Friday, 18 May 2012

“Cuba continues to struggle against the U.S. blockade and they need our support”

NAPO delegation on visit to ICAP House for meeting with Ministry of Justice

Article by Jackie Dixon, NAPO, May Day Brigade 2012

I went with few expectations of the Cuban people, however I did go to learn, listen and help where I could. 

Our accommodation at the Julio Antonio Mella International Camp was basic and functional.  After an initial look around we soon got drawn into the positive atmosphere created by sharing space with 230 other Brigadiers from around the world united in a common cause.  Our first evening was spent talking, relaxing and hanging flags of the many different unions and countries around the main meeting area, we laughed at our own attempts and quickly got involved with others doing the same, sharing string, pegs and sticky tape to complete the display and "make our mark".

We embarked on a program of agricultural work, lectures, professional, cultural and social visits, dinners and street parties.  I found the professional visit to the Judges and Attorneys in Havana extremely interesting.  Through a question and answer session of both parties we were able to make the direct comparisons between the Cuban and the British Justice system. Of particular note was how they involve the wider community in matters relating to the rehabilitation of offenders, re-integration into the community and their own families where they can.  This work is helped by the Federation of Cuban Women who assist where there is family breakdown, fight for the equal rights of women and children, address social problems and support the whole of Cuban society - without government funding!   Just imagine if we had that in Britain!

NAPO delegates at International Solidarity Conference
Speaking on a personal level there were many highlights to my trip, The May Day March and celebration, an invitation into the home of a doctor's wife, the visit to a day care centre for children aged 1-5yrs, meeting the parents and wife of the Cuban 5, the International Conference, the list goes on.  The experience on a whole has left me questioning what I really know about British politics and its influences on my own life.

In Cuba they continue the political struggle against the US blockade. They need our support, and the influences that other countries and Governments from around the world can bring to bear to change their lives and the lives of future generations.  They continue to campaign for the right to trade as any other country, to be freed from the oppression imposed by the US and the release of those unjustly imprisoned.

Despite their hardships, the Cuban people are friendly, warm, generous and genuine.  They had a smile and a "Hola" greeting ("Hello" in Spanish) wherever we went.   They opened their hearts to us and I would encourage anyone to go and visit the country and its people for themselves, feel as they do and experience their passion, they will leave their mark in your heart!

To support the ongoing struggle against the U.S. blockade of Cuba, please join the Cuba Solidarity Campaign today and get your trade union branch affiliated. You can join online now.

Cuban art festival brings works onto Havana's streets

Rachel Valdes' mirror has attracted attention
Article by Sarah Rainsford for the BBC

There are huge ants crawling all over the front of a theatre in the Cuban capital, a naked man tethered to the sea wall, and two women crocheting non-stop in the sweltering sunshine.

It is all part of the Havana Bienal, whose organisers have decided to bring much of the art work out of "elite" galleries this year and into the public space, allowing more people than ever access to the exhibits and performances.

So in some of the city's shabbiest backstreets, giant portraits of elderly local residents have appeared on crumbling walls. The wrinkles on their faces blend with the cracks in the brickwork.

"It's the first time in Cuba there is another face up other than Che or Fidel or Raul. Just someone from the street, who's not famous," says French artist JR, who painted 21 people for the project with Cuban Jose Parla.

"That's what has most amazed people. When we tell them it's just one of their neighbours, they're lost for words," JR says.

"People are very educated about art here, but a lot don't go to galleries," adds Parla. "So I think it's really important what we're doing, bringing art to the public."

And it is not only in the backstreets: the Bienal has transformed Havana's famous seafront into an open-air art gallery. The Malecon is where Cubans come to chat and flirt, reflect and dream perched on the long, low wall. Locals refer to it as the city's sitting room.

Critical tone?

Now they are sharing that space with installations including a deconstructed cannon, hammocks strung between goal posts, and a set of bright red doors that lead nowhere.

