Thursday, 22 December 2011

Two fantastic opportunities to spend May Day 2012 in Cuba

Witness the sights, sounds and smells of Cuba and experience firsthand the principles of equality, community and international solidarity.

The Cuba Solidarity Campaign is organising two specialised trade union visits to Cuba next Spring to enjoy the iconic and unforgettable May Day celebrations and learn more about the country, its unions and the effects of the US blockade.
The Young Trade Unionists’ May Day Brigade and the May Day Study Tour will show solidarity with over one million Cuban workers as they parade through Havana’s Plaza de la RevoluciĆ³n.
"The May Day parade was amazing. It was moving to see so many people coming together to celebrate their country" - Lisa, May Day Brigade 2011)
Participants will visit Havana’s famous Museum of the Revolution and receive an exclusive invitation to the International Solidarity Conference alongside activists from across the globe and families of the Miami 5. Professional visits to schools, factories, hospitals and universities will provide insight into the achievements of the revolution and allow delegates to strengthen links with sister unions.
“Cuba really opened my eyes about what can be achieved in a society built around working together for the benefit of everyone” - James, May Day Brigade 2008
Our fifth annual May Day Brigade will also contribute to the agricultural development of the country through voluntary work sessions as participants discover the reality of life for Cubans living under the illegal US blockade of their country. Over 100 young trade unionists – from Unison, Unite, GMB, CWU, RMT, TSSA, BFAWU, PCS and the UCU – have previously taken part in our May Day Brigade.
“The May Day Brigade was one of the best experiences of my life. Viva Cuba!” - Vikki, May Day Brigade 2011
Both tours are a wonderful opportunity to see the real Cuba away from the usual tourist trail. They provide an inspiring and humbling view of Cuba’s intrepid resistance against 50 years of blockade and allow you to experience Cuba’s rich and diverse cultural heritage whilst providing visible solidarity and support to the Cuban people.
  • Young Trade Unionists’ May Day Brigade, 26 April – 10 May 2012, £999 – Cost includes flights, accommodation, food, transport and visas. Delegates will stay on the Julio Mella camp outside Havana and will take part in solidarity work. Three nights will be spent at the Hotel Vedado in Old Havana. Although aimed at young trade unionists, all are welcome!
  • May Day Study Tour, 22 April – 3 May 2012, price starts at £1,415 – Cost includes flights, accommodation, transport and visas. Accommodation in Havana will be in the iconic Hotel Plaza.
For more information and to book, please follow the hyperlinks above or drop us an email.

Trade Unions for Cuba - Issue 2

The second issue of the Cuba Solidarity Campaign’s eNewsletter ‘Trade Unions for Cuba’ is now available online. The newsletter aims to celebrate collaboration between CSC, British trade unions and trade unions in Cuba. It brings up-to-date news on trade unionism in Cuba, reports on CSC’s work with unions domestically, mobilises campaigns and promotes events, brigades and tours.

The Winter 2011/12 edition features details of our new END IT NOW! campaign to mark the 50th anniversary of the United States’ blockade of Cuba next year. There is also information on how the British trade union movement is leading the fight in defence of the Miami 5 and how you can get involved with the campaign as part of the upcoming Beyond the Frame art exhibition.

It also includes a report on CSC’s presence at trade union conferences recently and information on two fantastic trips we’re taking to Cuba next Spring – the May Day Study tour and May Day Brigade.

The newsletter can be viewed here. Please feel free to forward to colleagues, share on social networking sites or print-off and distribute around notice boards and offices. If you would like to receive future copies, please email CSC Campaigns Officer Dan Smith.

Monday, 19 December 2011

Cuban Olympic legend laments the debilitating effects of US blockade

Cuban Olympic legend Alberto Juantorena talks exclusively to the Morning Star's Greg Leedham about his unrivalled track feat and what sport means for his blockaded country

Alberto Juantorena, the Cuban runner who stunned the world by winning gold in the 400m and 800m at the 1976 Olympics, talks about politics with the same bullishness with which he used to gallop around the track in his heyday.

