Reflection and photos by a participant of Cuba’s 12th May Day Int’l Brigade, Harvey M from North Aurora, IL:
I had the good fortune to travel to Cuba April 29-May 9 this year. First to participate in the May Day march in Havana, and then to travel across country to Guantanamo for the Firth International Seminar For Peace and Against Foreign Military Bases. This was the same time that the May Day Brigade, with 25 Chicago participants, was in Cuba. One conclusion right off the bat: anyone who has the opportunity to travel to Cuba as part of similar activities, Do it!
The May Day march was tremendous. We got up before dawn and walked through the dark streets to the Plaza de la Revolución, every block a stream of people walking to the assembly points where they would join the march. Hundreds of thousands marched in Havana, millions across all of Cuba. This in a country of 11 million. I was impressed by the number of handmade signs and banners from schools and universities, hospitals and pharmaceutical companies and investigation centers, factories, transportation and tourist companies. Most of these did not exist in 1959 before the revolution. The marchers were energetic and enthusiastic, waving and chanting as they went by. This was the first May Day since the death of Fidel, and we saw the slogan “We are Fidel” on many of the signs.
Then we took a 2-day bus trip across Cuba to Guantanamo. Past cane fields, fields of mangos and pineapples and cattle ranching cooperatives, as well as large areas lying fallow and overrun with invasive marabú underbrush. We were told Cuba has made significant progress in producing more of its food and reducing the amount of imported food, especially by convincing more young people to take up farming to increase the supply available at agricultural markets in towns and cities.
We also saw the toll taken by the decades-long U.S. economic war and the limited resources available. The modern 6-lane national highway ended 200 KM east of Havana and our bus switched to the 80-year old highway that badly needed repairs for the rest of the trip. We saw bridges and road preparations that had been completed for extending the modern highway, but they had to be abandoned in the 1990s as Cuba’s trade and credits shrank after the collapse of the Soviet Union. But we did see new housing construction underway. And the Medical Sciences University in Guantanamo had just been opened a few years previously. We met students from Cuba, Africa and the Caribbean who were studying there, all free of charge.
We spent an afternoon in Caimanera, a town of 11,000 that lies on the western shore of Guantanamo Bay, just north of the U.S. base. Driving into town through salt flats (Caimanera produces sea salt, supplying most of Cuba’s needs and exporting some), you drive right along the tall barbed wire fences that mark the perimeter of the base territory.
We had a chance to talk with Caimanera residents and joined in a rally in the town plaza demanding the end of the U.S. occupation of the base. We were told they have a small fishing cooperative, but they can fish only on the northern part of the bay. Restoring the 45 square miles of land and water occupied by the U.S. base would give them access to the open ocean for the first time in many decades, greatly expanding the potential of the fishing cooperative. Similarly, Guantanamo could be a major port for Cuba, but now can only handle small ships since they cannot dredge a channel through the waters controlled by the United States.
I was struck by the confidence and spirit of the people with whom we talked. They were proud of help they had given to other peoples fighting for their freedom, as well as the social gains of the revolution. Some 300 people from Caimanera were part of the Cuban volunteers who fought in Angola against invasions by South Africa from 1975–1990. Doctors from the Guantanamo area were among the 256 Cuban doctors and nurses who rushed to Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea to staff Ebola treatment centers during the epidemic in West Africa. People we spoke with expressed determination to maintain the social gains they had created through the revolution. This was what they mean by “We are Fidel,” continuing the solidarity in practice with those in need within Cuba and around the world, They asked us over and over to do everything we could to end the U.S. blockade and to return the territory occupied by the U.S. base.
A great experience, and plenty to do now in our day-to-day activity in the United States!