A recent trip down memory lane…

I recently visited the Julio Antonio Mella International Camp, 10 years after I stayed there as a “brigadista” – a member of a solidarity brigade.

The brigade was a real learning curve for me, aged just 19 at the time, and cemented my admiration for the Cuban Revolution, its achievements and its people – as well as being a lot of fun!!

The camp, located in the town of Caimito, just outside Havana, welcomes several brigades from different countries throughout the year. As well as a range of activities and talks from different sectors of the Cuban population held at the camp, brigadistas also get to visit schools, clinics and local community projects, as well as other parts of the island.

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Another aspect of the brigades is the voluntary work, which when I joined involved picking beans and oranges in fields and groves nearby the camp. This meant being woken up at the crack of dawn and piling onto the back of big trucks, before heading out. Nobody was exactly thrilled with the early starts, but hearing just how many hours of work our minimal contribution had saved the Cuban workers made up for it. Plus it was fun to get my hands dirty and wield a machete!

RELIVING GREAT MOMENTS

On arrival at the camp on a Saturday morning, I suddenly felt a flood of memories and emotions come over me. As I walked around, I eagerly sought out places I remembered whilst I recalled conversations, faces, moments, sensations, the friends I’d made, some of whom I’m still in contact with today.

The camp hadn’t changed much – the same shared dormitories with bunk beds, the central stage and bar (one of the most popular areas for most campers!) – with just a few licks of paint here and there and some beautiful murals as the obvious differences.

This time, the camp was home to brigadistas from Argentina, Brazil and Chile. I noted how many young people there were – even some families with small children – and remembered how important an experience coming here had been for me as a young activist.

Speaking to one Chilean woman, who was with her whole family – her husband and two children – I was inspired to hear that this was her third time as a brigadista, and that each visit only strengthened her admiration of the Cuban Revolution and its achievements, in contrast to the worsening situation in her own country.

SAYING GOODBYES

I was here with other members of the Cuban press to attend the final activity of the 25th South American Brigade. After looking around the camp and speaking with some brigadistas, we packed into the camp’s main hall for the final activity of this brigade.

As the act came to a close – which saw performances by local children and speeches by representatives of the Cuban Institute of Friendship with the Peoples (ICAP) and Fernando González, one of the Five Cubans who were unjustly imprisoned in the U.S., as well as the presentation of a final declaration from brigadistas – there was barely a dry eye in the hall.

The enthusiasm of those present, the obvious bonds of friendship between brigadistas and Cubans, the gratitude on the part of both, reflected elements that stayed with me long after I left the camp all those years ago.

As we drove back to Havana, I imagined the contribution each of the brigadistas could make to spreading the truth about Cuba and its reality back home. I also recalled what I had done myself in the past ten years to this end.

Life has a funny way of working out. 10 years later and here I am, living on the island, attempting to “contribute my grain of sand”.

JOIN A BRIGADE!

For anyone wishing to gain a real insight into the island, a brigade is a unique opportunity to approach Cuba’s reality through a collective experience of solidarity.

And if there is one thing this Caribbean island has demonstrated in buckets over the past 50 years, it is just that – solidarity. A word which goes some way to explaining just how the Cuban Revolution has survived against the odds and continues to inspire millions of people across the world.

With so much going on on the island right now, this is the time to get yourself on a brigade!

For those in the UK, you can find out more about joining a solidarity brigade or specialized tour by visiting the Cuba Solidarity Campaign’s website: http://www.cuba-solidarity.org.uk/tours/

 

Havana awash with literature

The 25th Havana International Book Fair recently concluded and will now tour the rest of the island.

The Fair is one of the major annual cultural events on the island and possibly the most popular, with thousands of Cubans and visitors flocking to the main venue at the San Carlos de la Cabaña Fortress to get their hands on the latest releases, browse through the classics, or just enjoy a day out with the family and friends.

Other sites across the city also host book presentations, talks, seminars and even concerts. As well as being dedicated to Uruguay as guest country of honor, this year’s Fair also marked the 130th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in Cuba, with an International Seminar held at the Casa de las Américas.

According to the United Nations, Cuba has one of the highest literacy rates in the world (99.7% for men and 99.8% for women). No surprise then that a book fair should be so popular.

This is one of the greatest achievements of the Cuban Revolution, which mobilized thousands with the launch of the National Literacy Campaign in 1961. The establishment of the National Press of Cuba was also one of the first measures of the Revolution. With Soviet support, Cuba’s presses turned out more than 50 million books a year in the boom times, making books accessible to all by subsidising production.

There is a mix in terms of prices at the Fair, with international sellers tending to be more expensive and in CUC (convertible pesos), in contrast to the subsidised books of Cuban publishers, in CUP (pesos). But with the variety of exhibitors and books on offer, there is something for everyone.

