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A better world is possible

A trip to Cuba inspires Gill Knight

Going to Cuba, for me, is a journey both in space and time. It’s 45-odd years since I wrote a thesis on Fidel Castro and the revolution as part of my certificate in education – the 1970s were definitely a more liberal age!

Over the decades, travel to Cuba has been on ‘my list’ and at last I go, prompted by the accounts of Unite the Community Union comrades.

Like them, I join a tour with ICAP, the Cuban Institute for Friendship with the Peoples, an organisation that Fidel Castro and Che Guevara developed in 1960 when Cuba was shunned by world governments.

ICAP’s three-week programme of lectures, visits, agricultural work and cultural performances takes place at their Julius Mella Camp. The camp, situated in the unexpectedly green and lush countryside, is dedicated to one of the revolutionary heroes and its walls proclaim revolutionary slogans, side by side with portraits of Fidel and Che.

My favourite slogan is Fidel’s – Un Mundo Mejor Es Posible – a better world is possible.

In the small camp library we listen to 77-year-old Mario Godinez read his emotional poem dedicated to Fidel after his recent death.

Mario was one of the 100,000 student teachers who Fidel enlisted in 1961 to eradicate illiteracy. Dispatched across the island with oil lamps they achieved the goal within a year.

Our school visit on National Teachers Day illustrates the important place education still has in society. It is free up to PhD level, and learning and teachers are obviously well respected. Student committees meet regularly with school staff and there an atmosphere of equality, mutual respect and support.

The brutality of slavery became very real on our trip to the Limonar museum at the old Triunvirato sugar mill. Elegant Spanish houses are omnipresent reminders of the slave trade throughout Cuba.

Here the overseer’s house, now refurbished, displays the implements of torture used to control the slaves. Its opulent interior is in stark contrast to the cramped slave quarters nearby.

Standing there, listening to Juisette our brilliant guide describe the miserable lives of the slaves, our group is solemn, contemplating the enormity of the crime that enabled one section of humanity to reap wealth and a luxurious lifestyle at the expense of another.

However, there are two uplifting features on the site: three enormous bronze statues commemorating the slave rebellion of 1833, led by a woman slave, Carolita, and a bronze mural commemorating Nelson Mandela and his links to Cuba.

I feel that Cuba is a fantastic example of a people who not only threw off the yoke of imperialism but also live harmoniously: warm and friendly, the many different shades of white, black and brown mingling seamlessly together.

But, before I get too carried away, our guide mentions that they still have work to do: 40 percent of the population are black or of mixed race but in the national assembly they only have 20% representation. Cubans often say ‘our society is not perfect’ but they are aiming high!

Back at home, the stubborn stains of the red Cuban soil on my T-shirt, got working in the fields, seem to represent the resilience of the Cubans. This is echoed in their choice of a national bird. El Toroco, its wings coloured red white and blue like the flag – we glimpsed it once – is only found in Cuba and will die if held in captivity.

My memories are many. To mention a few: the heady mix of revolution, music and salsa; the sense of experiencing an almost egalitarian society; women of all shapes and sizes in Havana seemingly so confident in their skins.

I muse on my white privilege that allows me to experience this ‘third world’ and know that I have learnt more about myself. Hopefully I can use these Cuban lessons of solidarity and working together in the groups I belong to in the UK. Un mundo mejor es posible.

Gill Knight is active in Unite the Union, Palestine Solidarity campaign and Women’s Voice.