Salsa and citrus groves

Katy Campbell recounts her experience of a work brigade to Cuba.
Katy Campbell recounts her experience of a work brigade to Cuba.

The song exclaims, "¡Cuba, que linda es Cuba!" — How lovely is Cuba — and nowhere is that more true than in the glorious sweet-scented citrus groves where work brigades gather to harvest oranges every year.

Work brigades are organised twice-yearly by the Cuba Solidarity Campaign and provide a unique chance to show practical solidarity and discover the "real" Cuba.

Wakened by cockrow and salsa, "brigadistas" head off to the fields to gather fruit, where they work with local Cubans.

It's hard work, but it's so enjoyable that days spend woring in the camp as a result of torrential rain are greeted with real dissapointment.

The Julio Antonio Mella camp is just outside Havana.

It is here that the 37 volunteers of all ages who formed the British brigade arrived with brigadistas from Norway, Denmark, Finland, Belgium, Switzerland and Sweeden last December to form the Nordic Brigade.

But it isn't all work!

An extensive programme introduces Cuban life through conferences on the Cuban Economy, foreign policy, and culture, as well as meeting with veterans of the Cuban revolution.

Add to this music, dancing and a four-day hotel stay in Santa Clara and the experience certainly becomes a holiday with a difference.

Cuba places health care and education at the top of it's agenda.

The health service focuses on primary and preventative care and this was demonstrated by a visit to a polyclinic in Jibacoa, which is open 24 hours a day and is free to all.

At a maternity hospital in Santa Clara, brigadistas learnt that Cuba has achieved an infant mortality rate of 7.2 per 1,000 births, which is among the best 25 national rates in the world.

At the two-year-old Latin American School of Medicine, brigadistas were amazed to hear about Cuba's huge contribution in training doctors from other Latin American countries, absolutely free.

A young ear student spoke enthusiastically and with gratitude to Cuba for this oppotrunity.

In education, despite the lack of many basic teaching materials and equipment which we take for granted, very high standards are achieved.

Children are healthy and happy. Young people of all ages are articulate and well-informed.

Soon after arriving in Cuba, brigadistas visited the Che Guevara Pre-University School to celebrate Teacher's Day.

It is almost impossible to describe the rapturous welcome that we recieved — followed by a carnival extravaganza of dance and music, where it seemed every teenaged pupil took part.

In Santa Clara, brigadistas saw another example of cultural excellence in the performance of classical music and a balet at a specialist school of arts.

A special highlight of the trip was a meeting with a Committee for the Defence of the Revolution in Santa Clara.

After a typically warm speech of welcome with musical accompaniment in a hall packed with local people, the brigade was split into small groups to visit a Cuban home.

It was crowded with family and neighbours who were more than happy to talk and answer questions.

It is clear that while they are aware of problems of inequality due to the development of the tourist trade and are still suffering many shortages, they are determined to defend the revolution.

Having survived the difficult years of the "Special Period" — ushered in by the dramatic fall in trade in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union — they are well aware of the advantages of the health care, education, housing and relatively crime-free environment that Cuba provides.

The case for international solidarity with Cuba has never been stronger — the illegal US blockade was condemned by the biggest ever majority at the UN last year of 167 to three.

A work brigade provides the opportunity not only to enjoy a wonderful holiday as a tourist but also to be a brigadista and play a small part in Cuba's continuing struggle for self-determination.

•To Join the Cuba Solidarity Campaign or obtain information on joining a work brigade, contact CSC, c/o Red Rose Club, 129 Seven Sisters Road, London N7 7QG. Tel: (0207) 263-6450. WWW: