After living in Guatemala for more than 20 years and learning about inequality in a multi ethnic and class divided society, Socialist Cuba is a beacon to follow. Cuba has been an example for Latin America and the world. The achievements of the Cuban revolution have shown what it is possible to achieve when people are put before profit.
The year 1959 marks a moment in the history of Latin America in which a popular revolutionary process demonstrated that the people, using all forms of struggle, including the armed struggle, could successfully challenge monopoly capital. Cubans defeated Batista’s dictatorship and gained their second independence. This was made possible with the support of the majority of the population and a unique revolutionary leadership personified in the figure of Fidel Castro Ruz.
Fidel Castro was and is a key element in transforming a society functioning for the benefit of the few to the benefit of all. Today the world celebrates Fidel Castro’s 90th birthday and his revolutionary leadership.
Fidel Castro’s leadership inflicted the first defeat against US imperialism in the Americas 55 years ago at the Bay of Pigs. The result of the CIA plan to invade Cuba in April 1961, which was given the go ahead by President Kennedy, ended in defeat and the embarrassing capture of more than 1,200 mercenaries. The capitives were returned to the US in exchange for food and other essentials.
The world was placed on the brink of nuclear war during the US missile crisis, averted at the 11th hour, but which unfortunately left Cuba under the illegal US blockade, still in place today despite the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries. This is the longest emgargo imposed in modern history.
Cuba continued to develop primarily with the support of the Soviet Union and the socialist East European Bloc but this ended in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union. A difficult period known as the Special Period began and Cuba faced very harsh conditions, which the revolutionary leadership with the support of the people managed to overcome.
My first visit to Cuba was in August 1997 as a delegate to the World Festival of Youth and Students. The Australian delegation made up by trade unionists, left organisations and the Cuba Friendship Society was welcomed by the Cuban people and hosted with families for two weeks. We learned during those two weeks what solidarity really meant.
Cuban solidarity is rooted in the principle of sharing the little that they have. Cuba’s human capital is enormous and despite the difficulties, hundreds of Cuban doctors, health professionals and teachers provide their services in more than 70 countries around the world including Australia.
During our stay in Cuba we witnessed the hostility of US sponsored terrorism against Cuba. Bombs were planted in hotels while other forms of aggression were averted by the involvement of the people in the security of the country.
It was during those years Cuba was forced to send volunteers abroad to monitor the activities of the anti-Castro groups based in Miami. Five patriots known as the Cuban Five risked their lives gathering information from these groups preventing terrorist acts against Cuba and saving the lives of many Cuban and American citizens. They were captured by the FBI on the 12th of September 1998 and unjustly imprisoned until the 17 December 2014.
Spending two weeks with Cuban families gave the Australian delegation personal first-hand information on how Cubans support their revolution. We lived together, shared their experiences and exchanged stories about our totally different cultures and countries. The Cuban families treated us as part of their own. We walked their kids to school, shared their food; they showed much appreciation for our visit and showered us with love. I always remember my Cuban family from Nuevo Vedado and have continued to visit them every time I have had the opportunity to visit Cuba thereafter.
My second visit was with the Australia/NZ Southern Cross solidarity brigade to Cuba in 1999/2000. The Australian delegation was made up of 37 people who departed from Sydney via Japan and Mexico City with most travelling together as a single group.
I had the privilege of leading the brigade that year with eight travelling from Perth. It was a different experience to my previous trip. On this occasion we spent close to four weeks in the country. The brigade stayed at the International Camp Julio Antonio Mella in Caimito located around one hour East of Havana. Again we all shared a unique experience with the workers at the camp. We welcomed the year 2000 as a big family, filled with expectations of peace and looking forward to the 21st Century. Many of us dreamt of Socialism and more than one of us thinking that it would be possible to achieve social change in Australia or NZ before the end of the century.
The workers at the camp really appreciate the Southern Cross brigades spending Christmas in Cuba, often leaving families behind in Australia and NZ. Again the expressions of solidarity and love are there in so many ways that even speaking different languages is not a barrier.
During the few days working alongside Cuban workers and Cuban students who joined us in the citrus fields, Brigadistas managed to learn some Spanish and the Cubans practiced their English.
An unforgettable exchange in every brigade is meeting veteran combatants of the revolution who give firsthand accounts of the victorious days of the Cuban revolution. They also shared the sad stories of those who didn’t make it to the end and are considered martyrs of the revolution.
We witnessed the impact of the US blockade and the Special Period. The lack of fuel during the special period meant tractors couldn’t be used to deliver the wooden crates to hoard the picked oranges. Despite our hosts telling us we should go back to the camp and not worry about working because of the lack of crates as the blackouts and scarcities were now the new normal, that brigade contingent decided to persist with the agricultural work. We managed to pick 34 tons of oranges in total and somehow the Cubans managed to get hold of enough fuel to mobilise the crates. We were all very happy with our achievements.
A surprise came at one of the final days in the camp when the Cuban Institute of Friendship with the People (ICAP) organised a dinner for us with Sergio Corrieri, the then President of the ICAP, who recently passed away. The surprise was that ICAP officials had prepared a ceremony and we received from the hands of Alicia Corredera, vice president of the Asia-Pacific section of ICAP the Machete of Maceo as a symbolic gesture for the brigade’s attitude towards the voluntary work. It is hard to express the emotions that have stayed with me since knowing the meaning of that award. It is probably not important to share how we managed to bring the machete back to Australia but once here the machete was given to the Cuban Consulate and remains there as an honour and testament to the work of the Southern Cross brigade.
Another highlight of that trip was attending a mass demonstration in Villa Clara to demand the return of Elian Gonzalez who had been kidnapped by the Cuban mafia in Miami. The international demand for the return of Elian Gonzalez was a victory and Elian Gonzalez is now a young man and an example of the Cuban youth.
My next trips were in 2002, 2005, 2006, 2009, 2013 and 2015.
Most of these trips were in trade union delegations attending May Day celebrations and the 15th Congress of the World Federation of Trade Unions held in December 2005. May Day celebrations in Cuba are unique for those travelling with Australian trade union delegations. The impact of seeing one million people marching at Revolution Square in celebration of the gains of the revolution makes a mark on the lives of the delegates who attend.
May Day delegates are welcomed and hosted by the Cuban Workers Central (CTC) with a week-long program which includes visits to workplaces and meetings with unions and workers. The highlight of the celebrations is the mass rally at Revolution Square attended by the highest authorities in the country.
On the second of May, an international day in solidarity with Cuba is held at Havana’s Convention Centre. More than 1,000 delegates from all over the world deliver messages of solidarity and friendship with the Cuban revolution and its people.
My last visit in May 2015 was a life changer for me as I met all of the Cuban Five who were in Havana after 16 years of unjust incarceration in US prisons.
The Australia-Cuba Friendship Society which I preside over in Perth, my union and the Communist Party campaigned for the release of the Cuban Five for many years knowing they would return as stated by Fidel Castro in 2001.
It was also a very special trip as the Cuban Council of State awarded me with the Medal of Friendship at the request of ICAP. The medal was bestowed on me by Cuban Five hero Antonio Guerrero. These thoughts will remain with me until the end. Cuba has been an example for the world and a life changer for me personally.
As the worldwide celebrations of Fidel Castro’s 90th birthday take place, we can say with confidence that Fidel is the type of leader of the proletariat who is unique with particular qualities that attract people regardless of culture.
I end this contribution by saying: comrade Fidel we are ready in defence of the revolution in the battle of ideas. Another and better world is possible. Venceremos!