Some of the most popular stands are those selling books and games for children, as well as international publications ranging from classics, contemporary writing, to self-improvement, dictionaries and resources and cookbooks.

Another popular aspect at the Fortress is the crafts fair, with people eager to purchase household ornaments, jewellery, shoes and gifts. There is also a large space full of food stalls, inflatables and even pony rides.

Special busses are put on to help people get to and from the Fair, which this year ran until the evening allowing visitors to stay and enjoy the live music and the famous “cañonazo” cannon firing ceremony.

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Last year I got a bit over-excited (cheap books!!) and ended up buying 40 books. A year later I’m ashamed to admit that I have probably read about five of them! Needless to say, I was more controlled this year and bought about ten, most of which I had read reviews of beforehand.

HISTORY

The first Havana Fair took place in 1982, with a small selection from Latin American publishers. It then took place every two years until it was decided in 2000 that it would be held annually. From 1984 to 1996, each edition was dedicated to a specific topic, while in 1998 it was dedicated to a country for the first time and since 2000 has been dedicated both to a country and to several Cuban writers.

From 2002, the Fair has travelled across the country following Havana, making it a nationwide event.

If planning a visit to Havana, coinciding it with the fair is definitely something to consider.

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I also tried my hand at capturing a bit of the experience on film – you can check out the video here: on.fb.me/1oYvVBT

Ian McKellen in Havana: “I find this country very gay friendly”

Renowned British actor, Ian McKellen, spoke on a range of topics during an animated question and answer session whilst on a visit to Cuba

“I find your country, this country, very gay friendly,” the celebrated actor and activist, Ian McKellen, told a packed room of Cubans and Brits during a talk hosted by the British Embassy in Havana.

Responding to a question on the LGBT movement, he noted in the case of Cuba “I wouldn’t presume to advise anybody in Cuba what to do,” and recalled Fidel’s “conciliatory remarks about the revolutionary past for gay people.”

McKellen was on holiday to the island and five days in, he was eager to share some of his thoughts.

Before enthusiastically responding to questions from the audience, he thrilled the mostly young fans by beginning with an outburst of his notorious “YOU SHALL NOT PASS!” (as Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings).

Over the course of an hour, McKellen had his audience hanging on his every word.

He began by speaking of where he was born, in a “northwest corner of the British Isles,” stating, “I have the temperament of an islander. I like begin surrounded by water. I feel safe somehow.”

His metaphorical use of the “island” ran through a discussion of both the phenomenon of emigration from New Zealand, where he spent time filming, and the UK’s current debate on membership of the European Union, while also alluding to the situation of Cuba itself: “But as you know, islands are dangerous places, there is always the mainland,” before specifying, “You’ve got the States, New Zealand’s got Australia and in the UK we have Europe.”

He continued, “You would think after all these years we would have learnt to live in peace with our neighbours. After all the violence, the deaths and the sacrifices, that we would just become part of the world.”

Eloquent as he is, McKellen made a bit of a Freudian slip, stating “In the UK at the moment the biggest political issue is a referendum in the summer to decide whether the UK will remain a part of the Soviet…” which had the audience roaring with laughter!

The veteran actor and activist made clear his position against the anti-Europe and anti-immigrant sentiment reigning in the UK: “I love Europe. I love difference. I love things that are strange, foreign.”

He later decried the fact that thousands of Syrians and other refugees attempting to enter the UK were help in camps. This theme would return as the big finale of his talk.

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He spoke of the joy of travelling, of visiting “Places that can teach you something you would never learn at home on the island.”

While he stressed “All I hope is that as many of you as want to will travel around the world as I am able to do at the moment, because if I hadn’t been able to travel, if I’d stayed stuck on my island, I wouldn’t have discovered this one,” he also pointedly noted that discovering all the wonderful things across the world only made one realise that “the very best things are back home, on your island.”

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ON THE OSCARS

Responding to a question regarding recent comments on the Oscars, McKellen stated, “There is injustice in the world wherever you look for it and I know that as a gay man.”

He argued, “The day we look to the Oscars to lead social change, well we can’t wait that long!” noting that “it’s not been very long really that the Oscars have understood that there are some women around…They ignore blacks, they ignore openly gay people and they probably ignore disabled people because most of the voters for the Oscars are over 60 years old and white. And most of them don’t even work any longer in the film industry. They’re not a reliable group of people to put things right.”

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ON ACTING

When asked about his film work, McKellen noted that he was “really a theatre, a stage actor,” jokingly adding, “You can tell can’t you? I like nothing better than an audience.”

He explained that film had frightened him, and spoke of the difficulty of acting to a camera rather than a human being. However, he said film was “the great art form of the 20th century,” and recalled a line from Gods and Monsters, a film he said he was very proud of: “Making movies is the most wonderful thing in the world. Working with friends, entertaining people.”

