A Cuban labor leader continues his American tour in Los Angeles
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 much 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 which 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 come 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.S. 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. See full tour details.


Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon, People’s World Cultural Editor, wrote a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein and co-authored composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography. He has received numerous awards for his People's World writing from the International Labor Communications Association. He has translated all nine books of fiction by Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese, available from International Publishers NY.