Wednesday, July 15, 2015


Header of the Cuba Weblog

This blog “Melons or Unity, the Cuban trade union movement under Castro”, written by Kees van Kortenhof, has been published in the digital newsletter “The memory of the trade union movement” of the “Friends of the History of the Trade Union Movement”, a Dutch foundation that is dedicated to safeguard the history of the trade union.
Kees van Kortenhof is one of the founders of “Glasnost in Cuba”. The Foundation is set up in 1989 after a visit to Cuba. The aim of Glasnost in Cuba is to support the peaceful human rights movement in Cuba. This year (2015), the Foundation exists 25 years. The Foundation is completely independent, consists only of volunteers and receives no subsidies. The foundation publishes the blog “CUBA” with actual information on everything what happens on the island.

Painter in Cienfuegos, 2008 (Petrus)

When Fidel Castro came to power on January 1, 1959, half of the active population in Cuba was a member of a union. The Central de Trabajadores de Cuba CTC, counted 1.2 million members and 33 trade federations. The confederation was pluralistic and had Catholic, communist, socialist and anarchist members and trade unions. Through the efforts of the CTC were already realized in 1959, the eight-hour day, a minimum wage, the right to strike and employment protection . In addition to the armed struggle of the Castro's in the mountains, the urban resistance, together with the labor movement, was the core of the resistance against dictator Batista.

In January 1959, when rebel groups marched under the leadership of Fidel Castro into Havana, all 33 national headquarters of the Cuban trade union movement were occupied by the urban resistance and were expelled the trade union leaders who had supported Batista. It was time for new - free, democratic and secret - elections that were organized throughout 1959 and that had to culminate in the first revolutionary trade union congress to be held in November of that year. On local level, the mostly anti-Communist Movement of the 26th of July was opposed the supporters of communism. The Movement won almost all local elections. The Communists paid electorally for their reluctant support to the resistance. Had the party not undermined the first armed action of Castro in 1953 with his attack on the Moncada barracks as "adventurism of wealthy bourgeois sons?" Even in the food and textile union federation, the Communists got little support. Within the trade union for sugar cane workers only 15 of the 9,000 delegates sympathized with the Communist Party PSP.

Young Shopservant, Cienfuegos, 2008 (Petrus)


On 18 November 1959, the CTC trade union confederation held its first national congress. Of the 3,200 delegates 200 were communists. The remaining 3,000 were part of the revolutionary 26th of July Movement. It looked that the Communist Party PSP would play no longer a significant role in the Cuban trade union movement. But Fidel Castro decided otherwise. His aversion towards the Communists was changed gradually into appreciation because of the support of the PSP. Moreover, he could use very well the organizing and mobilizing capacity of this party. He spoke 2 times during the trade union congress. In his opening speech, Fidel emphasized the need of “Unidad” (Unity) and said not to like an election circus. Quote: "The only thing what is important here, is the unbreakable solidarity with the Revolution. Is there one worker present here, who does not agree with us? The revolution comes first. (…) Each disunity within the trade union congress, will be a joy for our enemies. (...) Attacks of the enemy, must be answered by discipline. "

Campesino, Vinales 2008 (Petrus)

Soldiers on the trade union congress

But the trade union representatives did not seem convinced. After all, after years of dictatorship, they had come to talk and to debate freely and to cast their votes in freedom. It appeared that of the 33 trade union federations at the congress 27 did not want communists in the CTC Board. Uproar broke out among the 3,200 delegates. There was a fight between the supporters of the Communist Party and the others. "Unidad, unidad (unity)," shouted the first ones. 'Melones, Melones (melons),' replied the members of the Movement of the 26th of July. The Communists were compared with watermelons because on the outside they are green (the color of the guerrilla uniform) and inside they are red.

In the early morning of 22 November, Fidel Castro returned in military uniform at the trade union congress, accompanied by a group of armed soldiers. "This is a shameless spectacle", he shouted, and he added the names of three Communists to the list of 13 candidates for the board of the CTC. Castro explained that this addition was necessary for the sake of unity. In that period of the revolution Cuban workers were fond of Fidel Castro and gave him what he asked, but they made clear also to Che, Raúl and Fidel that they never would give up their independent unions. The three additional candidates were defeated in the first round. Then Fidel Castro presented again a list but without the three defeated communists but also without the name of Reinol González, who in 1959 was appointed as international secretary of the CTC. He had led a general strike against Batista and was anti-communist. He came from the Cuban section of the Catholic Labor Youth (YCW). Against these superior power the Congress capitulated. From then on for each function one candidate was presented and the elections took place by raise of hands. The socialist David Salvador became provisional president.

In 1977 Reinol González visited with his wife Teresita the Netherlands. They were hosted by CLAT Netherlands. He talked about his Cuban experiences with the Dutch trade union confederations CNV (Christian) and FNV and also with Amnesty International. González was active in Cuba in the Juventud Obrera Catolica (JOC), the Cuban branch of the international young workers movement. (foto: Petrus)

Jail and prison camps

David Salvador resigned in May 1960 as protest against the takeover of the union apparatus by the communists, . A few months later he was arrested and sentenced to 30 years in prison. Through mediation of Gabriel Marquez, the Colombian writer and friend of Castro, David Salvador was released from prison earlier and left Cuba . Reinol González stayed for 17 years in prison. In 1977 he was released from prison earlier also through the intervention of Gabriel Marquez. In November 1960, the communist trade union bureaucrat Lazaro Peña, was appointed as the new secretary general of the CTC. He was it before, namely in 1939, when the Cuban communists worked together with Batista. The dream of a free trade union movement in a revolutionary Cuba had ended. Free trade union movement was not anymore necessary, according to current President Raul Castro. In these early years of the revolution he tried to convince the Cuban workers that the State Government is the best trade union; workers do not need trade unions as they have a government as friend, it is THEIR government that protects them. "

Kees van Kortenhof
Juli 2015

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