In July 2007, nine members of the Young Communist League USA joined 51 other Americans on the 38th Venceremos Brigade to Cuba. Since 1969, Venceremos (“We shall overcome”) Brigades have been a way for Americans to show solidarity with the Cuban Revolution by working side by side with Cuban workers and challenging the U.S. economic blockade and travel ban.
This year, brigade members aided farmers in Caimito by weeding a 20-acre field planted with mango, guava and papaya. Any romantic notions of “working the Earth” quickly melted in the sweltering heat of the Cuban sun.
It took 60 Venceremos Brigade members along with brigades from places like Puerto Rico, India, Sweden, Greece and Canada four to five days to do an incomplete job on a cooperative farm normally staffed by six Cubans. Each day, we were joined by Cuban teachers, economists, veterans of the Revolution, members of the Union of Young Communists and others, talking as we worked.
Work wasn’t the only thing on the agenda. Brigadistas enjoyed two days at the beach, evening excursions to Havana, and a cornucopia of culture including children’s plays, museums, Cuban dance, folk and hip hop music — and did anyone say dance lessons? Manuel Beltran of the Chicago YCL said he particularly liked the La Colmenita children’s play, a revolutionary take on Cinderella, “because it used art and culture to teach kids English.”
Nearly every night ended with a party.
The brigade visited an orphanage much different from what U.S. youth are familiar with. We were told the orphanage’s function was to prepare youth for their future lives as adults. When we asked if orphans are “kicked out” when they turn 18 like in the U.S., the coordinators looked baffled and noted that once orphans finish school, they wait for a house to become available before leaving. Konrad Cukla, a YCLer from Milwaukee, was struck by the fact that “even orphans go to the university for biochemistry!” He commented, “With all of America’s resources, a system like this that puts people before profits would be so incredibly awesome.”
In meetings with Cuba’s young Communists and the Federation of University Students, YCLers learned about the struggles of Cuban youth for access to information technology and more of a voice in curriculum development, and about their debates on shaping socialism in Cuba.
At Cuba’s unique National Center for Sex Education, we learned about Cuba’s ongoing campaign for healthy sexuality. Although they have experienced great success in popularizing comprehensive sex education throughout the country, the center’s director, Mariela Castro, said many Cubans still suffer from homophobia. She said the center was fighting to get surgery and medical care for transgender individuals covered by the national health system. We were told that gay marriage is not yet legal. However, we noted that gay Cuban couples have the same rights to housing, jobs and health care as married couples.
With all the hype around Michael Moore’s movie “Sicko,” we eagerly anticipated an appointment with a local polyclinic that serves about 29,000 people. Polyclinics give intermediary care beyond a family doctor but short of a hospital.
Bewildered about gun violence
The polyclinic’s director made it clear that patients can also walk in and receive treatment there. She said Cuba’s medical system centers around prevention. Katie Castellano, a YCLer from Harlem, recalls that a brigade member asked the director about gunshot wounds. “The group of doctors behind her couldn’t help but laugh and show bewilderment,” Castellano said. For these Cuban doctors, gunshot wounds were something out of the ordinary.
Brigade members visited the Latin American School of Medicine and were invited to join the four U.S. students at graduation ceremonies. Ursula Mlynarek of the Milwaukee YCL noted that the school had “a huge map of Africa on the wall right near the entrance” showing where Cuba has doctors stationed. It showed “the love and commitment that Cuba gives to the rest of the world,” she said.
During a meeting with Cuban trade unionists, brigade members pondered how unions work under socialism, and they studied the complexities of racism in Cuba with Clinton Adlum of the University of Havana. Discussions dealt with the remaining inequalities in Cuba, and how the Cubans are struggling to overcome them.
In a meeting with Cuban economists, they discussed the country’s decision to expand the tourism industry as an act of desperation during the special period of economic hardship after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Panelists spoke about the positive influx of income to Cuba, while acknowledging an increase in corruption and inequality. Our delegation had a mixed response, with some fearing it was “the beginning of the end” for Cuban socialism.
It reflected the reactions of the young Americans throughout the trip. Some had imagined a socialist paradise in Cuba. They often expressed shock when the Cubans talked about problems. Others felt that the situation in Cuba was almost too good to be true, and voiced hesitancy that lifting the blockade might smother such a wonderful system.
‘We have a lot of progress to make’
Cuba’s young Communists and student activists told us that although they will have to deal with a new series of problems with the introduction of capitalist influences, lifting the embargo is still the most important demand of the Cuban people as it would provide much needed supplies, including medicine, to the country. Cubans told us that their revolution is an ongoing struggle for justice and peace. “We ourselves are the main critics of the Revolution,” said Basilio Gutierrez of the Cuban Institute for Friendship Between People. “We know we have a lot of progress to make.”
The brigade met with veterans of the Cuban Revolution, some who worked directly with Ché Guevara. We met with members of the Cuban press, the Cuban Federation of Women and the Jurists Association, where we learned about their electoral and legal system.
Brigade participants also got a dose of the right-wing propaganda of the U.S. Interests Section, constantly bad-mouthing the Cuban government on an electronic billboard outside its offices. But it was difficult to locate a Cuban, even the youngest child, who did not disdain “Plan Bush,” a 2004 State Department document which called for actions to “hasten” Cuba’s “transition from Stalinist rule to a free and open society.”
For the July 26th celebrations marking the Revolution, the brigade attended a solidarity event with Ricardo Alarcón, president of the Cuban National Assembly. Alarcón moved us Americans when he said, “In the ’60s there was a song ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water,’ and you have crossed that bridge many times. There will come a time when you cross that bridge, and the waters underneath it will be quiet.”
Matt Parker, a YCLer from New York, called the trip “the most fun and rewarding two weeks of my life.” He commented, “After listening to what our media has to say about Cuba, you expect to see people wearing rags. Not so.” Cubans, he said, “were better dressed than us Americans.”
Carlo Gentile, of the YCL’s Washington, D.C., club, was impressed by Cuba’s “huge emphasis on education, health, culture and caring for others.” It proves that socialism can really help develop human beings for a better world, he said.
The Venceremos Brigade returned to the United States on July 28, crossing the Peace Bridge from Canada into Buffalo, N.Y. The nine-member YCL delegation was now 13, as four new members joined during the trip. To have one of the YCLers speak to your group about the trip, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information on the brigade, visit .
Erica Smiley is national coordinator of the Young Communist League USA.