Cuba Draws Labor Leaders Despite Bad Press
The mainstream international media paints Cuba as a hell-hole where a down-trodden people have few rights, and even fewer cars or cell phones. An AP article widely circulated on Tuesday, quoted a Freedom House study, calling Cuba one of the “most repressive” countries on Earth.
If that were the case, then what would bring labor leaders from around the world to meet in Havana for the International Workers Day festivities on May 1, instead of vibrant cities like New York, London, Mexico City, Toronto, Paris, Buenos Aires or Madrid?
After watching the huge Cuban parade on May Day and seeing the faces of the some of the guests on TV, I decided to go to the annual solidarity event that the Cuban Workers Federation (CTC) throws each May 2 in Havana and try to get some answers.
When I arrived at the Havana Convention Center I couldn’t help but notice the dozens of new powder-blue Chinese “Yutong” buses. The sight of all those vehicles suddenly made real the news figure of more than 1,400 foreign participants from 61 countries.
The spacious facility built in 1979 with its restaurants and comfortable meeting rooms of all sizes, is also the site of the Cuban parliamentary sessions, as well as numerous congresses and other international events each year. The main hall where the event took place was decorated colorfully with the flags that many of the labor and solidarity organizations had brought with them.
The first labor leader I spoke with was Alan Richie, general secretary of the Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians (UCATT) from the UK and Ireland. A carpenter whose own body looked as solid as a hardwood door frame, Richie said he was in Cuba for the first time.
When asked why he had chosen to come to Cuba, he said that his union has maintained a policy of support for Cuba for many years. Fond of Cuba from a distance, he said he has always been concerned about the island “recalling what happened to Allende” referring to the US backed coup that toppled the labor friendly president of Chile in 1973.
After noting that UCATT has issued resolutions supporting Cuba he said: “Cuba should be left alone to develop its economy and strategies.” Richie said that his union will offer the Cuban Workers Federation (CTC) “our experience in costs, quality of materials and production.”
Accompanying Richie and the construction workers delegation was Spencer Wood, an attorney whose firm represents UCATT. This was Wood’s fifth visit to Cuba. When asked to compare what he was seeing this time with past visits, he said: “My friends here are optimistic that things are getting better.” The lawyer saw the US blockade as clearly the biggest problem facing Cuban labor, noting that it also “affects access to some building materials.”
Wood said he had met with Cuban lawyers who represent worker interests when there are complaints filed. He noted that the system is very different in Cuba because “the union is not an adversary, but instead plays a part in government decision-making.”
Asked about UCATT’s own domestic struggles, Wood’s colleague chimed in that there are two big issues facing construction workers in the UK. One is the failure of the government to meet its obligations to workers suffering from illnesses caused by handling asbestos materials before they were banned. The other is the current trend towards “self-employment.” He said such contract labor provides no worker benefits and is geared to weaken the unions.
Canadians Rick Murray and Cheek Totten, members of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW), were in Cuba as part of a worker-to-worker tour. This was their second and third trip respectively to the island. Murray emphasized the need to reach the grassroots population back home with information on Cuba. He felt that the solidarity meeting was important “to get people on Cuba’s side.”
Murray noted that in the Canadian press everything reported about Cuba is negative: “Our media is like the media in the States.” Totten mentioned that the CUPW just had a convention of some 700 members who expressed their support for Cuba. “That’s a start,” said Murray.
Asked about their own domestic agenda, they said that the Canadian postal workers were facing tough challenges to fight privatization and deregulation. “Technical change is a big threat to the workers,” said Totten. Murray added that the frightful example of Minneapolis, where hundreds of workers lost their jobs to “modernization, is an ever-present threat to their union.”
Murray concluded by saying that on this trip he had noticed that infrastructure is being repaired, something he thought was a good sign for Cuba.
Porfirio Barrera Jimenez is from the Center for Political Studies in Guerrero, Mexico. He was attending the May Day related activities in Cuba with a group of educators. After a week on the island Barrera felt that the biggest challenge facing the country is “the younger generations.” He emphasized the importance of strengthening the civic and revolutionary consciousness of the youth.
In the economic arena, he pointed to the need to strengthen agriculture and small industry as well as the ability of Cuba to create its own technologies. Barrera expressed particular concern about “US financed cells of counterrevolutionary religious groups that go house to house, trying to make political inroads.”
Bolivia and Cuban Five Top International Agenda
The plenary session of the solidarity gathering was presided over by Salvador Valdes Mesa, general secretary of the Cuban Workers’ Federation (CTC) and Ricardo Alarcon de Quesada, president of the Cuban parliament.
Valdes Mesa opened the meeting by outlining the international agenda of the CTC. This includes defending the cause of the Cuban Five, denouncing the activities of terrorist Luis Posada Carriles in Miami, and demanding measures to deal with the global crisis caused by the rise in food and oil prices, and climate change.
He then made special mention of Fidel Castro’s recent alert about the situation in Bolivia, where the oligarchies of the resource-rich departments are spearheading a movement to divide up the nation.
The labor leader proudly noted the generous contributions of Cuban workers in providing assistance in the fields of medicine, education, science and sports in dozens of developing countries. He concluded by saying that Cuban workers will continue defending the right to work for a better world.
Ricardo Alarcon centered on the Cuban Five case which has taken up a considerable amount of his time over the last 10 years. Arrested in 1998 for gathering information on the plans of terrorist groups based in Miami, the Cuban Five were given harsh sentences after what numerous human rights and attorney groups term a biased and irregularity-plagued trial.
Alarcon also called attention to a meeting that same night (May 2) in Miami to eulogize notorious international terrorist Luis Posada Carriles. The meeting had been organized by several groups including the Cuban Liberty Council and the Cuban-American National Foundation. “It’s incredible that such a meeting could be possible,” said Alarcon. Posada Carriles is credited with blowing up a Cuban airliner that killed 73 persons and with other deadly terrorist crimes including Havana hotel bombings.
Following Alarcon’s speech, the meeting opened to the floor. Dozens of speakers issued statements on two central issues: Bolivia and the Cuban Five. A resolution was approved to condemn any attempts to dismember the South American nation and the US participation in promoting separatism as a way to combat the advances towards social and economic justice promoted by the Morales government.
Tony Woodley, general secretary of the large British-Irish trade union Unite, expressed his union’s admiration of Cuba for exporting doctors and teachers while others export weapons. He promised that “the British trade union movement will continue to demand that the British government support a policy of engagement with Cuba.”
Referring to the Cuban Five case, Nelia Pintora, of the Association of Ex-Political Prisoners of Uruguay, said that the people in her organization know what it’s like to be in the hands of terrorists. “We feel very much identified with them and know what their families feel,” she said.
Guillermo Macias Mendez of a Michoacan, Mexico teachers’ association spoke of the importance of keeping humanitarian legislators and NGOs constantly informed on the Cuban Five case. He also recommended making greater use of the Internet to inform students and professors in the United States.
Alicia Jrapko, national coordinator of the International Committee to Free the Cuban Five, explained how the committee was working to keep the case in the public eye. “Due to the news blackout in the mainstream US media on the case, we’ve had to purchase newspaper ads to try and inform people, she stated, adding: “We have to reach the hearts of US citizens and we must be creative to be able to reach other sectors of society.”