catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 2, Num 21 :: 2003.11.07 — 2003.11.20


Haven for the working class?

Narrative is possibly our most effective method of communicating with each other. It is through stories that we make sense of the world around and bring meaning to a single statement. I could tell a friend that I fell off my chair today. His most likely response would be a blank stare. It doesn't carry meaning unless I tell him why I fell off, how much it hurt and how dumb I felt. Though I admit, this is a trivial matter.

A similar, yet obviously more profound statement might go something like this: six men are being held in confinement in Cuba for their work trying to organize a Christian trade union in Cuba. Still, despite our moral senses being nudged by the words "Cuba," "confinement," and "Christian" it is probable that this statement would as well fail to provoke any worthy response. After all, such is life; terrible thing happen all the time and there is very little you or I can do about it.

We want a background for this statement to provide a meaningful locale where it can situated. Cuba lies 80 miles off the Florida coast at its southern-most tip. Though the distance physically seems not so great, ideologically, culturally, economically, and politically, it may as well be half a world away. In March 1953, Fulgencio Batista y Zaldivar, a former army sergeant, seized power by means of a military coup. In the same manner he had risen to office in 1933, he tried prolong his reign. By 1959 Fidel Castro, aided by Ernesto "Che" Guevara's rebels, in a much publicized guerilla campaign, forced the dictator into exile in the United States from where he had been receiving military aid.

Supported by Cuban youth, professionals, and a portion of the population of agricultural workers, Castro purged Cuba of what political opposition remained. The language he used to draw people to his cause was that of Marx and Engels, of a class struggle, and of the immanent hope for the blessing of a communist society. In 1960 the Castro government expropriated nearly $1 billion of U.S. owned property. The U.S. responded by placing Cuba under a trade embargo. In April 1961, the U.S. sponsored Bay of Pigs Invasion began and failed. And the fall of 1962 brought the Western hemisphere perilously close to war during the Cuban Missle Crisis whose conclusion saw the airlifting of 260,000 desperate Cubans out of the country before Castro himself put an end to the exodus.

The rest of the general course of Cuban history, though I won't touch on the specifics here, is the story of an ideology's failure to deliver its promises. Marxist ideology is a vision that will never be realized. Some will lead and others will follow, so it is useless to try to rewrite the book of man's nature. Marx, on his part, had he paid closer attention to his sociology of history, might have been justified to find the meaning of history but in a never-ending class conflict and not in the coming of a classless society. His was, at best, a pipe dream, which would become for many Cuban citizens a waking nightmare.

Into this setting let me place my initial statement concerning Christian trade unionists in Cuba. In a country where a government's heavy-handed dealings with the general labour-force are unchecked, there exists a strong potential for the little person to get the short end of the stick. While the governments inevitably show favor to those who support them, they cannot favor everyone, let alone everyone equally. Even in liberal democracies this is the case, but with one distinct difference: ideally, in countries like Canada and the United States, there exists legal recourse to see justice done. In Cuba there is none.

For most of its existence the Castro government had been propped up by Soviet financial aid to the tune of $3 million U.S. dollars a day. When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1989 this cash flow ceased. The economic crisis that followed worsened an already difficult situation.
In 1995, the CUTC (Consejo Unitario de Trabajadores Cubanos, or United Council of Cuban Workers) applied through proper channels for legal recognition. This confederation of independent trade unions was seeking to better represent the interests of their members in a largely disinterested political environment. They even gathered signatures and addresses from 400 workers who were willing to risk exposure to support legal recognition of the CUTC. However, the Cuban government simply ignored the application, a move for which the CUTC had no legal recourse. Despite this set-back, the Christian trade union leadership continued their work. Among them was Pedro Pablo Alvarez Ramos, the CUTC's secretary general. Alvarez, since at least 1996, has experienced harassment and detention for his trade union activities. In 2000, he, along with several other leaders, was detained, preventing them from holding a conference. Officially he was charged with resisting arrest, though no reason was given for the arrest itself. By January of 2001, he was released.

