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Issue #1633      April 2, 2014

Notes from a Brigadista in Cuba (Part 2)

Maria Hilario was one of 22 participants on the Australian Brigade that visited Cuba last December. This is the second part of her outline of the many and interesting experiences the Brigadistas had during their visit. (See last week’s Guardian for part 1.)

Students from the Mariana Grajales primary school preforming. The school is near the Australia sugar cane mill which was repaired with funds from the Australia Cuba Friendship Societies.

Next morning we went to Cardenas, anther big city and we stopped at the Museum of the Battle of Ideas. It is a relatively new museum opened in 2001 as it was founded during the Elián González case (the then seven-year-old Cuban boy at the centre of a custody and immigration status case in 2000 between Cuba and the US when he was held by US authorities. He was returned to Cuba later that year). It is an old Fire Brigade station near Elián’s Marcelo Salado primary school and it explains and shows what the Cuban people did for his return to Cuba with his father. He is now studying at University.

There is an area dedicated to the Cuban 5 with personal letters and poems. It also explains the law against Cuba, “Ley de Ajuste Cubano”, in 1966 when United States deliberately encouraged illegal acts of escape putting people at risk and many dying in their attempts.

On the way from Cardenas to Playa Giron we stopped at the Mariana Grajales Coello primary school near the Australia sugar mill. The school was repaired with Australia Cuba Friendship Society funds after hurricane Michelle in 2001. The children gave us a warm welcome and they performed the beautiful “Comandante” song. We went to some classes and an Aboriginal Brigadista told them about her culture and Australian animals and showed them how to throw the boomerang.

We stayed one night at Playa Girón and visited the museum where the imperialist Yankies suffered their first defeat in Latin American.

Around 100,000 Cubans volunteered to fight the USA invaders at the Bay of Pigs. Cubans only had hours to defeat the invaders before they could send for reinforcements, and they won.

Literacy campaign

The museum in Bay of Pigs touched me in a personal way: some of the displays referred to the Brigadistas, the first literacy campaign brigade, and you could see the gas light books and a photo of a very young teacher teaching an old farmer and he looked a bit like my grandfather.

He never knew how to read or write and he always admired the revolution and Fidel. Now I understood why he was so eager when I was in primary school and I taught him to write his name rather than make a cross or a mark with his inked finger. Back in the camp we met Mario, a 72-year-old man helping around the camp. He told us he was one of the first Brigadistas who volunteered for the literacy campaign.

He had heard about it from the radio and straight away went to register. He was 17 years old studying in a group of a few hundred with classes lasting for a couple of weeks near Varadero. He was later sent to a village in the Sierra Maestra. He told us he had never lived so high up seeing the clouds moving below him. He lived with a family and the farmer did not want to learn to read and write but his wife and children did. He moved to share with a second family where he stayed, happy to teach. But the locals decided to play a trick on him.

In the middle of the night two men came looking for the teacher and asked him if he believed in what he was doing. He said yes and they told him they were going to kill him. He told them he was ready but he heard a little giggle and the “intruders” revealed themselves to be the farmer and his wife; it turned out the locals were testing him about his beliefs and his commitment.

In Havana we visited a polyclinic or local hospital; doctors do home visits and patients are referred to the polyclinics for treatments ranging from therapies to mental health. The only thing that they do not perform is operations but they have 24 hours emergency services with doctors around the clock and they keep patients up to six hours for observation.

If their condition worsens they send the patient to a larger hospital. We were told all types of specialists have weekly consultations at the local clinics and everything is free, including the medication. While at the camp we had a 24-hour nurse and doctor and Brigadistas regularly used their services.

If a country like Cuba, with much less resources than Australia, can afford free medical services and education it is because they prioritise where they spend their revenue when they collect taxes: not pouring money into criminal wars but rather helping their own population. That surely is common sense, to help humans rather than making their lives a misery in wars.

Brigadistas at the Bay of Pigs.


We met a representative from the Department of International Relations from CTC, the Centre of Cuban Workers – Fabián Céspedes. The trade union centre has its origins in the National Confederacion of Cuban Workers which in 1935 was under attack by the Batista dictatorship. Caffrey was a regiment that was made illegal and its members were jailed or assassinated. In 1939 in its Congress in Havana, Lázaro Peña was elected the general secretary and from early on it was on the radar of the government and the United States until the Revolution in 1959.

