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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

Irish Republican Socialists Show Solidarity with the Cuban Revolution

Willie Gallagher • The Starry Plough

In June 2005 three Republican Socialists joined up with the Irish Cuba Support group to travel to Cuba. They were volunteering to undertake to do some work over there to help their economy and to show their solidarity with the Cuban cause. There were ten people all together in the group from different parts of Ireland, both men and women and each with a different idea of what Cuba would be really like. This is part one, the second part will be forthcoming.

We all met for the first time at 7.00am in Dublin airport and although some of us had been up most of the night we were all filled with enthusiasm for the trip. Dublin, Paris and then Havana were to be our route, so we knew that we had a long haul in front of us. Some of us had brought materials to help the Cuban people, with the Republican Socialist group bringing medical supplies, T-shirts and writing materials. Shops and individuals from the local community donated these materials. After checking in all our bags we all settled down to wait for our flight and to get to know each other. As usual all long flights are much the same, with some films to watch, meals, a cat nap or two and a bit of reading to get the time in, so our flight was not any different. After the approximately ten hours of travelling we touched down in Havana and with great enthusiasm we headed for the arrival terminal. Cubans have their own security measures and their own way of exercising them so it took a bit of time to process everyone, although this did not dampen our enthusiasm in any way. After eventually getting through, we were picked up by a bus to be taken to the Camp, which was based at a little village called Caimito de Guayabal at about an hour and a half drive away in the Havana Province.

We arrived at the Camp at about 11.30pm and the place was almost in darkness. After being shown to our sleeping quarters some of the group decided to go straight to bed as the long journey had taken its toll, while others took the opportunity to have a look around, even though the place was in semi-darkness. The Camp was an ex army camp so the different quarters and wash areas were spread over a substantial area. I was one of the explorers, as the jet lag had not yet set in. The place looked very desolate at that time of night as a lot of the other groups had still not arrived yet but the shop and the small bar were still open. We sat down and had a few drinks together with some of the locals who made available some food to welcome us with. One of our group was at the camp the previous year so he was already familiar with some of the local volunteers. We did not stay long before heading back to the eight -man room with its four bunk beds, eight lockers and two shelves on the back wall. This room may seem spartan to the imagination but it served the purpose, because due to the heat, everything that was there, was adequate. Usually everyone slept with the one sheet over them and the heavy metal door was never closed, as the heat was so stifling.

Next morning was the first day of actual activity. This consisted of an official welcoming activity, which meant that all the groups met in the conference room and the itinerary was explained and queries answered. The first official activity was for everyone to attend a wreath laying ceremony at the monument to Julio Antonio Mella who was a founding figure in the Socialist movement in Cuba. Each group got their photo taken and it was a chance for people to get together and get to know each other. After lunch, several buses took us to Havana city for a free day to explore the city and see the Plaza de la Revolucion where one of the most famous drawings of Che is situated. Unfortunately when we arrived, the heavens opened. None of us had ever experienced rain like it. It was running like a river down the streets. We head d for the nearest shelter and stayed there until the buses returned. Our first experience of Havana was not very appealing. That night there was a Salsa dancing class after dinner, where again it was another opportunity for the different groups, or Brigades as we were called, to get together.

The next couple of days were followed in roughly the same vein with meetings in the morning on topics such as "U. S. economic and financial blockade against Cuba", "The Challenges facing the Cuban Economy" and on one morning there was a Friendship race from the camp to the local village and back, approx 5 kms. Incidentally a member of the Irish Brigade came third. Then after lunch there was some tours were we met representatives of local government, a tour of the caves where Che and his comrades hid out during the time of the revolution and also different valleys and countryside of national importance to the Cuban people. There was also time for the younger and fitter members of the Brigades to play football and explore the surrounding countryside. They were also able to spend some time swimming in a local picturesque waterfall and pool during their free time. Then, in the evenings after dinner there was a Cuban night, a Cuban dance class and general associating.