"The Malecon is the site of so many experiences, joyful and sad, where so many emotions have played out. This is a tribute to that past, the present and the future," explains curator Juan Delgado.

Many of the exhibits suggest a strong social commentary, very rare in Cuba, on themes including borders, free movement and emigration. Cubans still need official permission to travel off the island.

A metal frame filled with wire fencing has the silhouette of an aeroplane that's broken through and soared-off onto the horizon; there is a transparent reconstruction of one section of Malecon wall and drawings of another crafted from barbed wire.

The naked man, snared on a fishing line, is a powerful performance entitled Subject, and in a nearby subway there is a 1950s Chrysler car, transformed into a home-made submarine complete with periscope.

"In the 1990s people were crossing the sea to the US in rafts, or whatever they could find, including a car," says Delgado.

"For me, the plastic arts in Cuba have always been the strongest, the most avant-garde, always expressing the social context, or social criticism," he says.

"Of course there are limits, but artists here are very smart and love to play with subtle subjects," says Alexandre Arrechea, whose own contribution is a tall metal pillar with ear-shapes on either side, shrinking in size towards the top. It is called Nobody Listens.

"lt's playing with the idea that power is sometimes away from the people," the artist says, beside his ear-tree. "Towards the top, we can listen less."

International audience

Inti Hernandez uses his work to explore the theme of divisions between Cubans on and off the island. He has designed a curling bench which enables users to sit facing one another, in dialogue, or back to back, in silence.

"I believe this bench is talking about how to bring everything together," the artist says, arguing that those outside Cuba have an important perspective and assistance to offer.

For younger artists who have had little international exposure, the Biennial is an unparalleled opportunity to attract attention. Cuban modern art has become highly desirable, and the event is visited by hundreds of critics, curators and collectors from around the world, including the US.

"This is one of the most important Bienals and it's really important for me and my career," says Rachel Valdes, 21, who is exhibiting for the first time.

Her work, a huge mirror exploring the line between illusion and reality, has been drawing one of the biggest crowds on the seafront.

"I love to feel the energy of the people," she says. "It's good to bring the art closer to the people. I love it."

"It's something revolutionary in Havana," agrees Antonio Rosario, visiting the exhibit with his family.

"Not everyone's in the habit of going to galleries, but we do like to stroll the Malecon and sit here a bit. Now we're getting to know some art at the same time."

A few blocks back, at the new mural of a man's aged face, one resident is not quite so convinced.

"The city does need a bit more life to it," says the man, Santos, contemplating the new art work staring at him from across the street.

"But it's a shame they didn't paint something from nature, like a tree or a flower. Or the birth of a child. I'd have preferred that."

Thursday, 17 May 2012

NAPO’s Amazing Cuban Adventure

NAPO Delegates at International Solidarity Conference. L-R: Jackie Dixon, Jonathan Walsh, Radhika Saujani, Sarah Wake, Andrew Lesnik and Tania Bassett
Article by Tania Bassett, NAPO, May Day Brigade 2012

I could write forever about our trip and still probably only cover half of what was a truly amazing 12 days in Cuba. So this article will try to cover the significant events and give you a flavour of what life was like as a May Day brigadier!

Cuba Solidarity Campaign UK delegation

There were 20 delegates in total from Unison, Unite, CWU, RMT, UCATT and 7 from Napo. Yes, as usual Napo was punching above its weight being the smallest union that no one had heard of, with the biggest delegation. There was a mixed age group with the youngest being 22 and the eldest being Jonathan, so I won’t expose his age! Dan Smith was also with us from Cuba Solidarity Campaign as the organiser and he did a sterling job both before the trip and while we were away.

Julio Antonia Mella International Camp

Founded by Julio Mella also the founder of the Cuban Communist Party, the camp was originally a temporary camp in the 1920’s. It is used for people to come to live together to learn about Cuban ideology, politics, way of life and meet other delegates from around the world. Although we were told it is basic before we went I think even the most prepared Brigadiers were a little surprised. With no running hot water on camp, cold showers at 5.30am are bracing to say the least. Food was very plain starting with breakfast (a very boiled egg with bread, milk and coffee) and then lunch and dinner (bread, rice, bean soup, a meat of some description and plantain). But with a total of 280 people on camp it was impressive how organised meal times were.
Members of British delegation with trade unionists and activists from South Korea

Depending on the agenda we were woken between 4am and 5.45am. The speaker system on camp was used to broadcast a cockerel followed by Guantanamerra and other Cuban songs! Accommodation consisted of 8 bed dorms with bunk beds, which provided some entertaining evenings as people attempted to climb on to the top bunk after being at the bar a little too long! It was a wonderful experience to meet the other delegates from all over the world including Columbia, Argentina, El Salvador, Finland, South Korea, Australia, Peru, Chile, Haiti to name but a few. And the very accommodating bar on camp offered plenty of opportunity to socialise and drink very cheap rum!

The Agenda

The agenda was mixed for the 2 weeks. Starting with a variety of lectures and seminars, agricultural work, followed by 3 days in Pinar del Rio (with a hotel with showers and everything!), some sightseeing, the Museum of the Revolution, street parties and professional visits. For Napo delegates this included a unique visit that had been arranged by the CSC link and our interpreter Luis. We met with the President of the Provincial Court (equivalent of Crown Court), a Provincial Court Judge and a Municipal Court Judge. It was a unique opportunity to find out more about the Cuban Criminal Justice System, sentencing process and how offenders are resettled and rehabilitated in the community. Their approach is much more focused on communities helping people to resettle and having involvement in getting people back to work and contributing to society with overall supervision responsibility being with Judge Assistants. We were very fortunate to have this visit and I hope it is something Napo can develop for the future.

Then back to camp to get ready for the May Day Parade through Havana. We weren’t sure what to expect really but it was overwhelming to see so many people parade through Havana in celebration of Trade Unions. We were especially lucky that Raul Castro was also at the parade and thanks to some binoculars we were able to see him. The Parade lasted over an hour and hopefully some of our pictures will give you a sense of the scale of the parade.

The following day we attended the International Solidarity Conference. There were about 1200 delegates at the conference and each was asked to take the floor and make a contribution. I had been chosen from our delegates to address conference which was a real honour, if not slightly nerve-racking. We were also addressed by the mother of one of the Miami 5 or Cuban 5 as they are also known. It was a moving address in which she thanked the work of the British Trade Union movement for all its support. After the conference we were then privileged to meet with her and the wife and mother of 2 of the other Cuban 5.

Thoughts from the Delegation

“I'm immensely grateful for the opportunity to have visited the Republic of Cuba. Not many people spend just under two weeks in the company of like-minded trade unionists, activists and ideologists being shown the history, progression (and problems) of a socialist state…  my legs are still recovering from intensive dancing!

I am leaving Cuba with good memories and new friends, I'm outraged at the Western neo-liberal aggression towards it (I arrived with that); I'm inspired at how they are able to do so much with so little.”
Andrew Lesnik 

“Our trip to Cuba was truly a trip of a lifetime. The opportunity to visit places and meet people that otherwise would not have been possible outside of this trip was truly amazing. It was also a fantastic opportunity to meet NAPO and other trade union members from around the country who shared a passion for the trade union movement. I recommend next year’s trip to everyone!!” Keron Choudhury 

“I was proud to be part of the first NAPO delegation on this visit... Sceptics might suggest we saw only what they wanted us to - driven to meetings and visits under police outrider escort - but I encountered only warmth, respect, open generosity and intelligence. During free time we were encouraged to speak to anyone we encountered. The reception everywhere was almost overwhelming such was the generosity of the Cuban spirit. At a high school visit several comrades admitted to welling up in the face of the warmth of a singing, dancing reception - equality and respect evident throughout.

