us and explained the meaning of their city’s name. The Indigenous people in the area massacred a group of 30 Spaniards who had treated them ruthlessly. The Indigenous people lured them to a boat and drowned them. We also learned about their industry and that in that province of 700,000 they have one doctor for every 197 persons, and four sugar mills.

We went to a publishing house, Editions Vigia; all the books are done by hand, up to 200 copies of every title. The books are crafted with beautiful hand paintings and illustrations and unique collections. We also visited an old Pharmacist Museum and El Morrillo museum, the site of the graves of Antonio Guiteras Holmes and Carlos Ponte Hernández. They were socialist revolutionaries in the 1930s and Guiteras founded the Union Revolucionaria. Upstairs, in the same fortress, there is a museum about the Indigenous people from the area.

After dinner we attended a street fiesta organised by the Committee for the Defence of the Revolution, created in the 1960s to counteract the attacks and infiltrations from the terrorist activities from the US. Children were dancing and moving their bodies with what looked a very natural rhythm for them but hard for the Brigadistas to copy!

Young couples performed a ballet piece with pirouettes and dancers flew through the air landing in bare feet on the uneven dirt ground. It ended with a display of rap dancing. We talked with many locals; some looked like my relations back home in my village in Spain.

* Maria was a member of the 31st Brigade to Cuba from Australia, January 2014

Part 2, women, literacy campaign and unions, next week

Next article – Crisis in Ukraine: Russia extends its control

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