After these couple of relaxing days, it was time for everyone to start the work detail. Work was scheduled for 7.30am but the alarm call came at 6.30 am. Sleeping in was not an option as the sound of a Cockerel crowing followed by the national anthem played repeatedly made sleeping very difficult! Everyone gathered at the main stage area and the local work co-ordinator designated different Brigades from different countries to separate areas to commence their day's work. Everyone was dressed in clothes suitable for working and the majority had headgear to be protected from the sun, so to some looking on we must have looked like a motley bunch. This work could mean anything to cutting grass with machetes in a field, pruning orange trees with secretors in an orange grove to doing manual labour in a disused school. It was a sight to behold marching along a mile and a half route to the different work places, taking turns carrying milk churns filled with water, with three to four hundred people from so many different countries, all filled with enthusiasm with what they were going to do to help Cuba. In fairness the work only lasted to 11.30 am and physically it was not very demanding but it was the solidarity issue that was the main point.

One thing that surprised us from Ireland was that there was no trip organised to visit Santa Clara, Che Guevara's final resting place. Therefore the Irish Brigade proposed that instead of a day trip to the beach, a visit to Santa Clara would be a more informative option. The Camp staff then asked would there be much interest in this from the different Work Brigades. The response was amazing with two single Decker buses being filled with people from many different countries. This was a trip that we looked forward to immensely as it would be a topic of conversation for many a year to come. We took a Starry Plough flag with us to lay at the grave and along with the rest of the Brigades we set off at 9.00am on the Sunday morning for the two and a half hour drive to Santa Clara, to realize a dream that we thought we would never fulfil.

While driving into Santa Clara the first thing that you notice is the Statue of Che Guevara. It is such an imposing sight that it is hard to take your eyes of it. When we arrived at the statue it was even more inspiring than first seen. It just was not the statue there, but a whole series of memorials carved out of stone. They were set on a plinth reached by a series of stone steps with the statue of Che standing majestically overlooking the surrounding area. When I say all this looked impressive, I am not doing it justice; it will be a sight that I will never forget. The statue alone must have been a hundred feet tall with some of the artistic work in the carved stone memorials begging belief. After examining the whole memorial and taking numerous photos, we then went as a group to the museum and burial place of Che and his comrades.

Before we entered the museum and burial chamber everyone was requested to leave their bags and belongings at the office were they received a numbered ticket to collect them on the way out. This came as a bit of a let down to us as photographs of this memorable place would be high on our priority list. Then my two comrades and I were called to the side and informed that because we were Republican Socialists and ex-prisoners, a precedent was to be made. We were to be allowed to bring The Starry Plough flag into the chamber where an official photographer was to take our picture in the very place where the mortal remains of Che where buried. This was something that had not happened in over seven years, no matter who the visitors were. Before we entered the chamber our comrade Tomas Gorman gave an interview in Spanish to the local radio station outlining what Teach na Failte was all about. We then entered the chamber and spent a while looking at the thirty-seven faces etched in the wall and imagined them lying in unmarked graves for so long in a foreign land. Some of them we recognised like Tanya who was a famous female freedom fighter and of course Che whose face had a single star shining above his head. The place was dimly lit but had an eternal flame glowing in the corner but it made the chamber that more dignified. Even the guards were very surprised at the way we were treated, so after laying the flag there we left the chamber feeling very proud and privileged to have been allowed to perform such an act.

The museum was in a different part of the building, just across the hall from the burial chamber, but it was still impressive. There were many things related to the Revolution with also a variety of articles mainly connected to Che. There were clothes and uniforms worn by him and his comrades, weapons used by them and even the doctor's instruments that he used. It was interesting to see his asthma inhaler and how primitive it looked by today's standards. Everything was all set out neatly and itemised in glass cases so that everyone could see them clearly. It was indeed an impressive place and one could spend many hours browsing and imagining what things were like back in 1959. As we left the building to collect our belongings each of us knew that this tour would leave a lasting memory in our minds.

