May Day Brigade 2017 Report  

Mural of Camilo Cienfuegos, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara at the CIJAM

May Day International Brigade 2017.
By Kamarra, Western Australia.

"I was privileged enough to participate in the XII International May Day Brigade, from April 24 to May 8, 2017. It was an exciting brigade to join, because it was the first-time American delegates were allowed to attend this 'May Day' Brigade after travel restrictions were eased and U.S. based airlines began offering service to Cuba. The 50 Americans joined the 290 delegates/brigadistas from 26 other countries. I was the only one who represented Australia. 

The Brigade experience is unlike a typical 'Cuban tourist' experience. You spend most of your time at the International Camp "Julio Antonio Mella" (CIJAM), located in the municipality Caimito, Artemisa province, about 45 kms from Havana. The camp is beautiful, covered in natural flora and fauna, with mango trees dripping in ripe fruit every day and cows freely walking in the field across from the dormitories where you sleep. You can also hear dozens of birds chirping their sweet melodies in the trees above you, everywhere you walk. The arrangements are basic and humble. You sleep in 8 bedded dorm rooms and share a bathroom / showers with ~20 other people of your gender. Everyone eats in the main canteen together, and you're served healthy, local (and mostly organic) Cuban food cooked fresh every day. There is a shop, bar, medical clinic, money exchange office, computer room (with 6 computers - yes, you have to fight for your precious 15min of internet time each day) and some places to play sports or relax on your own if you want. The conditions allow you to bond even more closely with the others. The best part of the camp is the artwork. Every building is covered in stunning murals which all have a different message of hope, peace, solidarity, or political assertion. Every inch of the camp is a gem to discover and is always kept clean and safe by the dozens of hardworking local Cuban staff, who always have a smile on their face and a warm embrace to give to the brigadistas. 

The schedule every day is full, starting from 6am through to as late as you want, with activities ranging from political discussions to salsa lessons (and many activities involving good Cuban rum!). 

I enjoyed every last minute of every single day. Even the early morning rooster wake up call. 

The first few days consisted of farm work on various types of farms around the district. One day I planted radishes, and the next day I picked weeds. One of the days, I simply moved rocks into large piles. You were at the service of the farmers to do whatever was needed on the day, and it was humbling. The work is sometimes monotonous but always important, giving you a great appreciation for the farmers; and the farmers take a lot of pride in their work (and so they should!). 

Various lectures, discussion panels, and documentaries are offered throughout the fortnight to brigadistas who wish to learn more about the Cuban history, the revolution, socialist ideas, and current affairs. There are also excursions to local communities to demonstrate how they use socialist principles to improve the standard of living for the Cuban people. We even had the opportunity to visit Provincial Hospital Dr Gustavo Aldereguía Lima in Cienfuegos (where Fidel Castro preferred to be treated) to see the incredible work the Cuban medical team are doing to create first class health care in their country, despite the immense detriment the U.S. Blockade has on their economy. There were many historical and tourist trips to Havana, Santa Clara, and Cienfuegos, which gave us the opportunity to better understand the culture and enjoy the beauty of Cuba. 

The highlight of this Brigade is, of course, the 'Primero de Mayo' parade on May 1st, which celebrates International Workers' Day. I was able to march with ~750,000 people through the streets of Havana, past the José Martí Memorial where Raul Castro stood watching us all in solidarity, marching for the 'trabajadores y trabajadoras' in support of the revolution and socialism. 

I had goosebumps on my arms and tears in my eyes the entire morning. 

It was frustrating to re-learn everything I had been taught about the history of Cuba, what socialism truly represents, and how much the U.S. Blockade affects the Cuban people. 

For instance, the U.S. Government financially penalises other countries if they do business with Cuba. They also 'punish’ import boats that dock in Cuba by restricting them from coming to the U.S. for 6 months after arriving to Cuba, which deters these countries/businesses from importing goods to Cuba at all. The U.S. Blockade extends far beyond trade between the United States and Cuba. Foreign companies routinely shy away from trade with Cuba because a product produced with even a drop of Cuban materials is prohibited from U.S. markets. For example, a Japanese car company that uses Cuban nickel in production cannot sell their cars in the United States. Cuba is rich in resources, but has difficulties making significant financial profit with these ridiculous impositions. Needlessly to say, discovering these truths put a very bitter taste in my mouth.

So when the public perception of socialism is represented by the current conditions in Cuba, there needs to be an understanding that Cuba would look vastly different if they were not economically suffocated by the consequences of the Blockade. However, Cuba is so amazing in spite of this struggle. The fact that they still maintain universal, and high quality, healthcare and education for all of their citizens, produce the most amount of teachers and doctors per capita than anywhere else in the world, have extremely low rates of homelessness and crime, and can produce most of their own food (organically at that) to feed all their citizens, and so on and so forth, is a true testament to the power of socialism. 

Of course, not everything in Cuba is perfect. We were shown mostly the 'shiny' parts of the country, but the Cuban hosts were not afraid to tell us what they really thought, and what still lacked. There is still a struggle to communicate through technology and the internet, although this is exacerbated by the Blockade, as the U.S. owns many telecommunication lines through Cuba, charging an inflated rate for calls going out of Cuba. We were also informed that there are plans in place to create more Wi-Fi spots in the cities as this issue is becoming more of a priority. In addition, the wages are low, even for highly skilled workers, but this is also reflective of the economic struggle caused by the Blockade. There are a lot of people who wish to have more 'first world luxuries', but at least all of their basic human needs are met whilst they wait, and that cannot be said for nearly every other country in the world, especially the capitalist ones. 

I would highly recommend for everyone who is interested in creating positive social change to attend a Brigade in Cuba at some point in their life, if the opportunity arises, especially the May Day Brigade. It has opened my eyes to a whole new reality of what the world can be like when there is a collective shift in societal consciousness about how to look after each other and the planet so that everyone can thrive. I am now inspired to partake in more activist work to raise awareness about the reality of Cuba, the devastating impact of the Blockade, and the powerful societal benefits of socialism. Hopefully one day, in my lifetime, I can witness a revolution in my country too."

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