"We cannot buy anything from the United States," he tells me, thumping his hand down on the table next to us as we chat in a dimly lit room at the HQ of the Cuba Solidarity Campaign in London.

The man known as El Caballo (The Horse) is referring to the 50-year-old US blockade of his homeland - a policy which permeates all activity on the island, including his day job as a parliamentarian and vice-president of the Cuban Sport Institute.

"For example, our pole-vaulters need poles, but the pole they use is produced in the United States. UCS Enterprise (who produce the poles) - we cannot buy from them."

Juantorena, now 61, proceeds to offer a detailed description of wheeling and dealing of which Tottenham manager Harry Redknapp would be proud.

"I call a friend of mine in Mexico, who was a former president of their federation. I say: 'Listen, Pedro, go to UCS, talk to them' - they are also friends of mine but I cannot trade with them directly.

"Pedro calls Jack (of UCS) and Jack sends the pole to Mexico. Pedro then takes the pole and brings it back to Guadalajara" for the 2011 Pan-American Games.

At this point, Juantorena exclaims at the ludicrousness of the situation he finds himself in on a daily basis. "My friend! What is this, my friend?"

His struggle to provide basic equipment for his country's athletes stands in stark contrast with the money Britain is able to throw at its own - £264 million worth of funding between 2009 and 2013.

Yet while time has eroded Juantorena's famous afro, his enthusiasm for the Cuban system remains, as does his belief that money is not the crucial factor in producing world-class sportsmen and women.

"Let me tell you something," Juantorena says, leaning towards me as if he is about to reveal a big secret.

"We practise sport in my country with a real lack of everything. Almost from nothing. Our infrastructure is not sophisticated. Our track and field stadium, our baseball stadium - they are not sophisticated.

"But we pay a lot of attention to physical education. It is compulsory in the schools - from primary schools through to university, and it produces athletes like a windmill." Juantorena makes a spiralling motion with his hands.

"And it never stops. Never stops, never stops. You know why? Because if you have mass participation, you have 2.5m students from primary school to university practising sport at least three times a week, and then you can sit down and qualify and see the talent, select the talent - it's easy! That's the secret of Cuban sport."

Critics argue that windmill has been malfunctioning a little of late. By their high standards, Cuba had a poor Olympics in Beijing in 2008, winning just two golds from 24 medals overall and finishing 28th in the final table.

Compare that with Athens in 2004 when Cuba won nine golds - the same number as Britain - and finished 11th overall.

Juantorena believes Beijing was merely a blip and, regardless, he says the point of Cuban sport is not medals but the overall well-being of the Cuban people.

"That's why we promote sport," he says. "Not to compete but to increase the life expectancy of people, to increase the health of the people first and as a consequence you can find the talent and you can find the medals."

It is a model driven by 78,000 physical education teachers, compared with, he says, 800 before Fidel Castro came to power in 1959.

Such is the human investment in sport - thousands of staff working on low wages across the island - that Juantorena seems personally betrayed by those who reap the benefits of the Cuban system only to defect. How does he feel about a compatriot who is seduced by riches in the US or Europe?

"Stupid guy," he shrugs. "For me as an individual to become Olympic champion is impossible.

"I was born in Santiago de Cuba in very humble family in a very humble home, you know, and I feel sorry for them (defectors).

"Who made those athletes great stars? By themselves? From childhood they have schools, they have been supported by the municipal, by the state. The state pays everything to them.

"They think more with the pocket than with the heart - that is a fact. But let me tell you something - they are not many.

"The majority are in Cuba, fighting and leading."

One of those who had riches dangled in front of him but chose to stay in Cuba was boxer Teofilo Stevenson, who was reportedly offered as much as $5m to turn professional and fight Muhammad Ali but famously declined, saying the love of the Cuban people was more important to him.

"An example that real people don't sell their soul," Juantorena beams. "That was the guy to be."

