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.
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.
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/