UNISONActive is an unofficial blog produced by UNISON activists for UNISON activists. Bringing news, briefings and events from a progressive left perspective.

Monday, 13 June 2011

Celebrating 50 years of UK-Cuba Friendship and Solidarity

Bob Oram
In a moving and hugely enjoyable event on Saturday campaigners and activists from across the UK gathered to celebrate half a century of collective history and experience, and what a wonderful story they told.

From the earliest days of the revolution when an intrepid group of eight young Britain's joined the first solidarity brigade in 1960 and one of them, Nicola Seyd brought back the earliest colour pictures of a youthful Che, to the UNISON young members on this years May Day in Havana, we witnessed history unfold and heard a story of love and respect for the Cuban people

Since the creation of the Cuban Institute for Friendship with the Peoples (ICAP) in December 1960, the last 50 years have seen a breadth of solidarity work from the UK and across the world, in support of Cuba and its revolution. Over those year thousands of UK friends and volunteers have given their time and energy to support Cuba in it’s struggle for self determination and against the illegal US blockade.

This was a special occasion – an opportunity to meet old friend, learn new facts and pay tribute to those who have now left us. No event on Cuba in the UK could fail to honour Ken Gill – a legendary Trade Union internationalist, who Tim Young the former Chairperson of the Cuba Solidarity Campaign praised as a giant of a man. But others like Brenda Lee, Dave Jones, Katy Campbell to name just a few, all played immense roles in the struggle and must never be forgotten.

In the early 1960’s a Britain-Cuba Friendship Society was established, and in the 70’s the Britain-Scientific Liaison Committee was formed to further develop the work. Chris Lazou spoke eloquently about the hard work and determination of a small group who with little or no resources did what they could, both to inform people but also develop links with Cuba.

By the 1980’s the movement evolved into the Britain Cuba Resource Centre (BCRC) and then in the 90s to the Cuba Solidarity Campaign of today.

All the campaigns reacted to the needs of the day, reflecting different historical periods and varying priorities for solidarity work at the time. Throughout all of this ICAP has been the link between the organisations and both Elio Gamez, its Vice President and Gladys Ayllon , its European Officer praised the UK for its solidarity work. Elio Gamez at the AGM earlier had said how it is as important now as it has ever been in the face of an unrelenting blockade by their nearest neighbour, and billions of dollars of damage caused by hurricanes.

The world economic downturn has affected Cuba but action is now being taken on the economy to deal with some of those difficulties. Elio said Cuba has changed in the past and is committed to change now but only within a socialist system. He explained how in Cuba the economic proposals were put to over 8 million people in meetings, 3 million contributed in debate and 781,644 submissions were received. What was finally ratified in the country was only 32% of the original document before consultation. “These changes in our economy will rectify, reinforce and protect our socialist system” he said to sustained applause.

Roger Fletcher who has been active both in BCRC and CSC spoke of the need to disseminate information about the revolution in Cuba and praised the efforts of generations of activists producing newsletters in bedsits through to the excellent Cuba SI magazine the campaign produces today.

Colin Groves spoke about how the BCRC undertook incredible work with little money and no paid staff. Sending Brigadistas to Cuba became a priority and they all returned enthused, able to spread real information about Cuba and its developing culture and achievements. With nearly 50 brigades having now visited Cuba it is still the best way to understand and appreciate the island.

The 1990s was perhaps the most energised period for the solidarity movement when the collapse of the Soviet Union saw the demise of the Cuban economy and the terrible consequences of the ‘special period’. Friends across the globe rushed to collect and send mountains of material aid to the island. Pictures of national and local group collections of medical aid and equipment for container appeals for Cuba as well as ambulance appeals for the Cuban health service filled the giant screen.

Ken Cameron, ex leader of the Fire Brigades union gave a barnstorming speech reflecting on the struggles we face at home as well as the importance of international work in support of the ”beacon of hope” that is Cuba. Understanding the importance of political solidarity work with Cuba today Ken praised the influential role of the trade unions who are affiliated to the campaign and the role that Ken Gill played in developing that support.

Luis Marron the Political Counsellor at the Cuban Embassy, is shortly to leave our shores and return to Cuba. As a previous ICAP official Luis has over twenty years of links and friendship with the UK. With tears in his eyes he told tales from his past adventures in the UK and stressed he would never ever forget the people he has met or the solidarity and love shown to the Cuban people.

It was a unique experience. One of those moments the movement does not do often enough. Even with films and photos spanning five decades it was the personal testimonies of the struggles and dedication to solidarity that inspired and moved the audience. We were celebrating fifty years of selfless solidarity and everyone can be proud that the people of the UK have stood shoulder to shoulder with the people of Cuba and their ongoing struggle for independence and sovereignty.

The event was sponsored by the Ken Gill Memorial Fund