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The Venceremos Brigade at 50: Challenging Empire, Uplifting Solidarity Since 1969

As the U.S. ramps up its global efforts to protect genocidal racial capitalism, it is a crucial time for a new generation to study and learn from Cuba’s 60-year effort to build an alternative socio-economic system.

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Venceremos Brigadistas at Fidel's grave in Cuba 2019
Venceremos Brigadistas at Fidel's grave in Cuba 2019, Venceremos Brigade

In January 1969, on the tenth anniversary of the Cuban Revolution, a group of radical American youth were inspired by Fidel’s call to help with the harvest of 10 million tons of sugar cane. The call came at a time when the Cuban economy was already being targeted by a strangling economic embargo first imposed by the United States in 1960. The Cubans welcomed the offer of support by these young people and later that year the first Venceremos (“we shall overcome”) Brigade of 216 people left for Cuba by way of Mexico. They helped Cubans cut cane for six weeks, gaining “direct experience of a Third World Socialist revolution.” (Venceremos Brigade, Levinson & Brightman, Simon & Schuster, 1971, p. 14.) At the same time brigadistas committed to confronting racism, sexism, and individualism within the Brigade in order to strengthen the possibilities for building unified political movement in the United States.

Since 1969, the Venceremos Brigade has brought more than 10,000 people from the U.S. to the island where they have worked together with the Cuban people on agriculture, construction and other material aid projects. To honor its fifty year history as the longest-lived Cuban solidarity organization in the world, the 2019 Venceremos Brigade mobilized 155 people from across the U.S. to show continued solidarity at a moment when the Trump administration is severely escalating economic, political and social warfare against Cuba.

60 former brigadistas, including three from the first brigade, participated alongside 95 people who had never been part of the Brigade before. The youngest person was fifteen years old and the oldest was eighty-six. As in the past, the Brigade was diverse in race, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, occupation and political affiliation and came from seventeen states across the U.S. It was unified in its commitment to three fundamental goals: to end the US blockade of Cuba and all US-imposed travel restrictions; to end the illegal US military occupation of Guantánamo Bay; and to strengthen movements for justice in the US through exchange and collaboration with Cuba.

I had traveled to Cuba with the Venceremos Brigade in 1977. At that time many radical U.S. political organizations looked to Cuba, and other global anti-colonial struggles, for inspiration and direction. Following Cuba’s lead, international solidarity was recognized as a key organizing principle. Over the past fifty years, solidarity practice in the U.S. has gone through many dramatic ebbs and flows. The FBI tried for decades to criminalize and demonize the Brigade and yet the Brigade has survived.. For me and many former brigadistas, VB50 was a unique opportunity to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Cuba’s revolutionary project and at the same time reaffirm the continuity of our own anti-imperialist commitments.

VB50 was hosted by ICAP, the Cuban Institute of Friendship with the Peoples and began with ten days at the beautiful Julio Antonio International Camp. This was followed by an educational tour of the island, including Guantánamo for those who stayed for three weeks (I was on the ten-day contingent). As with all previous Brigades, we had a chance to participate in collective labor alongside Cubans, which included agricultural work and preparing food at the camp.

The Brigade has also always stressed education about Cuba’s history and current reality. Having been on the Brigade in 1977 when Cuban solidarity with anti-colonial struggles in Africa was at its height, a highlight of VB50 for me was a presentation by Victor Dreke who had been in the Congo with Che in 1965. A descendant of African slaves, Dreke fought in the revolutionary struggle against Batista and was also a captain in the military units that defeated the U.S. invasion at Playa Giron (aka the Bay of Pigs) in 1962. In 1965 he went to the Congo as second-in-command to Che at the request of leaders of the Congolese national liberation movement after the CIA- backed assassination of Patrice Lumumba in 1961. Dreke’s reflections provided a bridge between this iconic history and Cuba’s current material and medical solidarity projects throughout Africa, which he still leads at 82. Dreke is adamant about Cuba’s future. “Cuba will never go back to capitalism,” he asserted firmly in an interview.

During our time in Cuba, we met with students, union leaders, scientists, professors, community organizers and communist party members. We heard about the outstanding achievements of the revolution in education, health care, women’s rights and the environment – accomplishments that have become so well known around the world that they are almost taken for granted, though they have been won through fierce dedication and exceptional innovation by the Cuban people.

The Federation of Cuban Women (FMC) described its advanced policies on reproductive health where abortion and contraception are readily available and free to all, remarkable at a moment when such services are being gutted within the United States. They discussed their ambitious plan to update the Cuban Family Code which was first enacted in 1976 over the next two years which will include the redefinition of marriage.

We toured Las Terrazas which was started in 1971 as a reforestation project during which 6 million trees were planted. It is now a unique bio-reserve and home to a community built on ecological sustainability. Significantly, Cuba’s forested area has almost tripled since 1959, despite mass deforestation in every other part of the world.  We also visited the Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology where we learned about cutting edge developments like Heberprot-P, an injectable medication used to treat advanced foot ulcers in diabetic patients by accelerating the healing process, a medicines which is unavailable, due to the blockade, to Americans who could benefit from such treatment.

