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Exclusive: Cuba, the unions, and the world

Rosita Fonseca and Pedro Ross with Rodney Bickerstaffe in the Marx Memorial Library – in the room in which Lenin produced the revolutionary journal Iskra. Photo Workers.

In an exclusive interview with Workers, two veteran Cuban communists give a fascinating insight into the view from a country where the working class is in command…

In October two leading Cuban communists and trade unionists visited Britain – Rosita Fonseca, a founder member of the Cuban Women’s Federation, and Pedro Ross, former General Secretary of the CTC, the Cuban Workers Central Union Federation (the equivalent of our TUC). Both veterans of the Cuban revolution, they found time in between speaking engagements at the TUC International Forum in Newcastle and Unison in London to talk to Workers. What they said provided a fascinating insight into the operation of workers’ democracy in Cuba, the future now that diplomatic relations have been restored with the US, and how Cuba sees the European Union. These responses are mainly from Pedro Ross.

Is this your first visit to Britain – and how have you found it?

This is not our first visit. But this visit in particular has helped us to meet people from sectors such as the trade unions, such as the CPBML, other sectors of British society, and to have a contact with the society on the streets. It has surpassed our expectations, including contact with the leadership of the Communist Party, via the Chairman. We have also met other comrades and union leaders. We have met young people, people concerned with the problems of today and the problems of the future. And we have also spoken to senior citizens who are still active such as [former NUPE general secretary] Rodney Bickerstaffe.

It has been very much a working holiday. For us as communists, these are the kind of holidays we have – contacting people, exchanging ideas, outside of the context in which we live this has been the best vacation.

What do you see as the role of trade unions in Cuba?

For the first time in history, the unions in Cuba have been beside the government and the people. It is a working class government, and for the first time unions in Cuba have been empowered.

Before the revolution, in different periods, when the unions had some legal status, there were trade unionists who were communists, who had people elected as mayors, members of parliament and in other posts. But it was intermittent and rare. Now, since the revolution, we have union members who at the same time are members of parliament, elected like everyone else. For example, I was an MP for 30 years, elected in various places and constituencies, including when I was ambassador in Angola (I was elected for a municipality in Cuba called San Miguel del Padron, in Havana).

‘The party does not present candidates for elections in the unions.’

We trade unionists have been elected because of the rights and will of the workers. The Communist Party does not nominate candidates [for parliament, etc]. Candidates are nominated by the mass organisations such as the trade unions, the Cuban Women’s Federation, the Committees for the Defence of the Revolution, the National Association of Farmers, the Federation of University Students, the Federation of Middle Level Students…

The party does not present candidates for elections in the unions either. We have open floor meetings, with direct elections.

Elections to our parliament begin at the level of the constituencies. The neighbours get together and have an open meeting [where they] will propose candidates. But the candidates must belong to and live in that constituency. Then they go to a direct secret ballot. Delegates to the municipal posts are also elected according to that process. Half of the national parliament is proposed directly by the constituencies, and each of the organisations previously mentioned will nominate the remainder.

Trade union representatives [who are elected to parliament] have a twofold mission: to represent the workers, and to represent those who elected them to the parliament. So as an MP they would periodically have to render account of their work – not to the trade unionists but to those who elected.

In Cuba, not all the trade union leaders are party members. But they are very prestigious individuals in the working collective, and they are revolutionaries. I’ll tell you a small story. When I was elected as the Secretary General of the CTC on 28 January 1990, I addressed the Congress [which had 2,450 delegates, and about 1,000 foreign guests]. In my report I said the following: “Not all those who are here as a delegate are communists” – trying to explain that the congress was not made up of trade union leaders who are communists.

Fidel [Castro] made the final summing up, and he was mainly addressing the foreign guests here, and he said, “I must rectify something that Pedro said in his report: not all the delegates attending here belong to the Communist Party, but all of them however are communists because of the way they act and because of their conduct and behaviour towards the revolution.”

With the restoration of diplomatic relations with the USA, how do you think things will change for Cuba?

In the first place, we are not even halfway [to normal diplomatic relations], we are just taking the first steps. As the Cuban revolutionary government has said, there is no normalisation of relations as long as there is a blockade. Very faint steps have been taken. There is a lot of international noise. Some people even say that the blockade is over. But the blockade is still there – it has not been moved one inch.

‘No normalisation of relations while there is a blockade.’

If there were to be normal relations, the United States should return the territory that they have occupied illegally against the will of the Cuban people – illegal because it is against the people and the government. We are talking about the Guantanamo naval base.

We will not normalise relations as long as the Cuban Adjustment Act is in place, a law that says that any Cuban who arrives – sailing, swimming, by any means – to the coast of the US and sets foot on American soil immediately will receive residence. It is a law intended to subvert Cuba, to create contradictions on the island, and to encourage people to flee the country by illegal means, which endangers their lives.

Cubans who defect from the island to the US are the only ones in the world who enjoy such privileges. Think for one minute if the Americans did this for the Mexicans, or the Haitians, or the people from the Dominican Republic – or the Syrians.

How does Cuba see the role of the European Union?

In terms of the EU and the world, the European Union has joined the adventures of the US in invading Iraq and Libya, so they have created a disaster in the adventures of the Bush administration, and Obama has also participated…European troops have been engaged, NATO has participated and has provided support.

With regard to the exodus of migrant people, the European countries have not agreed how to handle the situation…and the exodus has to do with the imbalances created by imperialism and the appearance of the extremist forces and Islamic State. This has created imbalances in the world.

However, in spite of the joint position of the European Union, when you go to the UN and to the vote in the General Assembly, the countries comprising the European Union have voted in favour of Cuba. And the EU has been changing its attitude towards Cuba. For example the Ministers of Foreign Relations of several countries, including the French and Spanish foreign ministers, have recently visited Cuba, and high-ranking officials from the EU [as well].

The US and the EU are allies in all their actions. In my understanding this alliance between the US and the EU goes against the interest of the Europeans, because they have been joining the adventures of the US, using the resources of the Europeans, of the people, of the taxpayer.

Finally, the blockade, which is very important. The US…believes that the method that it has been using for promoting changes in Cuba has failed for the past 55 years, and that it should derail Cuba by other means. We are and will always be aware of the purposes of the US and we know that they have not changed.

Any final words?

Greetings to all who read your magazine! We express gratitude towards the workers by way of Unison and the TUC, Cuba Solidarity Campaign and the CPBML and other people in politics and society for the solidarity provided to us in difficult times.