RATB's 2008 Cuban Speaking Tour of Britain

Rock Around The Blockade

From 21 February to 7 March 2008, Orlando Borrego, Jesus Garcia and Yoselin Rufin, representatives of three generations of the Cuban revolution, toured Britain with Rock around the Blockade (RATB) on the ‘Cuba: Socialism into the 21st Century’ speaking tour. They came to confront the lies about Cuba, drawing on their own experiences of the process of building socialism.

The tour reached an audience of 2,700 people in 11 cities, and membership of RATB has nearly trebled as a result. Following this success, RATB will expand its work: starting groups in new areas and holding regular organising meetings all over Britain. RATB is non-sectarian: all participants who support the aims of RATB are welcome to participate, speak, promote their views and sell literature at events.

RATB’s aims are: to campaign in support of the Cuban Revolution and Cuban socialism; to campaign against the US blockade and oppose any British government collaboration with it; to support the revolutionary democratic movements in Latin America and the Bolivarian Alternative of the Ameri­cas (ALBA); to oppose the US occupation of Guantanamo and de­mand the release of prisoners held there; to campaign for the freedom of the Cuban 5; and to support the Boycott Bacardi campaign. In all of our campaigning work we will be part of building a socialist movement in Britain. If you support these aims we urge you to come to an RATB meeting and get involved (see events listings on RATB website).

RATB campaigns publicly for the freedom of the Cuban 5 in Manchester, UK, September 2008.

RATB owes a huge debt of gratitude to the three Cuban speakers, who inspired thousands of people while they were here with their revolutionary example.

Orlando Borrego is possibly the most distinguished contributor from Cuba’s revolutionary leadership to have spoken on tour in Britain. Many people who attended the tour were attracted by the chance to hear about the role he played in the revolution. However, they also heard in-depth discussions about socialist political economy and Che’s contribution to economic development in Cuba. Borrego’s contemporary links to the Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela gave a sense of the urgency of the contemporary struggle in Latin America.

During the tour Jesus Garcia’s exposition of Cuban democracy counteracted the lies and distortions found in both the bourgeois and left press. In a meeting in Glasgow, attended by 350 people, Garcia read aloud from a copy of Socialist Worker, newspaper of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), denouncing its lies about Cuba, and expressing incredulity that people who call themselves socialists could write such reactionary propaganda. He said that in a sense the article was right: that in Cuba socialism is imposed from the top down, however not by an elite as the SWP makes out, but by the Cuban people, who are at the top of Cuba’s system of popular power. As he went on to explain, all elected representatives in Cuba are subject to the right of recall if they do not carry out the wishes of those who elected them, and they receive no special privileges for their political work. Garcia is especially qualified to answer critics who say there is no democracy in Cuba because he has been elected to the system of People’s Power since 1989, and was elected again to his municipal assembly in Cuba’s most recent elections in December.

As a young woman Yoselin Rufin could relate to the hundreds of young people who came to the tour. It was obvious that they felt comfortable asking her questions about everything from the Cuban political system to everyday life for a young woman in Cuba. Yoselin is a National Council member of the Cuban Federation of University Students, an organisation that played an active role in the revolutionary struggle preceding 1959. Today it is one of dozens of mass organisations represented in Cuba’s National Assembly. In 2007, at just 22 years of age, Yoselin became one of the youngest members of the Cuban Communist Party. She is a member of the government’s Permanent Com­mis­sion for Candidacy, Social Prevention, Drugs and Recreation. She works as a teacher, so she was able to describe, based on first-hand experience, the progress of the Cuban education system, for example, reducing class sizes to 20 students per class in secondary schools and 15 in primary schools, despite the Special Period and the continuing effects of the blockade.

Left to right: Orlando Borrego, Yoselin Rufin, Helen Yaffe of RATB and Jesus Garcia. Back: Felix Plasencia, minister counsellor of the Venezuelan embassy, in London at the start of the speaking tour. 21 February 2008.

Trade union support
The speaking tour received substantial support from sections of the British trade union movement – both financially and in terms of publicity and providing venues for meetings. Sponsorship came from the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Tran­sport Workers (RMT), at national and branch level, and from branches of the Communication Workers Union (Man­chester Com­bined Branch) and the National Union of Miners (North East area). The RMT also hosted a press conference and a formal reception for the Cubans in London. RATB intends to build on this link with the RMT, which was one of the first trade unions to cease financial contributions to the Labour Party.