With a last look back at the monument our buses headed the short distance to the train that Guevara and his comrades derailed during the liberation of Santa Clara. This was achieved with a small number of men against a numerically stronger and a better-equipped force of Batiste's solders. Some of the actual equipment that was used is preserved and situated for the public to view. The bulldozer and antiaircraft gun are on show with some carriages of the train open to view. Inside these carriages is the actual equipment that was used such as Bren guns, Bazookas, short arms and the bunks and wood stoves that the army used while travelling on the train. Again there was an impressive monument with an inscription there and it was interesting to note how well that area beside the railway line had been preserved. There was no graffiti, no vandalism, although the artefacts were all out in the open, so maybe we could all learn a lesson from that country. What did strike me was the absence of souvenir stalls.

Something that some people would have exploited for gain over in this country! There was a small shop that sold some souvenir bits and pieces across the road but that was the only place in the town that anything related to the revolution could be bought. We then walked the short distance to the internationally famous university, where there was a fine statue of Che with one of his young children in his arms. This was another excellent piece of work and well worth experiencing. Unfortunately this brought us to the end of our visit to Santa Clara so we walked back to the buses for our return journey back to the camp. On the way home everyone agreed that the trip was well worthwhile and is a must for anyone visiting Cuba, as the experience will be forever etched in ones mind. When the leader of the Irish Brigade approached the Camp Staff about the feedback from everyone they agreed that from then on Santa Clara would be on the itinerary. A little victory gained for the Irish Brigade!

There was another day that held great interest for us, the meeting of the families of the Miami five. These are five Cuban men who were jailed in the U.S.A. for trying to find out who were planting the bombs and committing terrorist acts on Cuban soil. They were arrested and sentenced to long periods in prison for spying. They were tried in Miami, which was not an impartial state and then sent to different corners of the country, something that makes visiting very difficult for the families. The ironic thing is that some of the actual terrorists, who carried out the bombings, are actually living openly in the United States. The meeting opened with a film called Mission of Terror outlining what the Miami five campaign was all about and what position they were in now. At the meeting the families gave a brief history of their plight and then it was open for a question and answering session. The Dutch and the United Kingdom brigades gave brief statements on their solidarity before Republican Socialist Willie Gallagher gave a statement on his and his comrades' experiences that were similar to the Miami five. His statement was greeted with a standing ovation from all around the hall accompanied by a tumultuous round of applause. It is at this point that it has to be remembered that there were representatives of at least twenty tree different countries present. Tomas Gorman then read a statement from the Irish Republican Socialist Party outlining their support for the Miami five and requesting all the Brigades to have a collection to help support their cause. The Irish Brigade was the first to contribute to this collection. After the meeting Willie Gallagher and I conducted an interview with a journalist who was PRO for the Miami five campaign. In this interview we outlined the similarities with her own cause and with what Irish people and especially Republican Socialists suffered at the hands of Imperialism. Again the interviews came across well and they were to be broadcast on the radio station as part of the campaign, because everywhere we went we seen posters and messages of support for the Miami five. Even now that we are home the journalist and campaigners still keep in touch with us to update everybody on how things are progressing. At the time of writing the five men are still incarcerated in American prisons!

On another day a different but just as interesting question and answering session took place in the conference room. This time the guests were two ex-combatants who fought alongside Che Guevara, Fidel Castro and his brother Rual. Both men were in their early eighties and were retired Lieutenant Colonels in the Cuban army and had fought overseas and at home in Cuba itself. They were able to enlighten us as to how the Cuban government help the ex-combatant organisation, financially and what progress it has made since its formation. Unlike the situation that we are in over here the Cuban government are very proud of their ex-combatants and make a concentrated effort to help them in any way they can.