All the Cuban representatives stressed that Cuba’s achievements have been accomplished despite the U.S. embargo and never-ending attacks by multiple U.S. administrations. As one member from the FMC stated, “We never forget that we are eternally threatened by an empire. We will defend our country to the very last, men and women alike.” Since our visit in July the assaults have continued on multiple fronts. USAID has recently initiated a program aimed at “financing actions and the search for information to discredit and sabotage the international cooperation provided by Cuba in the area of health in dozens of countries and for the benefit of millions of people. “ This smear of Cuba’s voluntary medical aid program indicates the lengths to which the U.S. will go to undermine Cuba’s humanitarian and moral stature in the world. And on September 11th, Twitter suspended the accounts of all Cuba’s large media outlets and their journalists without warning or explanation.

Johanna Tablada from Cuba’s Foreign Ministry described the current political moment as one of the most reactionary in U.S. history where every day new wild, unfounded accusations against Cuba are made and the embargo is elaborated “as a set of the most extreme manipulative and coercive rules on earth.” She pointed to the April implementation of Title III of the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, spearheaded by John Bolton. This provision allows Cuban Americans to sue in U.S. courts any company around the world that benefits from property nationalized in Cuba during the revolution. In June, the Trump administration further restricted American travel to Cuba by prohibiting people-to-people travel tours that had been made possible under Obama. Tablada declared that the U.S. is attacking Cuba’s sovereign right to build an alternative society. To mobilize international solidarity against this counter-revolutionary offensive, Cuba will be holding an Anti-imperialist Meeting of Solidarity for Democracy and Against Neoliberalism in the beginning of November with participants from around the world.

VB50 also heard presentations on the complicated issues of sexuality, gender and race in Cuba. A representative from Cenesex, the National Center of Sexual Education, described its founding in 1988 and its evolution as an agency leading in education and advocacy for LGBT rights. For example, Cenesex led the passage of the 2008 law which provides transgender persons with free sex reassignment surgery and hormone replacement therapy in addition to granting them new legal identification documents with their changed gender. According to Cenesex, there have been increasing efforts on the part of the U.S. to manipulate LGBT issues within Cuban society as another tactic in its destabilization agenda. This year’s annual Conga march against homophobia was canceled by the agency due to fears that it could be used to exacerbate tensions. Many in the LGBT community disagreed with the decision to cancel and organized an alternative march.

The presentation on race in Cuba included a showing of the film Raza made in 2008, which exposed the persistence of racism in Cuban society. The film catalyzed the establishment of the Aponte Commission which now serves as an oversight body to promote the elimination of racism inside Cuba. After the film, a panel of Afro-Cuban university scholars and artists made it clear that there is ongoing struggle and debate about race. However, panel members insisted that people from the U.S. needed to appreciate the many advances that have been made against racism in Cuba since 1959 and understand that race in Cuba has a different dynamic than in the U.S.

Since 1969, the Venceremos Brigade has also been committed to tackling “competitiveness, racism and male chauvinism” within the Brigade (Venceremos Brigade, p. 16). This has always been one of its most challenging tasks, due to the profound contradictions of U.S. society which are replicated within the left movement and inside the Brigade. The VB50 leadership was majority people of color and queer. Principles of transformative justice and accountability were prioritized as key methods for dealing with white and male supremacy and U.S. chauvinism. Organizers repeatedly urged brigadistas to ask questions in the spirit of genuine curiosity rather than bringing preconceived U.S. ideas of how things should be done. They also encouraged us to see the Cuban revolution as a process which is imperfect but has made enormous progress since 1959 and continues in the face of monumental obstacles. These perspectives didn’t eliminate contradictions but they helped brigadistas to address them when they arose.

On July 30th Fernando González Llort, President of ICAP greeted the Brigade in ICAP’s garden courtyard during the official ceremony marking the 50th Anniversary. Fernando had been one of the Cuban 5, imprisoned for almost 16 years in U.S. prisons on false espionage charges, sharing a cell for four years with Puerto Rican independentista Oscar Lopez Rivera. It was particularly moving for those of us who had been part of the successful campaign to Free the Five to meet Fernando in the context of the Brigade’s anniversary. Fernando thanked the Brigade emphatically for its ongoing solidarity and stated that the Brigade has demonstrated that, “Cuba is not and will never be alone.”

Leslie Cagan, who was part of the first Venceremos Brigade said that the Brigade “has taught us all that solidarity is much more than a beautiful word and that it must be taken on as a commitment to life, both individually and collectively, and live it, and practice it, every day.”

Two of the young leaders of VB50, Rachael Ibrahimi and Malcolm Sacks, stated unequivocally, “We have challenged our government and its unfair ban on traveling to Cuba and here we are, as the Brigade has been, year after year, to defend and also to help build this Revolution, convinced that a better world is not only possible, but essential.”

As the U.S. ramps up its global efforts to protect genocidal racial capitalism, it is a crucial time for a new generation to study and learn from Cuba’s 60-year effort to build an alternative socio-economic system. That system may be imperfect, but arguably it has advanced further than any other socialist project to date. Building collective solidarity with Cuba in defiance of empire has been the mission of the Venceremos Brigade for fifty years. It needs to be to be a priority for all of us who are determined to fight for a better world. ¡Cuba Sí ,Bloqueo No!