Cuba Visits the US, 2017
The morning after Bill Camp and Alicia Jrapko picked up Victor Lemagne Sanchez at the San Francisco airport, he and Bill went to the headquarters for UNITE Here Local 2, the hotel and restaurant workers union in San Francisco. There we met with Mike Casey, Chair of the Executive Board of the San Francisco Central Labor Council and Anand Singh, the President of the HERE. Most importantly, it quickly became clear that there were shared interests between the hotel and restaurant workers in San Francisco and the restaurant and tourism workers in Cuba as Marriott is trying to get into Cuba and the San Francisco workers are in a big fight with Marriott.
Dave Bacon and Victor and Unite HERE Local 2 in San Francisco
Mike Casey then took our resolution on Cuba with the three principles of no blockage, no troops and no restrictions on travel between the United States and Cuba. It was passed unanimously by the San Francisco Central Labor Council.
We left San Francisco for lunch with the South Bay (San Jose) Central Labor Council. Ben Field, Chief Executive Officer hosted the luncheon with about 15 union leaders and staff in attendance. Victor spent a lot of time explaining the structure of the labor movement in Cuba.
It went well, but we had to quickly leave for Sacramento and a reception there. Tamie Dramer and Eric Sunderland get the credit for putting on a successful evening event. Luther Castillo Harry joined us and was introduced as a significant person who got the ball rolling with regards to building relations with Cuba. And we have a core leadership group of Bill Camp, Nancy Yamada, Roz Myers and Chris Bender working on the long term success of our program.
That evening, Victor stayed at the home of Arturo Aleman and his wife, Hortensia. Arturo made sure Victor was at the State Capitol to meet with Senate Pro tem Kevin De Leon. He was introduced on the floor of the Senate by Hannah Beth Jackson, Senator from Santa Barbara. She also attended our Sacramento reception the evening before so she could meet Victor before introducing him.
Then Victor met with Assemblyman Kevin McCarty from Sacramento and Assemblyman Mike Gibson from Los Angeles who introduced him on the floor of the Assembly. Christina Velasquez, a union leader from Los Angeles also joined us. The day was completed with a meeting in Berkeley at the UPTE Union Hall with a local group of activists and supporters of Cuba organized by Alicia Jrapko. Victor was able to spend the evening with long-time Cuban supporter and International Longshore and Warehouse Union member Clarence Thomas and his wife, Delores.
The following morning, Clarence and Delores took Victor to the interview with Lamoin Werlein-Jaen for an article in the Latin American political magazine NACLA of the Americas. Later there was a UC Berkeley Labor Center luncheon hosted by faculty leader, Steve Pitts. On Friday, June 30, approximately 30 people came to the UC Berkeley Labor Center to hear Victor Manuel Lemagne speak. The crowd was a diverse mixture of unionists and non-unionists, UC Berkeley students and staff, and attendees from outside of the UC Berkeley community. For over an hour, Victor talked and answered questions about his union and the nature of bargaining in Cuba. Afterwards, many in the audience stayed to talk further with him.
Later that day, Clarence and Delores took Victor to Santa Rosa where he met with newly organized HERE Local 2850 members.
The next two evenings, Victor stayed with long-time Cuban supporters Alicia Sanchez and her husband Bernie Hovden. They had made arrangements for an interview on a local Spanish-language radio station and treated him with a trip to the redwood forest and the California coast. Then it was back to the East Bay to stay with Clarence Thomas and his wife. There he was treated to an Oakland A’s baseball game.
Over the 4th of July weekend, Victor did an interview with an East Coast radio station WRFG and a live interview on KPFA in Berkeley. This was also followed by a reception. Bay Area activist Lisa Milos made these arrangements and provided the translation for the KPFA program, “Work Week Radio” hosted by Steve Zeltzer.
On July 5th Clarence Thomas took Victor to the ILWU Local Union Hall to celebrate the important historical event created by the 1934 murder of two picketers shot by police officers. Victor made an important presentation at this event.
Much work was done by UPTE union member Lisa Milos in the Bay Area by providing translation services at many of the events. These included the reception at the UC Labor Center in Berkeley, the KPFA interview and for Victor’s presentation at the ILWU celebration. For Lisa, this work to support Cuba continues a family tradition of which she is very proud.
This ended Victor’s time in Northern California with Clarence delivering him to the San Francisco airport. Next stop: Southern California.
In Los Angeles, Victor met with HERE Local 11 members and was a huge success. Local 11 covers all of Los Angeles. After much discussion of the organizing efforts in Los Angeles and Cuba, leaders from both areas were excited and agreed to help each other with their respective campaigns. Tom Walsh, President and Secretary-Treasurer Aida Ericeno were joined by organizers and all were talking about the benefits of working together.
The UC Los Angeles Labor Center had a huge turnout and active discussion of joint organizing of shared employers. People came away from the meeting very excited about creating relations between workers in Cuba and workers in Los Angeles. Below is an article about the event.
July 7, 2017 9:39 AM CDT BY ERIC A. GORDON
Victor Manuel Lemagne Sanchez, Cristina Vasquez, Kent Wong | Eric A. Gordon/PW
LOS ANGELES—“Without culture there’s no nation, and no tourism.” So says Victor Manuel Lemagne Sánchez, vice president of the International Union of Hotels and Tourism for the Americas and the Caribbean, attached to the World Federation of Trade Unions. He is also one of six union leaders who represent their constituencies in the Cuban Parliament. “What other country in the world has that?” he asked.