Cubans have nothing against the American people - remarkable in the face of the embargo and imprisonment of the Cuban 5 for trying to expose US based terrorism against their people. There are many "poor but happy" platitudes to resist but I felt at ease, valued and safe in this wonderful country as well as grateful for the opportunity to pay homage to their courage at the solidarity conference prior to departure. NAPO must take their lead and be fortified in our efforts to continue the fight for social justice.”
Jonathan Walsh

Next year?

After a truly inspiring trip I hope that Napo will continue to support CSC and the brigade and that we can build on the connections we have now made with the Cuban people. I certainly will be putting my name down for next year and would encourage all Napo members to make this journey that was in many respects quite life changing. All of us were profoundly affected by Cuba and it was an experience that will stay with us forever.

The Cuba Solidarity Campaign runs a range of Brigades and Study Tours throughout the year. For more information, please visit our Tours Website. If you would like to join our May Day Brigade in 2013, please get in touch and express your interest.

Friday, 11 May 2012

Scottish parliament hosts historic debate on Miami Five

Labour MSP Elaine Smith told MSPs the "Miami Five" had suffered a "terrible injustice" and were innocent men being used by the US as "pawns in a political game", during her member's debate on 9 May 2012.

The Miami Five are a group of Cuban citizens that have been imprisoned in the United States since 1998 and for whom Amnesty International has raised serious doubts about the fairness of the proceedings that led to their convictions.

Ms Smith drew attention to the Cuban art exhibition "Beyond the Frame" at the Lighthouse in Glasgow which has paintings from two of the Miami Five, as well as other works of Cuban art and works by artists based in the UK.

The deputy presiding officer said that all of the exhibition's proceeds will go to the campaign for justice for the Miami Five.

Ms Smith called for the end of the 50-year economic blockade of Cuba by the United States saying it was a "cold war relic that should be consigned to the dustbin of history".

She commended the UK government for signing a formal co-operation agreement with Cuba and called on the Scottish government to do the same on devolved areas.

In closing the debate the Labour MSP said more Scots should visit Cuba for three good reasons: " Sun, Salsa and Socialism, Viva Cuba."

The Cuban ambassador to the UK, Esther Armenteros Cardenas, was in the parliament to hear the debate and was welcomed by the MSPs in the debate.

Parliamentary Business Minister Brian Adam closed the debate saying: "Certainly in relationship to encouraging and growing cultural, educational and economic links between our two countries is certainly on the agenda for the government".

Story courtesy of the BBC. Watch the full video of the debate here

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Framed - Scottish artists join exhibition to highlight unjust jailing of Cubans

Some of Scotland's most respected artists have contributed to an exhibition which aims to attract international attention to the case of five Cubans held for years in the United States on what many believe to be trumped-up espionage and terrorism charges.

John Byrne, Alasdair Gray, David Harding, John Keane, Sam Ainsley and Sandy Moffat have contributed work to the Beyond the Frame exhibition, which opens in Glasgow this week. Altogether, 20 artists based mainly in Britain have joined 26 Cuban artists and photographers in donating works to the cause.

"It's a very eclectic exhibition, with many different styles and media," says Jan Pietrasik, Glasgow coordinator for Beyond the Frame, which runs at The Lighthouse from May 7 to 13.

Twelve Nobel Prize winners have called for justice in the case, including Desmond Tutu, Nadine Gordimer and Jimmy Carter.

"Amnesty International and other human rights organisations see their trial as unfair," says Pietrasik, adding that sales of works would go towards the campaign to free the men.

The Miami Five – Antonio Guerrero, Gerardo Hernández, Ramón Labañino, Fernando González and René González – were arrested in 1998 on espionage and terrorism charges and jailed in 2001 with sentences ranging from 15 years to double life. Their defence has argued that the five were not spying on the United States but had infiltrated Cuban exile terrorist groups, such as Alpha 66 and Brothers to the Rescue, in Miami to prevent attacks being carried out against Cuba.

These included a wave of bomb attacks on Cuban hotels and nightclubs in the 1990s, which Cuba claims were masterminded by Luis Posada Carriles, an exile with a CIA background.