McKellen admitted he knew very little about Cuban theatre and had a “total ignorance” of Cuban cinema, promising to study it on returning home, while adding, “I didn’t even know what you were all going to look like!”

The veteran actor also recalled the importance of his training, in which the trade union played a key role. He explained that thanks to the union, actors were obliged to work in regional theatres for at least a year before they could hit the London stages, which was a real learning curve.

Of course, he stressed, these were the days when every town had its own theatre funded by the local authority and central government.

As the interpreter struggled to get her words out he asked, “You know, a trades union. You have trade unions here don’t you?” and enthusiastically raised his thumb as a sign of support as the audience said yes.

He noted that today he still finds working as “comrades together” in a company the most satisfying way of doing theatre.

He admitted that the popularity of Lord of the Rings “all came as a bit of a surprise to me,” having not even read the books, flippantly adding, “I travel on Gandalf’s back as Gandalf travels on whatever that bird’s called…oh dear…”

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ON SHAKESPEARE

“Most of these people here know Shakespeare through translation. Which is a little bit like knowing Van Gogh without all the colours,” McKellen said in response to a question from a British man who said he struggled to understand Shakespearean language. “Don’t read Shakespeare, go and be part of an audience…just listen to the words,” he advised.

To conclude, McKellen said he had “a little present” for those gathered.

He recalled that 2016 marks 400 years since the Bard’s death and stressed “Most of his plays go on being very relevant to our lives today.”

Before thrilling the audience by enacting, on the spot, a moving speech by Shakespeare from Sir Thomas Moore, he highlighted the relevance of the text, written in the mid-16th century.

The text speaks of a riot in central London where, “Guess what, all those years ago, they’re complaining about the foreigners, they’re complaining about the immigrants in London,” whom they refer to as “strangers”. In going out to placate the crowd, Thomas Moore asks them, “Imagine if you were a stranger, where would you go?”

The performance, only serving to confirm his brilliance as a true Shakespearean actor, was the perfect gift to all those who had packed into the Havana venue to catch a glimpse of him.

 

Marcha de las Antorchas

“The youth of America are rolling up their sleeves, digging their hands in the dough, and making it rise with the sweat of their brows.”   

 José Martí, Our America

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The grand stairway of the University of Havana was filled with torch-bearing young Cubans this 27th January

This year’s Marcha de las Antorchas (March of the Torches) in Havana saw a mass of young Cubans fill the streets, in what was both a commemorative and celebratory atmosphere. Chants of “Long live the youth, students and the Cuban Revolution!” and “Pa’lo que sea Fidel, pa’lo que sea!” (For whatever you need Fidel, whatever) rang out as they marched, danced and sang, from the steps of the University of Havana to the Fragua Martiana, in central Havana. They were accompanied by foreign students, visitors, solidarity activists, and even tourists, all eager to participate in this unique Cuban tradition.

This year, the march was dedicated to the 163rd anniversary of the birth of Cuba’s National Hero José Martí, the 90th birthday of Fidel, the Seventh Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba and the 50th anniversary of the Continental Organization of Latin American and Caribbean Students.

Leading the march were President Raúl Castro, together with former Uruguayan president José “Pepe” Mujica, together with his wife, Senator Lucía Topolansky, and former president of the Dominican Republic, Leonel Fernández. Speaking before setting off, Jennifer Bello, president of the Cuban Federation of University Students, and recently elected as a member of the Council of State, aged just 23, noted the Cuban youth’s commitment to defending the Revolution, peace and the integration of Latin America, in accordance with the ideals of Martí.

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The Marcha de las Antorchas takes place on the evening of every January 27 in Havana, in tribute to José Martí, Cuba’s national hero. Born in Havana in 1853, Martí dedicated his life to the struggle for Cuba’s liberation from Spanish colonialism. Aged just 16, he was imprisoned by the Spanish authorities, accused of “treason” and sentenced to six years of forced labour in the quarries of Havana. Aged 18, he was exiled in Spain, where he wrote the pamphlet Political Imprisonment in Cuba.

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Martí spent most of his life in political exile, but the poet, essayist, journalist, revolutionary philosopher, translator, professor, and political theorist, founded the Cuban Revolutionary Party and was a key figure in the planning of the Cuban War of Independence, dying in military action during the Battle of Dos Ríos on May 19, 1895.

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In 1953, on the centenary of his birth, the Cuban Federation of University Students decided to pay tribute to Martí’s memory in what would become known as the March of the Torches. The first march was particularly significant, given the context of the Fulgencio Batista dictatorship and the persecution and repression suffered by Cuban youths. Despite not being granted permission to march, a mass of students and youths, armed with torches, descended the steps of the University of Havana, marching through the streets until the Fragua Martiana monument and museum, at the site where José Martí was imprisoned and undertook forced labour.