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Thursday 22 February 2018

To meet Castro would be 'dream come true' reveals ESB unions boss Ogle

The ESB union boss believes we could learn some things from Cuba, writes Shane Phelan Public Affairs Editor

IDEALS: Fidel Castro, the former communist revolutionary leader of Cuba
IDEALS: Fidel Castro, the former communist revolutionary leader of Cuba
ESB Group of Unions general secretary Brendan Ogle
US president Barack Obama shakes hands with Cuban president Raul Castro
VINTAGE CUBA: Many of the cars on the streets of Cuba are old
Shane Phelan

Shane Phelan

CONTROVERSIAL ESB union chief Brendan Ogle has spoken of his admiration for former Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, saying it would be "a dream come true" to meet the ageing communist revolutionary.

In fact, such is his love for Cuba, Ogle has visited the country at least seven times in recent years, often bringing union colleagues with him, and has thoughts of retiring there one day.

"It is a beautiful place. The climate is wonderful. The people are so friendly. The salsa music is great," he told the Sunday Independent.

And the mojitos?

"I've had one or two of them as well," he said.

But there is more to this attraction than just kicking back in a sunny clime, and it is clear that the Marxist-Leninist revolutionary ideals of Castro have had a big influence on the country's most outspoken union official.

He has read the Cuban constitution, studied the revolution and is full of praise for the country's education and health systems. He is also partial to a Cuban cigar and knows the best shops where you can get them in Dublin.

"I'd love to meet Fidel," he said.

Ogle said he would also like to meet Raul Castro, who took over as president from his brother in 2008, and particularly enjoyed seeing the historic handshake between the Cuban leader and Barack Obama at the memorial for Nelson Mandela last week.

"They would be very busy men. They wouldn't be interested in meeting random tourists like me," he said. "But I would love to. It would be a dream come true."

In his now infamous speech two years ago at a meeting of socialist republican group Eirigi, Ogle spoke of how the fight for the distribution of wealth would require "militant industrial action -- no holds barred".

There was something of Fidel Castro's rhetoric in that speech and although Ogle has apologised for elements of what he said, he has not softened his outlook.

He represents some of the best paid workers in the country and he will be damned if there is any further watering down of their income after the series of cuts they've endured in recent years.

With the dust barely settled on the ESB pension dispute, which had threatened to plunge the country into darkness in the run-up to Christmas, another row is already brewing over plans to sell off power stations in the midlands.

It won't be a surprise if this one ends up sparking the threat of industrial action too, with the unions and management currently diametrically

opposed on the issue. Ogle is already talking tough.

The only question is whether middle-class ESB staff will have the appetite to continue standing behind a union leader who leans so far to the left.

Ogle may be conscious of this, as he bristles at the notion he could be considered a communist.

"No. I wouldn't describe myself as one. I would describe myself as a workers' representative. I suppose I'm a socialist," Ogle said.

He is also keen to play down the significance of his trips to Cuba. It is nothing out of the ordinary as far as he is concerned.

"It is not North Korea we are talking about, it's Cuba," he said. "A gang of us go."

Sometimes he is accompanied by other union officials, sometimes by friends, sometimes by family members. The Sunday Independent understands his travel companions have included prominent members of the Electrical Services Union and the Technical, Engineering and Electrical Union.

He won't confirm who they are, but is adamant all of the trips were paid for from their own pockets and not from union dues.

Where they stayed was also not disclosed, but Ogle admitted they weren't slumming it and that there were plenty of top-notch hotels on the island.

"All the European hotel chains have huge facilities there. The biggest hotel chain in Cuba is Iberostar, which is a big Spanish hotel chain," he explained.

"Paradisus, the French hotel chain, also have several hotels in Cuba."

A separated father of two, he revealed he brought a girlfriend there once, but again didn't want to elaborate.

"My private life is off-limits," he said.

Whoever he goes with, they always hit Havana first before going "on a few trips here and there", he said.

"The roads are quite good. Some of the cars are quite old. Some of the transport is old. But it is getting better all the time.

"The railway network would be very old by our standards. But the bus fleet they have, for moving tourists around, is very modern or as modern as anything we have," he said.

Ironically, power outages are a feature of life in Cuba and Ogle is not completely blind to the shortcomings of the Castro regime, but puts a lot of the blame on the US blockade.

"There is a lot of poverty. It is a country that is in need of income," he said.

"Hopefully some day the blockade will be gone and the economy will be allowed to develop."

But he insisted: "Having said that, even if they don't have some of the luxuries we have, they have everything they need. They have a better health system than ours. They have the best health system in the world.

"They have universal healthcare. It is free to everybody at the point of use. It is a healthcare system that is based on need and not on means.

"They have a better education system than ours -- and this is country that has very little. We could learn from them on these things. That would benefit all the citizens of Ireland.

"The education system is free to all at the point of use and it is a one-tier system. It is based on work and academic ability. It is not based on means.

"We have a system which is two-tier. I am not knocking that necessarily, I am just pointing out the difference," Ogle continued.

"One part of our system is based on means rather than academic ability. The Cuban system isn't like that. For that reason, everybody gets access to the same level of education," he said.

"My view is that we need to understand how different systems work -- all the time trying to make things better for everybody.

"They have a lot to learn from us and we have some things we could learn from them as well," he said.

Irish Independent

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