Juantorena is as talkative an interviewee as you could ever meet, but my next question has him momentarily tongue-tied.

Would he ever accept a defector back into the Cuban team?

"He begins his response twice, breaking off mid-sentence on each occasion.

Silence briefly fills the room. After a few more seconds of reflection, he says: "In my personal opinion, I say no."

The lull provides an opportune moment to turn the conversation to his staggering feat of winning gold in the 400m and 800m gold in Montreal.

With athletes today tending to specialise in one event, his unique achievement of winning at sprint and middle distance is unlikely to be repeated.

Juantorena springs back to life at the mention of his career-defining moment.

"Nobody took into consideration the tall guy with the basketball socks," he grins. "Nobody cared about me and suddenly, boom, I kill everyone. That's a fact, that's a fact!"

Before Montreal, Juantorena specialised in the 400m until his Polish trainer Zygmunt Zabierzowski tricked him into running the 800m. He began training for the event - to help his endurance, he was told - and it was only two months before the Games that he realised Zabierzowski's plan.

"I say: 'No way, man, you crazy'," he recalls. "You know why? Because I was afraid. Because I know that the 800m was the first race. What happens if I get tired and nothing happen in 800 and nothing happen in 400?

"But he gave me the confidence, he proved to me that I can do it. And suddenly one time I was running for the first time in my life in May 1976.

"I ran 1'45.3". I say: "Caramba! I can do it!" And then psychologically I start to believe that really I can do it."

He blew away the field in the 800m final, breaking the world record in the process. Three days later, he added the 400m title. A legend was born then and it has continued to grow given that no-one has replicated his feat in the 35 years since.

Juantorena believes it is lack of ambition that could prevent someone today trumping him.

"Human beings have been proved in world history to do unbelievable things. You never know with a human being! Maybe they run 800m, 1,500m and 100m - you never know. It is difficult, but it is not impossible."

Injuries dogged Juantorena for the rest of his career, preventing him from adding to his Olympic tally, though he says his biggest regret is never winning a gold at the Pan-American Games.
His greatest challenge today is continuing to convince Cubans of the importance of sport.

He looks utterly bemused when I tell him of those on the British left who believe that sport is a distraction from more important struggles.

"Firstly, they are wrong," he says, chuckling. "The sport is a benefit for health. First to be a better citizen, to have better health. Second, sport is a good moment to socialise, to be together, to share things and to teach you to think collectively."

The Cuban programme for sport is certainly ambitious. Juantorena tells me of his country's efforts to develop cricket on the island, as well as football with the help of Fifa.

Yet his and Cuba's biggest battle remains with their superpower neighbour - a nation which, he tells me, has denied him a visa four times.

One day things will change, he believes, but only if the US approaches Cuba as equals.

"We don't need to make any move to them," Juantorena says, leaning forward in his chair and fixing me with a stern stare to emphasise his point.

"We don't need to ask them: 'Please change.' No, on the contrary they must approach us and sit down at the table, without any previous condition and we can talk about everything in life.

"Our president Raul (Castro) said to Barack Obama many times a message - let's sit down together at the table without any previous conditions. He never answered."

You sense that deep down Juantorena knows that change is unlikely to come soon.

He says Cuba will do better at London 2012 - just don't ask him to predict the number of medals they will win.

His patriotism is clear and he leaves me with a glowing endorsement of the Cuban system.

"You have many in Cuba fighting and working to improve the whole condition in every aspect in my country. I am one of them and I will die in Cuba. I will die there."

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Alberto Juantorena visits Hackney school ahead of the London 2012 Olympics

Alberto Juantorena, Cuban world champion middle distance runner and Vice President of INDER, the Cuban Institute of Sport, visited Hackney on a pre-Olympic visit. He made a special visit to meet with children at Grasmere Primary School on Albion Road, in Newington Green.