Four of the Miami Five are held in separate US prisons, with some families denied visiting rights. René González has been freed on parole in Miami, but remains in hiding for fear of an attack by Cuban exiles.

The Five's relatives claim there could never be a fair trial in Florida, which has a large Cuban exile population. In 2006 at least 10 Miami journalists opposed to the Cuban regime were revealed to have been in the pay of the CIA or federal government. The relatives are now seeking a new appeal.

Guerrero, who learned to paint behind bars, and Hernández are both exhibiting works.

"There has been a very encouraging response to the exhibition," said Lesbia Vent Dumois, an exhibiting artist and founding member of Cuba's National Art School. "There are over 50 works, by prominent Cuban artists but also by many artists of other nationalities, and by Cuban photographers, some of whom began their careers in the early days of the Revolución, while others are well-known contemporary photographers, such as René Peña."

María Eugenia (Maruchi) Guerrero and Mirta Rodríguez, sister and mother of Antonio Guerrero, told the Sunday Herald they were delighted and surprised by the response to Beyond the Frame. "This display of solidarity for my son has made me very happy," said Mirta Rodríguez.

Guerrero is in good health according to his sister Maruchi. "He looks after himself, not least because he knows his family need him."

"I do not have a problem obtaining a visa to visit my son, but it is cruel because I have only been able to see him once a year, and I am going to be 80," said Mirta Rodríguez, adding however that she believed she would soon be able to make two visits a year.

The Miami-born Guerrero was a year old when he and his parents returned to Havana in 1959 following the overthrow of Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. "Tony became a civil engineer," says Mirta Rodríguez, "and was involved in the expansion of the airport in Santiago de Cuba. He has always been interested in drawing. In Colorado he met a cellmate who was an artist and taught him to paint. It has been a good way of filling his time, doing something he loves."

Guerrero, in an occasional blog run on the Cuban website Cubadebate, says that apart from painting, in which he is "totally absorbed", he is teaching other prisoners, mostly Mexicans and Puerto Ricans, to read and write. "Sometimes, when I am wandering about, in the dining room or in the recreation room, a pupil or someone who doesn't remember my name will call me teacher. Some just call me Cuba. When I can't remember someone's name, I always call them friend."

A PAINTING by Guerrero of a guitar-playing figure riding a blue unicorn, which is on display at the exhibition, is reminiscent of Picasso's Guernica. In fact it is a tribute to Cuban Nueva Trova singer Silvio Rodríguez, whose song Unicornio became famous across Latin America after the 1980s collapse of right-wing military regimes in Chile, Argentina, Brazil and Central America.

"My son has been working on a project with Silvio, who sends him photographs from his concerts in Cuba, and Tony makes portraits or paintings from them," said Mirta.

Said Maruchi of the exhibition: "We need to move forward with a new appeal, even though it will be in the same court, before the same judge, who will not admit mistakes. But international pressure can make a difference: in art, there are no prison bars."

The other exhibiting member of the Miami Five, Gerardo Hernández, is a cartoonist whose selection depicts what he sees as the international media's portrayal of Cuba. "Someone once said that humour liberates – if nobody said that, I will," says Hernández in a note on his work. "For me it is something that gets us out, for at least a few moments, from behind the walls where we have been unjustly imprisoned for almost 13 years."

Other artists exhibiting include René Peña whose photographic self-portraits, explore themes such as black identity and sexuality; Gustavo Díaz Sosa, who will be at Beyond the Frame in person, and whose work features diminutive human figures trapped in claustrophobic landscapes; Eduardo Roca Salazar, known as Choco, who focuses on portraits of farmers and Afro-Cuban women; and José Fuster, whose In the Palm, includes several human figures which he says "maybe have been saved from the terrorist action that Cuban people have suffered."

Beyond the Frame is sponsored by the Cuba Solidarity Campaign and the Scottish Parliament's Cross Party Cuba Group

Article courtesy of The Herald Scotland