Bob Crow, General Secretary of the RMT, spoke at the inaugural meeting of the tour at Bolivar Hall (part of the Venezuelan embassy), where people queued around the block to get in. Sharing the platform were the Cuban Ambassador, Rene Mujica Cantelar, and Felix Plasencia, Minister Coun­sellor of the Venezuelan Embassy in London, demonstrating the revolutionary links between contemporary Cuba and Venezuela. Bob Crow described the event as ‘a cherished day for our union’ and stated ‘The battle of ideas taking place in the world at the moment is one of global capitalism against the ideas of socialism… The reason we’re supporting this tour is that we believe what’s taking place in Cuba is the opposite of the battle of ideas that’s being pushed by imperialism, capitalism and big business … The reality is that a little island, being squeezed economically by the biggest power in the world, has, for 49 years, demonstrated that there’s a different world.’ He continued, ‘You can’t just be a communist, you’ve got to learn to be one. I’ve learnt a lot off a revolutionary here today and I feel sorry for those people that didn’t get involved in this tour because they said it might be too sectarian. I tell you what, the ones who make these tours sectarian are the ones that don’t want to get involved.’

Unfortunately, the sectarianism that Bob Crow referred to was a real obstacle to the tour. RATB has always been prepared to work with the Cuba Solidarity Campaign (CSC), but the CSC has tried to monopolise solidarity with Cuba. In the run-up to the tour the CSC ignored invitations from RATB to get involved in the speaking tour. At the CSC-organised Latin America 2007 conference Rob Miller, director of the CSC, prevented an RATB activist from handing out leaflets for the tour because he said RATB was in ‘competition’ with the CSC. As became clear from conversations with CSC local branch members, the CSC National Executive warned branches not to organise joint events with RATB as part of the tour, causing some that had initially shown enthusiasm to pull out.

The speaking tour attracted hundreds of young people to the main public events. In addition RATB held meetings at six universities, four schools and two youth groups to ensure that as many young people as possible could hear the Cubans speak. On Monday 3 March Yoselin Rufin and Jesus Garcia spoke to 70 people at Farnborough Sixth Form College, including 60 students who had re­turned to school in the evening to attend the meeting. Yoselin spoke about political representation of young people in Cuba, pointing out that there are four students in the newly elected 31-member Council of State. At Pimlico School in inner Lon­don 37 students attended an optional after-school meeting in their school library. Pimlico has just been turned into an ‘academy’, and a question was raised about the British government’s selling off of the education system. Yoselin recalled that, during the Special Period, students had proposed to the government that some families should make a financial contribution to the cost of university education, but discussions in the National Assembly concluded that free education was a non-negotiable right of all Cubans.

The popularity of the meetings and the high calibre of questions from the audience at every event show that British people are not just hungry for an alternative to capitalism, but also recognise that Cuba is building an alternative. The frenzied reporting from all sections of the British media that followed Fidel Castro’s decision not to seek re-election to Cuba’s Council of State showed how out of touch with reality mainstream ‘opinion formers’ and journalists actually are, and how desperate they are to tarnish Cuba’s example. However, the inspirational example of our three speakers spoke for itself: Borrego, with a life spent making sacrifices for the revolution, who still works as a government adviser on a salary of 650 pesos (approx £14) per month, and knows equally well how to make an audience laugh as how to debate the finer points of socialist economics. Jesus, an elected representative in Cuba’s democratic system and a strong critic within it, astounded by the lengths people will go to slander Cuba. And finally Yoselin, a young, educated woman, ready to defend the revolution ‘till my last breath’, as she said in one meeting.

In the closing speech of the tour, the Revolutionary Communist Group’s David Yaffe spoke about the need to recognise Cuba as the vanguard of anti-imperialist and socialist struggles. He encouraged people to join RATB and the RCG in the fight for a revolutionary movement.

The speaking tour exceeded all expectations. We are forever indebted to the Cuban comrades for their hard work and openness in speaking about their revolutionary experiences. At a time of increased attack on Cuba from the bourgeois media and imperialist politicians, solidarity with Cuba is more important than ever. The speaking tour proved that there is interest in political discussion, something that RATB intends to build on.

Our society is as unequal as ever. The Labour government presides over war, poverty, racism and corruption. The most important thing our Cuban comrades have shown us is that the power of capitalism can be challenged.

Layla, Manchester meeting:
‘I thought they were brilliant, very informative. They answered a lot of questions and impressed me with their intimate knowledge of the Cuban system…I wish I had told more people. It was illuminating. Do it again!’

Farah, London meeting:
‘Last Saturday’s meeting was something that I will never forget ... I am from Brazil and to hear Orlando Borrego speak about Cuba and Che was something incredible. For Latin Americans Che is not just a face on a flag, he is our hero.’

For detailed reports of the various meetings see http://cubanswerehere.blogspot.com/. For interviews with Orlando Borrego, Jesus Garcia and Yoselin Rufin see the original report in FRFI 202 (Apr/May 2008) on the RCG website.