Children watched a video of Juantorenna winning the 800 metres Gold medal at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal. Then, after a few questions from an awestruck, audience the runner produced the actual gold medal from his pocket. He then visited a few of the classes to talk some more to the students. Alberto’s key message was repeated a number of times when he said:

“to achieve something like this Olympic gold you need three things discipline, dedication and passion”

At the 1976 Summer Olympics, Juantorena became the first and so far only athlete to win both the 400m and 800m Olympic titles setting world records at both events.   With his famous sprint and his unique middle distance combination he seemed to have heralded a new era and style for middle-distance runners. In the 1970’s Juantorena was often referred to as ‘White Lightening’ or ‘El Caballo’ (the horse).

Current UK Olympic chief Sebastian Coe is a friend and admirer of Juantorena. In 1979 Sebastian Coe finally broke Juantorena’s 800m record which he had held for 3 years.

"I remember seeing him in Montreal and thinking, 'I'm in the wrong distance.' This was a record that was sensational." - Sebastian Coe

Juantorena is one of the most prominent Cuban sporting figures and travels the world in his role as a council member of the International Athletics Federation (IAAF). He has always maintained the highest standards in support of athletics and sports in general and is a great exponent of the Cuban sports ethos.

“We want to promote the great qualities of athletics - and maintain its integrity - all over the world.”

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Alberto Juantorena maintains his belief in the Cuban way

Juantorena wins the 400m gold at the 1976 Olympics
He's a legend of the five-ringed circus, but money still can't buy Alberto Juantorena, writes Rick Broadbent in the Times and the Australian

Alberto Juantorena, who won two gold medals at the 1976 Olympics, recently visited a London school where a child asked how much his medals were worth. The man they call El Caballo (The Horse) didn't know. Nobody had asked him the question before. Perhaps that is Britain's problem.

As London gets its head around an pound stg. 81 million ($125m) budget for the Olympic opening and closing ceremonies, it is fascinating to sit with a product of the Cuban revolution, who won the 400m and 800m titles in Montreal. It's trite to term Juantorena simply an Olympic legend; this imposing figure is also a part-time politician and paid-up visionary who says he knows the secret of success.

"Chess," he declares, the voice of suave ribaldry fading to a whisper. "You know the spirit and heart of chess in my country?" he asks. "Che Guevara."

A mural of the revolutionary is above us on the wall of a cluttered office belonging to the Cuba Solidarity Campaign in London.

"He was the promoter of chess in my country, and knew that it helped a student look for a solution. It teaches you how to think, so chess is a sport we implant into minds. It's taught from primary school to university. It's essential."

State-sponsored board games seem a leap of faith from the 1976 Montreal Olympics, when Juantorena completed the "impossible" double of 400m and 800m, and yet his faith in the Cuban system is unassailable.

His blueprint for success taps into debates about Xbox motivations and 2012 legacies.

"The reason we are so successful is because we focus on children," he says. "In primary school they are taught physical education three times a week. We have 2.5 million students practising this. It's the system combined with the intelligence of the people. That's why we have 78,000 PE teachers. That's why we are a small country which wins medals."

In Cuba this took a revolution; London will have to make do with a two-week knees-up. Juantorena, now an ursine 61, paints a rosy red picture of communist Cuba and believes it punches above its weight because it values sport properly. Thank Fidel Castro for that.

"When I came home from Montreal in 1976 I was the first to descend the plane," he says. "Fidel was there. We embraced. We talked of many things and I realised he was a 100 metres runner. He told me he won in the 1946 inter-college competition. He said, 'I had a long stride, like you'.

"Fidel was the philosopher who created sport in my country. After the revolution, it did not matter what race, religion or gender you were, you had the opportunity to practise sport."

Juantorena left Castro at the airport and went back to work.

"I volunteered to pick coffee, cut sugar cane and plant vegetables," he says. "I did that for two weeks. My medals did not belong to me. Other athletes dedicated medals to their families; I dedicated mine to the anniversary of the Moncada Garrison because they gave Cuba freedom."

His success in Montreal is unlikely to be repeated. He was a 400m specialist recovering from two operations on his foot until his Polish coach, Zygmunt Zabier-zowski, had a brainwave.