There are 15 different trade unions and they have a membership of 3.4 million workers. The membership of a trade union is voluntary in Cuba and is financially independent from the state. There is no state funding of trade unions and they have their own rules.

Industrial action is not prohibited in Cuba. Since 1959 there have been only a few disputes and it is because most conflicts are resolved through negotiation and the CTC is involved in the legislative process and the policy making. Every law that affects the workers or in relation to employment is always discussed and amended where necessary and must be approved by the unions.

Every month the assembly of workers review their production and discuss any problems related to administration, directors or workplace issues. The local union leaders are present and participate in the discussions.

The CTC congress meets every five years. Last year was the consultation and this year (February 20) was the 20th National Congress. It is the highest authority for each national trade union. The Congress is responsible for setting the union policies and elects the National Committee and the general secretary.


We met Dalia from the Federación de Mujéres Cubanas (Federation of Cuban Women). The FMC is a grass roots women’s organisation with programs and policies aimed at achieving equal rights and full emancipation in all the aspects and levels of the Cuban society. It was founded in 1960 and is represented at national, regional and council levels.

The national direction comes from the Congress which takes place every five years. The IXth congress will be held in March 2014. They will elect the National Committee with women representing all social sectors. Currently they have four millon women in the organisation over the age of 14. An important program is the Coordination of Employment to improve female participation in the workforce and to prevent discrimination in contracts.

There are centres for women – Casas de Orientación – where social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists and educational experts provide help with different problems like domestic or inter-family violence or alcohol issues. They also offer help to the people affected by divorce like counselling.

They have a weekly publication “Mujéres” with its aim of providing information and documentation. They coordinate a program, “educa a tu hijo“, directed at children from two to five years whose parents don’t work and look after their children at home. The social workers work with the mothers or family members in activities to prepare the child for school.

(Cuba is fourth in the world for women represented in parliament, 43.2 percent ahead of countries like Norway and Finland).

Casas de Orientación coordinates the work of 81,000 social workers and 78,000 health professionals who work in the barrios to prevent diseases like dengue fever, influenza and HIV. Also they coordinate and support and a have 8,000 legal people dealing with the family courts.


We met Jesús Mora from the Young Communist League (UJC – Unión de Jóvenes Comunistas). Membership is voluntary. They have more than 400,000 members between 16 and 32 years old; they have 101 representatives in the national parliament who are all members younger than 31 years. The first Congress was in April 1962 when they adopted the name UJC and commitment to build socialism.

The aspirations of the youth today are very different from the struggling youth league of the 1930s when they joined the national strike that stopped the country for 24 hours, or the period during 1936 where half of their members were tortured, murdered or put in jail.

Today’s aspirations of the Cuban youth, according to a survey of 60,000 youth, all want to graduate; to get jobs with good pay; have a house; to be able to travel; and to have computers. Because of the blockade the access to Internet is slow as the United States does not allow Cubans to use the cables that pass by near the coast and so they have to access it by satellite.

We enjoyed a cultural activity provided by the local primary school at Caimito “Alma dance parade” using only recyclables like colourful plastic bags and paper accompanied by poses and very fluid movement with dancing. It was very refreshing and entertaining; and the design of the dresses worn by the children in the parade was highly creative.


On Sunday morning, the last day before our departure, we spent a few hours around the National Botanical Gardens, which covers around 600 hectares and has more than 4,000 identified species. The Cuban zone has a rich variety of soils and terrains, creating an environment for the many types of vegetation found on the island.

There are more than 3,000 plants native to Cuba. There are 87 different types of palms and it is the most common tree in Cuba. These trees can live up to 200 years. Indeed, we were told that if some of the trees are to become extinct in some parts of Cuba they can reintroduce the trees from stocks in the garden.

The National Botanical Gardens has an indoor area with three big pavilions. In the first one there are plants from tropical and arid areas, many succulent plants and cacti. In the second pavilion there are plants from the tropics which need a high humidity environment. The third houses lush vegetation.

We saw unfamiliar trees like the sausage tree, coffee tree and the cocoa tree.

Trees from areas in Central America were represented as well from Asia, Africa and Australia with eucalyptus gums and wattle brushes. There is also a Japanese Garden with its rocks and sand paths around a lake.

On our last night we were lucky to attend a concert in the Havana Vieja main square with Silvio Rodríguez and Ivette Cepeda on the 15th anniversary of Radio Havana and 55 Years of the Cuban Revolution. A friendly crowd and great music.

Viva Cuba!

Next article – Open Shuhada Street Campaign

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