As usual the questions from the assembled audience swung heavily to the topic of Che and what was their relationship with him. Both men knew him intimately, having fought alongside him in the mountains, ate and slept with him and shared their innermost thoughts with him. To them Che was not just a comrade in arms but also a friend and confidant. They recounted some of their experiences such as sleeping rough in the mountains for days at a time where Che was their calming influence because of the boredom that was unsettling everyone. They told of when they encountered a problem of any sort, speaking to Che always reassured them. Che Guevara, they explained was just like 'one of the boys' and he never asked anyone to do anything that he wouldn't do himself. To them, their memories of Che are as fresh today as they were nearly fifty years ago. When they spoke one could actually hear the admiration of the man in their voices and the way they recounted their experiences left one imagining almost being in those lonely camps in the Cuban mountains. As they were leaving Willie and I were introduced to them both and they were told who we were and what we represented, a nice touch from the interpreter as he knew they were people that we respected. After they left there were many people commenting on the effect the two ex-combatants had on them, because, I am sure to some of them, this was the first time they had experience of someone who had actually taken part in a Revolution.

The next day was scheduled for another trip to Havana where people could acquire some presents and generally explore the two parts of the city, old and new Havana. This was welcome news to my comrades and I as we had planned to lay a Starry Plough flag at the Hunger Strike memorial in the city. When we alighted from the bus our guide offered to show us the way to the memorial, an offer we could not refuse, so we pressed on eagerly. We were not the only ones who had the same idea as the rest of the Irish brigade decided to go as well. It is always encouraging to see people from the four corners of Ireland remembering the Hunger Strikers. Thankfully we did not have too far to walk to get to the park where the memorial was situated. The memorial was made of stone with one marble plaque inserted with the Hunger Strikers names inscribed on it. The other plaque had a section of the speech that Fidel Castro gave in 1981 about the human rights of the Hunger Strikers. It was a well sculptured memorial and when standing back from a it, the plaques where placed in such a way that a H could be seen on it, so overall it was good to see the Hunger Strikers remembered as far away as Havana. Our next stop was the National Hotel, which was situated just a short distance away. The American gangsters holidaying there during Batiste's reign made this place famous. One could see why they favoured such a place, as it looked very elaborate from the outside with the reception area very plush and elegant. We decided to have something to eat there, as it would give us a chance to look around. There were plenty of photos of celebrity's hanging on the walls and of course with the customary pictures of Che and Fidel plus the food was very good as well. The local market was our next stop, as we needed to get our presents all sorted out. The taxi took us along the seafront, which is called the Malecon, a five-kilome- tre stretch of promenade where you can see, a great deal of impressive statues adorned with beautiful scenery. The market it self was just a few rows of stalls selling leather goods, oil paintings, local trinkets and clothing. Luckily for us we got everything sorted out there as there was not a large selection of shops anywhere else. We then proceeded to the main Cuban support headquarters where there was some music to finish the night and for everyone to meet before getting the return bus home.




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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



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Index: Current Articles

28 February 2006

Other Articles From This Issue:

Gratefully Remembering
Eoghan O’Suilleabhain

Another Unjust Execution?
Maria McCann

Sinn Fein Be Warned - The Truth Will Out
Martin Ingram

Who Will Be Left?
Aoife Rivera Serrano

Irish Republican Socialists Show Solidarity with the Cuban Revolution
Willie Gallagher

Queens, New York City, Republicans decry Irish parliamentarian's inappropriate intervention on U.S. immigration bill
Patrick Hurley

Bush's Double Standard
Fr Sean Mc Manus

"Democratic Unionist Pharisees"
Dr John Coulter

A Society That Failed to Protect Its Children
Anthony McIntyre

Unreal Paradigms
Mike Marqusee

The Letters page has been updated:

Dublin Riots


Moon Man?

Independent Workers Union rejects Sunday Times allegation of involvement in Dublin riot
Noel Murphy

20 February 2006

Try separate the wood from the trees:
MI5, Sinn Fein/IRA and the intelligence war

Paul Maguire

Sinn Fein Set To Win … The Neanderthal Derby
Anthony McIntyre

21st Century Vision?
Mick Hall

The Real Betrayal?
Dr John Coulter

Cowardice on Cartoon Controversary
David Adams

Meeting Marielos
Anthony McIntyre



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