"'One day,' he said, 'you will run the 800 in the next Olympics' and I jumped as high as Javier Sotomayor (the Olympic high jump champion). I was afraid. I thought I'd be too tired. I'd lose everything. But he tried me with the long-distance runners. They tried to kill me and they couldn't. So he put me in a race in Italy. It was the first time I'd run 800m in my life and I ran 1min 45.76sec."

He is grinning widely now. "I went to the Olympics and became the only man in history to run on every day of the athletics program. They changed the schedule for me and started calling me El Caballo the horse."

Commentator David Coleman went further. "The big Cuban opened his legs and showed his class," he said, thus starting an industry in commentating gaffes.

American rival Rick Wohlhuter had said that Juantorena would be unable to cope with the 800m rounds, but his classy three-metre stride resulted in magic as well as mirth and he set a world record. "My coach said that because of my 400 speed, a first lap of 50 seconds would be like walking. I hung back and hung back. Wohlhuter was crazy. He went on the outside and so ran 820 metres. In the last 20 metres (Belgian) Ivo Van Damme got the silver."

An unspectacular qualification for the 400m final exhumed double doubts. "I was in the lane two. That's the second killing lane, but I had an advantage because I could see them all. I was so confident. I was not running but floating and then, boom, in the last 50 I killed them all."

Thus an Olympic hero was created. He became a celebrity and yet remained humble, even when taking on roles such as vice-president of INDER, the Cuban sports institute that once set up 31 sports centres in the Escambray Mountains because Castro felt the remote region was a source of untapped potential.

Juantorena does not accept many interviews and his patriotism may appear one-eyed in the wake of numerous defections.

The country's leading baseball team, Industriales, has struggled this season after seven players fled the country. Add five National Ballet dancers and a star soccer player, who shimmied down a hotel fire escape in North Carolina, and it's clear that the monthly government salary the equivalent of $US16 does not suit all. Olympic champions fare better with a lifetime monthly stipend of $US300, but can Castro's ideals survive the modern age?

"It is not a big problem but it becomes big propaganda," Juantorena says. "The press say Cubans are running from the system because they are oppressed, because they kill people, because they put people in jail, but this is bullshit. I feel sorry for them. The socialist system gave me all possibilities and all they asked was that I stayed loyal and said thank you."

Britain has a former Cuban triple jumper in its track team. Yamile Aldama's story is complex, but she competed for Sudan after leaving Cuba with her Scottish husband. Now she has a British passport and was fifth at the world championships, one of the so-called "plastic Brits".

"I know her very well," Juantorena says. "She decided to abandon Cuba and went to this place and that place. It's her own decision. I am strongly against the trafficking of athletes who change country from one day to the next. They are selling themselves as merchandise. The real person, the real human being who loves their country, believes in something and never changes their allegiance. You have to be honest and follow your dignity. Now you see some guy and he is not able to even sing the national anthem."

Cuba dropped from fifth in the Olympic medals table in 1992 to 28th by 2008 but Juantorena insists defections do not add up to a defect in the system. It is just increasingly hard to compete.

When the country's biggest athletics star, hurdler Dayron Robles, was disqualified from the gold medal position at the world championships, he said that it was because he came from Cuba. Juantorena rejected any conspiracy theories but said he agreed.

Whether Cuba can continue to punch above its weight in London remains to be seen, but El Caballo is convinced. "This system works," he said. "You cannot go through sport or life motivated only by money."

He plays with his gold medal; the other is in a museum in Havana for the people. Even in a five-ring circus, with cynics pointing to its budget as proof that the Olympics are more corporate carve-up than sporting carnival, some things cannot be bought.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

‘We prepare athletes for sport – and life’

President Raul Castro with 2008 Cuban Olympic team
Morning Star sports editor Greg Leedham talks to Cuban ex-110m hurdler Emilio Valle and Cuban junior athletics coach Alfredo Dijhigo. From today's Morning Star.