Lemagne Sánchez is midway through his American tour, the first time since 2001 when representatives of the Central de Trabajadores de Cuba (Federation of Cuban Workers) have been granted visas to exchange ideas with the U.S. labor movement. He had already been to several other cities in California, and now would be heading east to Chicago, New York, and Washington, D.C.
Over a hundred union leaders and members, including Secretary-Treasurer Rusty Hicks of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, plus Cuba solidarity activists and politicos, came out to hear the Cuban leader at the UCLA Downtown Labor Center adjacent to MacArthur Park.
Kent Wong, director of the labor center, welcomed the crowd, saying that he had just been in Havana on May Day of this year, demonstrating with over a million Cubans for labor, justice and peace. He stayed for an international labor conference the next day which included a thousand labor representatives from everywhere in the world.
Cristina Vásquez, longtime L.A. labor and political activist, introduced the speaker, briefly recalling how must history has transpired since she first tried to get a Cuban labor leader to L.A. to speak—the fight to free the Cuban Five, the efforts to end the U.S. blockade, and now Trump.
Lemagne Sánchez recapped the history of the blockade and spelled out in millions of dollars just how costly and lethal it has been to the Cuban people. It has affected food availability and consumption, culture, biotechnology, the sugar industry, tourism, construction, energy, and mines. Despite President Obama’s historic opening toward diplomatic relations and more American tourism, there still remain financial, commercial, and banking restrictions which both limit development on the island and also constrain American business. In that vacuum other economic powers are free to move in.
At the same time, there are certain Cuban products with have also been withheld from the American public, tobacco, rum and nickel, for starters, but also biomedical advances in the treatment of cancer, diabetes, and vitiligo, a loss of skin color caused by the splotchy die-off of pigment-producing cells.
The fact that last year the United Nations voted for the first time unanimously against the blockade (only the U.S. and Israel abstained) has had no effect on Congress, whose responsibility it is to repeal the blockade measures. The blockade is already the longest-lasting economic blockade of one country by another known to history, and shows no sign of ending shortly.
Although tourism from the U.S. has jumped to now second place among all visitors to Cuba (Canada is first), there are still restrictions: Most people have to come in groups with a specific cultural, religious, scientific, educational, health care, sport, or media focus, although individuals may also go under those categories. But travel is not unencumbered. The U.S. is the only country in the world with limits on travel to Cuba. Without the blockade, the Cuban labor leader said, a projected two million more U.S. visitors per year would be arriving. He demonstrated his points with slides, and his remarks were fully translated for non-Spanish speakers.
In Sacramento, a few days ago, he visited both the California State Senate and Assembly, where he was received with honors. There were no mainstream media reports of those visits. In L.A., he was presented with a certificate of appreciation for his visit, which was prepared after he had left the State House, from Sen. Kevin de León, president pro tempore of the California State Senate, in which the senator expressed his gratitude for the visit and anticipated further and deeper bilateral connection in the future. He specifically mentioned the challenges of international cooperation in the Trump era.
Questions to the speaker
The most vital part of the evening came from the many different questions posed by audience members.
What about tours of union members, families, and groups to Cuba?
Our union is able to negotiate attractive group rates for low-income workers from the U.S., and such visits already take place from other countries. There are administrative glitches to work out, mostly coming from the precarious political situation now, but the will is certainly there.
What impressions do you have of the United States?
Most of my knowledge of the U.S. had came from reading and the Internet. Now that I am in the richest, most powerful country in the world, I am shocked to see the number of people in every city I’ve visited, sleeping under bridges. This doesn’t exist in Cuba.
What effect is Trump having on Cuba?
Much of Trump’s proposed changes in Cuba policy has not been implemented yet. But there is tranquility in Cuba—life goes on. We will be able to adapt to any changes that come along. We work without pause and without haste.
Is there labor democracy in Cuba?
Two years ago, a new labor code was being introduced. Changes were needed because of the newly privatized small businesses that have emerged, some of them in the tourist and hotel sector. Every single labor collective or bargaining unit in Cuba debated and discussed the proposed new law. We had 100 percent participation. The new law applies the same, and improved labor codes whether you’re working in the public or the private sector.
Are Cubans aware of the growth of the left and pro-socialist forces in the U.S?
Yes, Cubans followed the last election cycle closely and were very animated by Bernie Sanders. It’s a shame he wasn’t the Democratic Party candidate. But the fight against the far right wing is international, and it takes cross-border solidarity to build up the strength to oppose capitalism. People all over the U.S. are working against the embargo. One of our challenges is to use social media more effectively, because the commercial media do not adequately report about Cuba.
What changes have there been in Cuba?
Since the demise of the Soviet bloc system we knew we would have to change. We made a firm decision to keep our primary achievements, especially education and health care. People in Miami were packing their bags, but that didn’t happen.
How important is tourism?
The tourist industry directly employs 20,000 people, but the multiplying effect is huge. Every dollar invested in tourism pays back handsomely to support the overall Cuban economy. It’s the biggest contributor to the GDP.
How does Cuba feel about U.C. colonialism in Puerto Rico?
I don’t have many specifics about the situation there. The freeing of Oscar López Rivera was especially important for us. We have always expressed our deep solidarity with the Puerto Rican people.
One man in the audience said he was so fed up with Trump’s America that he wondered if he could stow away in the Cuban’s luggage.
Victor Manuel Lemagne Sánchez enjoyed a hearty reception in L.A., with the special farmworker clap and two standing ovations. It was a rare glimpse of the possibilities of solidarity in a world to come.
Victor Manuel Lemagne Sánchez’s tour of the U.S. is continuing, with appearances scheduled in Chicago, New York, and Baltimore.