In March, 2003, Alvarez was again arrested, and this time charged with political sedition. His house was searched and the trade union library was confiscated; he was sent to the prison known as Canaleta ("the gutter"). Among the eighty "dissidents" imprisoned at the same time as Alvarez are Carmelo Doaz Fernindez, director of the CUTC news agency; Oscar Espinosa Chepe, journalist for CUTC; Victor Rolando Arroyo Carmona, CUTC delegate for the Pinar del Rio province; Alfredo Felipe Fuentes, CUTC delegate for the Havana province; and Adolfo Fernandez Sainz, freelance journalist and leader of the Christian Workers' Movement (Movimiento de Trabajadores Cristianos).

I am told that of these six, all but Fernindez are being held hundreds of kilometers away from their homes. The expensive trip would take family members several days to make, thus is extremely impractical, no doubt it was the intention of the Cuban government to make it so. As well, Chepe suffers from cirrhosis of the liver coupled with permanent bleeding while the medical facilities in the prison are inadequate to address his needs. Prisons in the U.S. and Canada would be 5-star hotels in comparison.

The Christian response to this story is to place it within the larger biblical narrative, one describing a God's good creation fallen under the effect of sin whose hope is in Jesus Christ. Our redemption through Christ points us to the present need to be God's ministers bearing the Gospel to those who need to hear it. The plight of these men becomes something very real for Christians when seen in this light. We need to do what we can.

On a Friday October, 17 the Ontario Student Solidarity Local (OSSL) conducted Live Justice, an event held Redeemer University College in Ancaster, Ontario, to inform students of current issues and problems faced by Christians across the world today. It featured two Christian bands, Bill Malonee and Annie Quick, as well as several speakers, including Kirstin and Rob Vander Giessen-Reitsma. (For a full report on the event read my write-up in Redeemer's paper The Crown.)

The event's main focus was the current plight of Alvarez and his fellow workers now imprisoned for their work in the CUTC. Protest cards were handed out for those in attendance to sign, which were delivered to the Cuban ambassador to Canada. For anyone wanting to participate in the protest, cards can be obtained from Sybil De Mos at the Christian Labour Association of Canada (CLAC). Her e-mail address is Cuba does not have an embassy in the United States, but you can e-mail the Cuban ambassador to Canada, Carlos Fernandez de Cassio, at Ask him to respect the dignity of individuals and the laws of Cuba by advocating for the release of Pedro Pablo Alvarez Ramos, Carmelo Diaz Fernindez, Oscar Espinosa Chepe, Victor Rolando Arroyo Carmona, Alfredo Felipe Fuentes, and Adolfo Fernandez Sainz.

For these men and many more, Cuba is not the Communist worker's haven it thought it could be, but has become a hell. Please tell their story.

Following is adapted from the text of the protest card, so that you may copy it into an e-mail:

Dear Mr. Carlos Fernandez de Cassio, Ambassador of Cuba,


I join the Christian Labour Association of Canada and the World Confederation of Labour in demanding full respect for the rights of all workers in Cuba, including those who wish to belong to the Consejo Unitario de Trabajadores Cubanos (CUTC). We protest your government's treatment of Pedro Pablo Alvarez Ramos, Carmelo Diaz Fernindez, Oscar Espinosa Chepe, Victor Rolando Arroyo Carmona, Alfredo Felipe Fuentes, and Adolfo Fernandez Sainz, worker's representatives who have been unjustly sentenced for up to 26 years in prison.

Since 1995, they have legally strived for recognition of their independent trade union, CUTC, complying with all Cuban laws in this regard. Please do not respond that CUTC does not exist. It would tomorrow if your government would respect the wishes of its law-abiding ditizens who only which to be represented by the union of their choice.

We urge your government to live up to its rhetoric as a socialist country and allow trade unions to flourish. If Cuba is indeed a people's republic, then let the people join the unions they prefer?including the CUTC.



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