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Issue #1678      March 25, 2015

32nd Southern Cross Brigade to Cuba

Southern Cross in Cuba

In the wake of President Obama’s “normalisation” speech with Cuba on December 17, 2014, the participants in the 32nd Australian and New Zealand Southern Cross Brigade began arriving in that tropical socialist republic to the south of the USA.

Josephine Donnolley, Keith Headland, Richard Titelius and Maria Hilario during the 2014/2015 32nd Australian and New Zealand Southern Cross Brigade to Cuba.

Of more significance as an outcome of the speech was the release of the last three of the Cuban Five; Ramon Labanino, Gerardo Hernandez and Antonio Guerrero. So close to the Brigade’s arrival in Cuba was the release of the prisoners that the T-Shirts which had, “We will celebrate when the five heroes are free in Cuba”, became joyously prescient.

The Cuban Institute of Friendship with the People or ICAP made a small change to the program due to the circumstances over the release of the Cuban Five – instead of seeing relatives of the Cuban Five as was customary on all past Brigades, we were to see only one of the Cuban Five that had previously been released, Fernando Gonzalez – now the Vice President of ICAP itself.

It was a smallish Brigade of 18 people lead by Sydney Australian Cuban Friendship Society member Maria Hilario, which included one New Zealander and one Spaniard with the ages ranging from 23 to 77 years of which six were male and 12 female. The Australians came from NSW, Queensland, WA, Tasmania and Victoria.

ICAP put on a unique and outstanding program for the three and a half weeks of the Brigade, which involved six days of agricultural and kitchen work followed by several informative and exciting presentations on Cuban social, cultural, political and economic life.

The city chosen to be our host away from the International Camp of Julio Antonio Mella at Caimito, was the Pearl of the South, Cienfuegos. Included in this trip was the stopover at the central Cuban city of Santa Clara where Brigadistas were able to see the impressive monument to Cuban Revolutionary leader Che Guevara, listen to experiences of the veterans of the Revolutionary War and subsequent struggles in western Africa and the armoured train exhibit – also a reminder of the pivotal role in the campaign played by the Rebel Army in Santa Clara.

Cuban stars of Sport

One of the first of many intriguing presentations occurred at the International Camp (CIJAM) following the annual two kilometre friendship race from the nearby town of Guayabal (the author finished 3rd) when the Cuban Stars of Sport which included Javier Sotomayor (Olympic and World Champion – Current World Record Holder), Estela Rodriguez (World and Olympic Judo Champion), Feliz Savon (three times Olympic and seven times world champion), Ismael Carbonell Remo (Rowing), Hermes Ramirez (Olympic Silver Medal 1968 and National Record 100 metres), Luis Sotolongo (Hammer Throw), Norma Renae Garcia (Sports Official) and Juan Luis Velasco (Sports Director) gave a presentation of sport in Cuba.

The Cuban Stars of Sport provided an invaluable insight into why a nation of 11.5 million people can punch so far above its weight despite its financial and economic hardships.

Most recently this was demonstrated by Cuba’s outstanding success at the Caribbean and Central American Games held in Vera Cruz, Mexico, where Cuba finished on top of the medal table with 123 gold medals followed by Mexico with 115.

Javier Sotomayor explained that this program begins at school where the potential of children for competition is keenly sought. From there children are placed in a sports college of which there is at least one in every province in Cuba. There children train regularly and are given access to all types of resources from physiotherapists and psychologists to coaching and other staff. Cuba said Sotomayor did not have the resource riches of Mexico, Argentina or Brazil but it had the riches of humanity.

At the other end of their sporting life, Cuba also looks after its sporting heroes in retirement where they receive a pension and access to a special hospital dedicated to retired athletes.

In Havana there is a drug testing laboratory that is also available to athletes from other Latin American countries. During the recent 2014 Caribbean and Central American Games Cuba tested all their own athletes and 700 athletes from other Latin American nations.

Cuban Music and Dance

As part of our appreciation of Cuban culture we were treated to the National Ballet on one night where, following a special appearance by the Director General of the Cuban Ballet, Alicia Alonso, we were treated to a gala performance on the 56th Anniversary of the Triumph of the Revolution entitled “The Magic of Dance.”

There were colourful and spellbinding presentations of Giselle, Sleeping Beauty, Nutcracker, Coppelia, Don Quixote and last but not least, Swan Lake which opened with all the ballerinas standing crouched in a V formation with their arms spread back behind their bodies in the image of a formation of airborne swans.

The following night the Brigadistas were treated to a two-hour performance of Cuban song and dance at the famous Club Tropicana where the most beautiful and talented (not to mention tallest!) Cuban men and women went through a number of outstanding and joyous dance routines – and as many costume changes including the most extravagant and colourful headpieces.

What is Cuban democracy?

Most people around the world who haven’t been to Cuba and have been fed a diet of news from the capitalist media have the notion that Cuba is a dictatorship and undemocratic –this archaic and unfounded notion was most recently promulgated in President Obama’s “normalisation” speech. It was then timely for the Brigade to receive an unprecedented presentation from an elected representative of Cuba’s National Assembly, Professor Enrique Champonet of the District of Caimito, which includes the area of the Camp. Unlike politicians in Australia – and Mr Champonet for the record, sees himself as a politician – he also has a day job as a Chemistry Professor: he receives no salary for his work as a politician.

Champonet stated that the Cuban electoral process is an expression of our democracy – and is based on the constitution drafted by Fidel Castro. The first article of this Constitution is, “Cuba is a socialist state organised for and by the people.”

Champonet described the electoral process in which the people select and elect all the candidates for the elections. Every electoral district must select at least two candidates; the first two candidates with the highest votes are elected to the National Assembly.

In Cuba there are 612 deputies of whom 299 are women and the average age is 48 years signifying 70 percent were born after the triumph of the Revolution. The next election for the National Assembly will be in April 2015. Though electoral law prohibits candidates from campaigning, the government assists each candidate to publish a statement in the national paper Granma and show a slide on national state TV.

Once elected the representatives must face the people who voted and serve them by responding to their needs; they can also be recalled and a new representative elected. The National Assembly is also the only law making body of the country.

The Cuban Five

The following day the Brigadistas visited the Museum of the Revolution followed by a meeting with Cuban Hero, Fernando Gonzalez at the ICAP Head Office where Fernando reiterated what many experienced political observers in Cuba have stated, that the new US position is in many ways the same as the old US position on Cuba: “They still continue the same policies with Cuba – to try to destroy the Cuban government and Revolution.”

In regard to his unjust incarceration, Fernando said that he didn’t take it personally as did none of the Five Cuban Heroes which helped to keep them emotionally strong. But added Fernando, “Just because we didn’t take it personally doesn’t mean that it stopped us from critically analysing what was happening to us and also what the US wanted to do with Cuba.” Fernando concluded by observing that the blockade is still here and the US base in Guantánamo has not been given back to Cuba.

Santa Clara and Cienfuegos

The Brigade next went to Cienfuegos via Santa Clara where the Brigade had the privilege of hearing from and meeting with several of the hundreds of foreign medical students which Cuba trains each year from all parts of the world. Listening to what and how the medical students learn about the Cuban health system brought a realisation that the Cuban health care system is radically different, more effective in cost and treatment outcomes than the western capitalist health care model because it operates on very different premise.

At the beginning of the doctor-person relationship he or she is a patient rather than a client which infers a more personal interest in those seeking the care of the doctor. There is greater emphasis on “consultas” or preventative consultations than what happens in the West where it is often so expensive that we only go to the doctor when we can no longer function rather than for a regular check up.

Three other policies of the Cuban health care system demonstrate further how far behind the West is to Cuba; preventative health care happens at the local level, alcoholism is an illness and treated as such and there is no such thing as medical negligence in Cuba.

In Cienfuegos, the Brigade were welcomed by the local and national media and made the news that night around the country and in the Granma newspaper and Radio Rebelde. Two Brigade members also laid a floral wreathe at the statute of the Cuban national hero, Jose Marti in the main square of Cienfuegos.

The program which followed as provided by the ICAP office of Cienfuego was varied, comprehensive, stimulating and informative. It included a visit to the Camilo Cienfuegos Oil Refinery which has an outstanding industrial relations set up – the installation is a joint venture between Venezuela and Cuba and the chief management position alternates between the two countries. The board of management included representatives of the unions and the Communist Party of Cuba.

Visits were also made to the Naval Museum, the only one of its kind in Cuba which has natural history exhibits as well as naval history and Revolutionary history exhibits.

Also the Vilma Espin Special School of Autism – one of only five in the country and for which parents can have their children receive the finest and most comprehensive attention free of charge. An agricultural co-operative patriotically named after the Martyrs of Barbados 1976 in reference to the Cubana Airliner downed by Venezuelan terrorist Luis Posada Carriles. A visit to the Benny More Art School where the students provided Brigadistas with outstanding performances of the dance, song and paintings, a visit to a General Hospital or Policlinico (more disturbing evidence of how cruel and heartless is the effect of the economic blockade) and general practice and last but not least a visit to meet officials from the Federation of Cuban Women, Federation of Cuban Students and the Communist Youth League.

Federation of Cuban Women (FMC)

The FMC (Federacion de Mujeres Cubanas) has peimary task the promotion of the role of women at all levels of society, their health and equality of education and opportunity.

The FMC was set up by Vilma Espin in 1960 as a revolutionary organisation to help redress the inequalities that had existed up to the time of the triumph of the Revolution.

The results today speak for themselves; 60% of workers in the health sector are women and more than 60% of workers in the education sector are women while wage equality has been achieved in Cuba it has not been achieved in Australia.

The Brigade returned to the camp where there were a few more activities which still awaited us including a comprehensive statement from ICAP President Kenia Serrano on the role and purpose of ICAP. The presentation by Ms Serrano included many statistics not only on the achievements of ICAP such as having 2,032 friendship associations in 152 countries but also the achievements both nationally and internationally of the example of Cuban socialism and unity from the peace process in Colombia with the FARC guerrillas through to more than three million Cubans being connected to the internet either through cell phones or computers and the ongoing medical brigades around the world and scholarships for medical students.

The Brigadistas went away with the experience of Cuba as a special country on the world stage with a socialist system of economic and societal development which is progressive.

The Australians and New Zealanders on the Brigade saw that Cuba relies therefore on the support of the progressive people of the world including of people from those countries with capitalism as their base system, for Cuba’s ongoing status as a beacon for freedom, justice and egalitarianism.

With the Cuban Five home, the world needs to redouble its efforts to push the US government to lift the harsh and cruel economic blockade which has been in effect for over 50 years and for the US to return the territory it illegally annexed at Guantánamo Bay, and delete references to Cuba being defined as a terrorist nation.

Viva Cuba!

Viva los lideres de la Revolucion!

Viva Cuba Socialismo!

Richard Titelius was Brigade member of 30th and 32nd Southern Cross Brigades

Next article – Claudia Jones: Communist, anti-racist and feminist

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