Emilio Valle and Alfredo Dijhigo attract a lot of attention on an otherwise uneventful and very blustery autumn afternoon as I take them to see the Olympic Stadium in Stratford.

Walking along the Greenway path that straddles the site, Valle, a successful 110 metres hurdler who narrowly missed out on a medal at the Atlanta Olympics, and Dijhigo, a coach with Cuba’s junior athletics team, are quickly swamped by local teenagers keen to know more about these two men whose colourful Cuban national team uniforms cut through the dreariness of the weather.

The scene is the kind that Olympic organisers dream of — role model athletes inspiring and engaging local children. The pair, visiting London on a cultural and athletics exchange organised by Maurice Sharp of the Hercules Wimbledon Athletics Club, are worthy of the hype.

Valle and Dijhigo work with Cuba’s young athletes from the ages of 14 to 19, preparing them for hopefully successful careers with the senior team. It is a tough job — both earn around $30 a month and they struggle with equipment shortages due to the US blockade of their country, but they stay remarkably upbeat nonetheless.

This is partly due to the fact that, with Dijhigo aged 53 and Valle 44, the blockade has been in place before they were born. It is a way of life, just as struggle against great odds is a part of the Cuban experience.

The Special Period following the collapse of the Soviet Union also ushered in an age of acute austerity even by Cuban standards. Scrimping on sporting equipment was a necessity yet the Caribbean island still thrived on the Olympic stage.

Rigorous planning and ingenuity in making meagre funds go far has been essential to their success, explains Dijhigo back at the Morning Star offices.

“For us discipline is very important,” he says. “It’s possible that we don’t have the same economy as other countries, where development may be better. But the intention and the way we see life — it is the same.”

The willingness of former Cuban athletes to give back to the system that created them is also key. “He (Emilio) was my student, one of my athletes,” Dijhigo explains.

“When he was working in a physical education he was my athlete. Now we are working together as coaches. I gave him my experience. Now he must pass on his experience. We must transmit our experience and we cannot break the chain.”

A few Cuban athletes, such as flyweight boxer Yuriorkis Gamboa who won gold at Athens 2004, have broken that chain by defecting to the United States.

Dijhigo is phlegmatic about those who leave, though he laments that the country’s youth will no longer be able to benefit from their experience.

“If some athletes want to go professional — OK, no problem,” he says. “Only we never stop working. We never stop preparing athletes.”

He expands on his philosophy. “Sport is like the discipline of life. If you obey the discipline of life you can be, you can do better, you can offer more. You can offer more and also you cannot be selfish — it is not only for you.

“You should be grateful to the ancestor, the people who came before you, who give to you all that you received, and now you are offering.”

Cuba have won 194 medals in total at summer Olympics, with 100 of these coming in boxing and athletics. The country is broadening its horizons though, Dijhigo explains, despite incredible logistical issues when it comes to acquiring equipment.

“In cycling, we are getting better. But the bicycles we want to buy are from the United States, which is very close,” he explains. “But we have to buy from another place. We cannot buy from Mexico as the companies are owned by the US companies. We have to, for example, get a Jamaican to go to Mexico and buy a bicycle and bring it to Cuba after going back through Jamaica.

“We have one bicycle for every two or three athletes — a direct effect of the blockade.”

Such struggle would provoke bitterness in many, but not in Dijhigo nor Valle, whose joviality transcends his lack of English.

Valle competed against the likes of Britain’s Colin Jackson in his heyday — and has fond memories of competing at the top in an event in which Cuba now has the Olympic champion in Dayron Robles.

“I competed against athletes from many countries, but we were all friends,” Valle recalls fondly. “We may have a different system or way of life, but we would talk, be friends, no problem.”

As the duo depart, I am told that part of the schedule for their short trip is to take some training sessions with athletes from Sharp’s club and it reminds me of Dijhigo’s earlier remark, “We not only prepare athletes but a person who can be a good person in society.”

Valle and Dijhigo’s actions show that these are not mere words.