SEAN MELEADY reports on his recent visit to Cuba

IT WAS with a mixture of excitement and trepidation that I paced around Gatwick departure terminal. I’d been a staunch supporter of Fidel Castro and the Cuban revolution for years but what was it really going to be like? 

Once aboard my flight I had many hours to reflect before arriving in Havana to a thunderstorm. 

I was met by a representative of the Cuban Institute for Friendship with the Peoples — the organisation that runs the Brigades — and set off for Juan Antonio Mella International Camp. 

I was almost immediately struck by the everyday Cuban reality of old 1950s US-style cars, horse-drawn carts, revolutionary slogans proclaiming Fidel, Che and the July 26 celebrations. 

At the camp I met other Brigadistas, including a small contingent from Britain (along with activists from France, Spain, Catalonia, Portugal, Germany, Italy and Switzerland) and settled into life enjoying the bar, shop and social space.  

Our first week the routine started with an early morning wake-up call (a cockerel crowing followed by Cuban music), and a roll-call which included historical events that had happened on that day along with the weather forecast. 

We were assigned in groups to do voluntary work either at the camp or co-operative farms weeding, picking lemons and clearing fields. 

This was much appreciated by Cuban farmers given the US blockade which severely restricts the import of agricultural equipment, leading to a lack of tractors and other mechanical aids resulting in a dependency on physical labour. One morning we were lucky enough to be joined by veterans of the Cuban revolution and the war against apartheid in Angola which involved hundreds of thousands of Cuban volunteers.  

After lunch we attended conferences on many fascinating topics related to contemporary Cuban political, economic and cultural life.

We heard about attempts to diversify the economy away from tourism as despite the presence of four million foreign tourists, the Cuban government is determined to end the dependence on tourism that has emerged since the special period in the 1990s. 

There were also talks on the effects of the US blockade, the economic ideas of Che, the role of Cuban doctors in combatting Ebola in west Africa, Cuban sport, including efforts in the Olympic and Pan American games, Cuban solidarity in the US and the US occupation of Guantanamo Bay with a showing of the excellent documentary All of Guantanamo is Ours which eloquently portrays the dispute from the Cuban perspective, giving historical background not just from the cold war but also the Spanish-American war when the US acquired the territory. 

I was particularly fascinated by the conference led by a 24-year-old Cuban MP about direct democracy in Cuba including the Poder Popular process where candidates are nominated and elected on a non-party basis by members of their own community. 

It was proudly stated that 95 per cent of Cuban citizens vote in elections and around 70-90 per cent attend selection meetings with 48 per cent of MPs being female, and LGBTQ candidates also now being elected. 

Interestingly the voting age is 16 and all candidates have to gain 50 per cent of the vote to be elected. It was also fascinating to find out that Cuban MPs combine their political work with their regular jobs so they are truly embedded in their community rather than becoming apparatchik and in what the Western press tells us is a one-party state you can become an MP without joining the Communist Party. 

Excursions were organised to the Jose Marti memorial, old Havana and the Friendship house, Morro Castle, a jazz club and the rural splendour of Vinales.  

Halfway through the Brigade we had a four-day stay in Sancti Spiritus region staying at the stunning Hotel San Jose Do Lago with an outdoor swimming pool, cruise ship-style buffet, live music and plenty of pina coladas. Here we visited the Che Guevara memorial and museum in Santa Clara followed by a surprise meeting with Pastors for Peace, a group of US activists travelling to Cuba illegally to promote friendship and solidarity. 

Other trips included the Tren Blinando, which was ambushed by Che during the revolution, the colonial grandeur of Trinidad, the memorial to Camilo Cienfuegos accompanied by revolutionary and Bay of Pigs veterans and a visit to a polyclinic.  

On the Friday before the end of the Brigade we were fortunate enough to meet Fernando Gonzalez, one of the Miami Five, now president of IICAP. 

Gonzalez was unjustly imprisoned in the United States for 13 years, accused of a variety of trumped-up charges. He was a Cuban intelligence officer who was asked to investigate right-wing terrorists among the Cuban exile community in Florida, including groups that had blown up Cubana flight 455 in 1976, instituted biological warfare on the island and launched attacks that killed a foreign tourist in Varadero.     

As the Brigade finished we went our separate ways but such were the friendships which had developed that many of us met up to visit the Museum of Fine Arts, Museum of the Revolution and the Artistic Fabric nightclub together. 

My own experience ended with two nights in a Casa Particular on the Malecon Avenue overlooking the Atlantic Ocean with a trip to the famously decadent Tropicana nightclub. 

This was truly a trip of a lifetime, with friendships and solidarity between cultures as well as Brigadistas developing a greater understanding of the cultural, political and economic situation in Cuba. 

With the election of Donald Trump and the continuation of the blockade, Cuba needs our solidarity more than ever and more British representation is needed, especially considering the low numbers from Britain this year. 

Therefore I would urge all Morning Star readers who are sympathetic to the Cuban revolutionary cause — which I’m guessing is most of you — to join the Cuba Solidarity Campaign and go on a Solidarity Brigade if you can. I can guarantee it will be an unforgettable trip of a lifetime.

You can join the Cuba Solidarity Campaign at


Originally published in the Morning Star