When you hear anything about Cuba, you usually think of rum, cigars and old cars. If you’re into your history, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara might spring to mind. That’s certainly all I knew about the country and I’d never had any intention of visiting Havana, the Cuban capital, or anywhere else in the country-it just wasn’t on my radar.
That changed back in 2011, when my trade union, Unite, asked if I wanted to go on a Young Trade Unionists May Day Brigade to the country, with Cuba Solidarity Campaign. The idea behind the trip is to send a group of young members (in Unite that means you are under 30, some other unions this means you are under 27) to Cuba, to learn about the country-how it runs, what their problems are, what’s good about them and what we can do to help-so that we can come home and share the information we’ve gained with others. What better way to do that than to share on this blog, right?
There’s so many things I did, places I visited and things I learnt that this won’t fit in just one post, so I’ve written three. I hope you enjoy them and that you’ll consider adding Havana, or other parts of Cuba, to your travel bucket list.
Our 9 hour, 4,500 mile flight we took was with Air Cubana, a Cuban airline (you can no longer book flights with them, but there are plenty of other airlines who fly to Havana, from either London or Manchester) Flying Cubana was certainly an experience-no seat back TVs on their planes (or any TVs for that matter) and you could buy a FULL bottle of rum for about £4-any guesses how we spent our flight?
Once we’d arrived at Jose Marti Airport and exchanged our currency (you can only get Cuban currency in Cuba, and you are not allowed to bring any home with you) we headed by coach to Julio Antonio Mella International Camp, about 50 kilometres out of the city, where we’d be spending the majority of our two weeks-alongside 180 others.
Our accommodation was very basic-single sex dormitories of up to 8 people, in blocks, with a locker to keep your possessions in, plug sockets that mostly had power but sometimes didn’t, doors that didn’t lock and a shower block around the corner that often had frogs joining you for a wash. The food, whilst perfectly edible, wasn’t the greatest. Think rice for every meal, with some kind of meat, and usually kidney beans. A basic, couple of items salad was always available to add to the meal and there was usually fried plantain too. Definitely enough food, and a balanced enough diet, but portions were smaller than what some of us are used to and if you’re fussy with food (yep, that’s me!) then you may be hungry.
Mornings started with a camp-wide alarm, the sound of a Cockerel, and then the playing of Guantanamera. Often these alarms were early, as we had very long days. And it being Cuba, we stayed up drinking rum most nights so lots of napping happened on our coach. Our groups holiday mantra was ‘water? Put a bit of rum in it’ and I think some of us kept our calories up by drinking Cuban cola with our rum.
Some of the activities we did were camp based, so there were days we didn’t leave the complex. Group meetings were held on our beach towels sat on the grass in the sun, we met families of the Cuban Five in camp’s meeting room and heard there stories (see below!) we watched a couple of informative films, we represented the UK in a culture night, and we spent a lot of time just hanging out with the brigades from other countries. Camp was our home for two weeks and though it was, as I’ve said, really basic-we loved it.
The Cuban Five (or the Miami Five, as some know them) are Cuban men who had been sent to Miami by the Cuban government to investigate and uncover terrorist plots against Cuba-but instead they were arrested and charged with terrorist offences against America. The five were not given a trial, they were simply presumed to be guilty and jailed, for different amounts of time- all of them long. Not allowed to see their families often, if at all, and spending a lot of time in solitary confinement, life was not easy for the five. In Cuba, the five were heroes, and everywhere we went we saw their photographs and messages of support for them.
Since returning, I’ve tried to share their story as much as I could and I’m pleased that they’ve now been released, thanks to a global outcry about their unfair treatment. The final three were released and allowed back to their families in Cuba in December 2014 and one of them, Gerado, has since had a baby daughter, Gema, with his wife. Baby Gema was conceived because the USA struck a deal over the release of one of THEIR prisoners Cuba was holding, to allow Gerado and his wife to undergo IVF-his wife’s pregnancy was then hidden from the work, and luckily Gerado was released from prison before Gema was born.
We spent one morning working in the fields, helping a local farmer to prepare his field for the next crop. When they’ve finished with one crop they set fire to the plants, and once the fire is out they pull up the roots and plough (as in metal, horse drawn plough) the field. After a morning of pulling up roots (hard work in the hot sun!) the farmer gave us all fresh Guava he’d grown to say thank you. You just can’t buy experiences like that.
We spent an afternoon in Havana over the first few days-we visited the Museum of the Revolution, which was fascinating, and then went to see a children’s theatre group, their performance told the story of the Cuban Five and they were very very good-making us cry. Once we’d finished there we went to a dinner held by ICAP-who were involved with getting us all to Cuba in the first place. We were SO PLEASED that the meal was a bit like a Sunday lunch-involving potatoes and different vegetables, and ICE CREAM for pudding. Never have we been so pleased so see ice cream. After the meal we drank rum and danced and had fun, before heading back to camp.
Everything I’ve talked about in this post we did in the first three days of being in Cuba. As promised I have two more posts for you detailing the rest of my trip, and what I’ve learnt.
Have I made you want to go to Cuba yet?