Havana Tales

(Part One of Part: 2)

NEC member Julia Wolton recently organised the second official CYWU study tour to Cuba. CYWU formed the largest British trade union delegation at the May Day celebrations and one of the largest delegations at the international womens conference. Julia is organising another study exchange to Cuba in February 2001. You will find a booking form for this elsewhere in Rapport, but get your bookings in early, CYWU knows how to have fun and politics in Cuba. The Union is also supporting a new ship of supplies for Cuba and preparing some study materials for use in youth projects. The second part of this article will appear in the next issue of Rapport.

Five months later and back in Havana Airport this time knowing where I was heading; some basic Spanish under my belt and with seven other Youth and Community workers (Cath, Kevin, Jeanette and Tom from Plymouth, Sue and Mary from Belfast and Lee from London) in tow I thought I knew what I was doing.

Two taxis were needed to get to Central Havana and shocked faces greeted our arrival at Animas; “But we were coming to meet you” the family said as they quickly collected together the unprepared bunches of flowers and the “welcome to Cuba” cards and thrust them towards us. Our luggage was thrown into one room as we were ushered up onto the rooftop strewn with over hanging vines. Salsa music blared over the speakers as Mojitos were pressed into our hands and within minutes the party was in full swing.

Two hours later, despite our best efforts at drinking and dancing we could keep it up no longer. I discreetly pointed to my watch, which was still in London mode and showing five thirty am. “I think we need to get rooms sorted,” I said to Yulie. “Well we’ve just thrown out the Italians from here” Yulie replied, “Tom and Jeanette can go with Ernesto and Carrie, and Cath and Kevin are staying just down the road. If they want I’ll show them to the houses”. Cath, Kevin, Tom and Jeanette were definitely feeling the worse for wear and looked very relieved at the prospect of a bed. Half an hour later, Yulie was back, “Julia, we had a problem, the woman who was renting a room has let it out – I’ve put Cath and Kevin in a local Cuban Hotel, we’ll sort it out tomorrow.” Everyone had a bed, and that was good enough for me. I’d already asked for “La misma habitacion”, my old room and as I sank into bed with the sounds of the street echoing from down below it was like coming home.

We had two free days before our programme started so on the Sunday we walked along the Malecon and into Habana Vieja. I pointed out all the local landmarks and routes back home, trying to renege on any responsibility for ensuring that no one got lost. Cath and Kevin had been found a new home, with Thomas and Maria. Thomas had been imprisoned prior to the revolution and proved to be not only a mine of interesting information about Cuba but was also later to prove his worth as a translator.

On Tuesday morning we had a meeting at CTC (the Cuban equivalent of the TUC). We were met by Noel who outlined the history of the CTC and our programme for the rest of our stay. We all grinned at each other as Noel informed us that we were invited to the May Day celebrations, we were to have foreign delegate passes and invites to a reception with Castro in the evening. The programme was varied, but balanced giving us a good mix of work and play. Our first meeting was that day with the UJC (the Union of Young Communists) where Rene outlined the role of the UJC and introduced the group to the underlying principles of the work undertaken with young people in Cuba.

A bit of sightseeing was in order the following morning, so we trekked off to the Museum of Revolution. Here the history of the Cuban revolution is set out chronologically in a maze of rooms. This is spelt out through a collection of rather grisly photos of tortured and dead heroes and blood stained uniforms. Outside the Granma sits, freshly painted, and encased in glass. The Granma (a recreational yacht) was used to ship Castro and his men to Cuba from Mexico to coincide with a popular uprising to be launched by Frank Pais in Santiago. The yacht, which looks so pristine now, was intended only to have twenty two passengers, but carried eighty two men and weapons into the marshy swamps of Cuba’s far South West coast.

Our next meeting was at the Centre of Youth Research, and our translator didn’t turn up. A quick phone call to the UJC building next door resolved the situation and Nancy came to our rescue. The organisation has a variety of specialist workers; these include sociologists, psychologists and researchers. The centre researches a variety of issues that affect young people in Cuba. An underlying principle of all work carried out with young people in Cuba is an early identification of problems and intervention when necessary. Work will be carried out within the family and parenting skills taught aiming to always keep the child within the family structure, and offers a solid social network of support to the family. This is reflected in the fact that there are only two hundred and twenty children in care and there are no homeless children living in the streets in Cuba.

Sue and I got up early the next morning and caught a taxi to the Palace de Confrencia, where we were to register for the following day’s conference. The drive out along the Malacon and through mansion strewn, Avenida 5ta - “Embassy Row” reflected the grandiose past of pre-Revolutionary Cuba. The properties abandoned by the rich now house nursery schools, clinics and embassies.

It took us an age of queuing to register our group and after meeting the only other British woman delegate, Ruth Winters, the vice president of the FBU, Sue and I chipped back to Havana. Our afternoon meeting was with the National Bureau of the FEEM (the school student’s leaders). Cath had, had the foresight to bring along Thomas with whom she and Kevin were staying, just in case our translator didn’t show. Our translator didn’t show! The young people aged between seventeen and nineteen explained how they’d been elected. Participation and political education starts early in Cuba, elections start at the base - the Classroom and works upwards, through School, to Municipal, to Provincial, and finally to National level. The young people represent the views and needs of their fellow students and they have a fundamental belief in the need for their participation in the democratic processes of the country. The members of the National Bureau come from all over Cuba and live together in Havana. When asked if they saw their future in politics, they laughed and all said they wanted to be teachers, as education is the key to the future success of Cuba.

The time was now ten o’clock and we’d been waiting outside the CTC hotel an hour for transport to the Palace de Confrencia. “Cuban time” muttered the delegates from Belgium. We eventually arrived and the conference had already started, grabbing translation units we found some seats at the back and plugged into the introductory economics lecture. This spelt out the consequences of Neoliberal Globalisation on the rights of women, and in particular the marginalisation of women in the third world. 70% of the world’s poor are women, with girls representing 60% of those with no access to primary education. With the introduction of this ideology has come an intense period of labour reforms, we no longer talk of the “right to work”, but rather the “regulation of the labour market”. These policies have led to an increase in unemployment, a less equal distribution of incomes and a lack of access to social services. All of which have impacted greatly on women’s lives forcing many women to look for work in order to supplement the family income. Another consequence of neoliberal policies is that they aim to destroy worker’s organisations, especially unions. They violate the ILO conventions, and change labour and wage laws to the detriment of workers globally. This was highlighted by speaker after speaker. The conference bought together women from all over the world and it was a humbling experience as women talked of their experiences and struggles as Trade Union members.

During the conference we teamed up with Ruth and after an evening’s cultural gala show, celebrating May Day in the Teatro Nacional we hit the Monseratt Bar. After one Mojito, my Spanish is OK after two it goes out the window and after three I can’t speak English. After nine…… Jeanette and I made total fools of ourselves - but that is another story!

Find out what happened at the Castro reception in the next edition of Rapport. Don’t forget to get your booking forms in for the next study tour to an international educationalists conference in February 2001.

clear.gif