An embrace of solidarity, from Louisville to Havana

Henry Wallace Brigade spotlights Cuba’s quest for equality, LGBT rights and Afro-Cuban empowerment

In late December 2006, 26 Kentuckians from the Louisville area traveled to Cuba to learn about the country for themselves and to build bridges with the Cuban people.

We called ourselves the Henry Wallace Brigade, honoring the memory of a longtime Louisville activist who fought for civil rights, gay and lesbian rights, conservation and an end to war.

Wallace worked in Cuba as a journalist in the 1940s and 1950s during the Batista regime. There he witnessed the brutality and exploitation that in 1959 led to the Cuban Revolution. Returning to Cuba many times after the revolution, he was deeply moved by the changes under way there.

A tiny nation was carrying out missions aimed at ending institutionalized racism and establishing universal health care and education. Inequalities created over decades of rampant capitalism and tyranny were under attack.

Back at home in Prospect, Ky., Wallace wrote countless letters to local editors urging people to go see Cuba for themselves. Over the years, he provided encouragement and support for people to go there. His passion for the Cuban Revolution lasted to the end of his days.

Henry Wallace died in April 2006 at the age of 90. On his death, his comrades, friends and family members decided that a good way to honor his legacy would be for them to visit the country he loved so much. The Henry Wallace Brigade was born.

A diverse delegation

Organizers were committed to making sure the brigade would be a diverse and grassroots group of people. It came to include teachers, farmers, civil rights activists, LGBT rights activists, anti-racism educators, artists, students, filmmakers, hip-hop artists and HIV/AIDS advocates.

Three of Wallace’s daughters (including myself), a son-in-law and five grandchildren were part of a delegation remarkable overall for its diversity of racial and sexual identities, gender and income.

All of the participants undertook fund-raising efforts aimed at guaranteeing that low-income people could go on the trip. Bolstered by community support and drawing upon love for Henry Wallace, we raised almost $25,000 toward travel expenses.

Challenging the travel ban

Brigade members, who met almost weekly prior to their departure, engaged in a collective decision-making process that was instrumental in their decision to carry out the trip as a “travel challenge.” As with trips to Cuba organized by the U.S.-Cuba Labor Exchange, Pastors for Peace and the Venceremos Brigade, we traveled without the permission of or a license from the Treasury Department, which is responsible for enforcing the U.S. blockade of Cuba.

The decision to openly to challenge U.S. policies restricting travel to Cuba reflected our conviction that the 45-year-long trade embargo against the island nation should be ended. A majority of U.S. citizens, including Cuban Americans immigrants, concur.

Many of the travelers had never been to Cuba before. A few had never been outside the United States. As a consequence, prior to leaving the brigade held educational sessions on Cuban history and culture, international travel and possible customs problems upon our return to the United States.

Visiting an organic farm

On our first day in Cuba, most members of the group visited an organic farm in Alamar, just outside Havana, that grows fruits and vegetables. There we learned about the Cuban model of sustainable agriculture and about the farm’s collective ownership and service to surrounding communities.

The Cuban people have often turned adversity into opportunity. Faced with a lack of pesticides and chemical fertilizers, due to the U.S. trade embargo and the collapse of the Soviet Union, farmers undertook to expand organic farming. Now the economy has improved, and organic farming is a matter of a choice and a source of pride.

Meeting children of Che

A highlight of the visit was a morning meeting with Camilo and Aleida Guevara, children of Che Guevara, who described the origins and work of the Center for Che Guevara Studies.

Their discussion covered both the U.S. blockade of Cuba and the U.S. war in Iraq. Aleida pointed out the importance for Cubans of U.S. citizens’ protesting the actions and policies of our government. She recalled, “The Vietnam War was ended when the people in the U.S. demanded an end to it, and the same will be true for Iraq and for U.S. policy toward Cuba.”

Families of the Cuban 5

At an emotion-filled meeting between Brigadistas and family members of the Cuban Five — five Cuban nationals being held in U.S. prisons for having tried to foil terrorist plots against Cuba — we met wives, mothers and fathers who expressed the pain of their loved ones being so far away and of wives not allowed to see their husbands.

Imprisoned since 1998, the five men endure sentences ranging from 15 years to life. As we left the encounter, we committed ourselves to work for the release of the Cuban Five and to fight for the right of family members to visit them in prison.

Center for sex education

During our visit we met with Mariela Castro, director of the Center for National Sex Education (CENESEX). The organization approaches its work in a revolutionary way.

The center’s original focus was mainly on basic sex education, reproduction and health. It held workshops with mental health professionals, teachers and youth. It also identified homosexuality and bisexuality as healthy expressions of human behavior.

Today CENESEX, with centers in every province and in major cities, attempts to get rid of past stereotypes and lead in the recovery from past repression in Cuba of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people.

The goal of CENESEX, announced in 1986, is to “eradicate homophobia through education.” It attempts to add new a dimension to the campaign against prejudice, moving beyond strictly economic and legal measures. It originated during the era of the government’s “rectification process” that had been aimed at mistakes and weaknesses within the revolution.

Mariela Castro, the organization’s director, has been instrumental in advancing knowledge about the lives of transgender people and devising methods for supporting LGBT people and their families through counseling, legal assistance and other services.

Having a wide impact

Mariela Castro provided examples of the organization’s influence. Representatives met with the director and production associates of a popular television soap opera, “The Dark Side of the Moon,” seen as portraying a transgender character in stereotypical and negative fashion. The show’s producers went on to remove that character from the show, and afterwards featured a story line in which a married man falls in love with another man. Another soap opera, “Garden of Ferns,” now features a lesbian couple.

The visitors learned that CENESEX takes direction from the communities and individual themselves in carrying out projects. A group of transgender people, for example, have formed a team to carry out HIV education and outreach in their communities. Brigadistas visited a HIV/AIDS support center and toured its bus, which is driven by activists to social events and city centers, where they dispense information and condoms. The team provides anonymous counseling through a help line. HIV testing, while not mandatory in Cuba, is routine.

Uprooting racism

Delegation members had left Kentucky with questions about the persistence of racism in Cuba. Journalist and writer Gisela Arandia, a member of “Cuban Colors,” told about her group’s campaign to challenge racist images in the media and advertising, billboards being a prime example. She recalled Fidel Castro once commenting, “We are not a Latin American country but a Latin-African country.”

Arandia was critical of residual paternalist tendencies and the predominance of light-skinned and male Cubans in positions of political power. She pointed to efforts to bring more women, youth and Afro-Cuban people into elected positions.

Her description of the problem of the continuing dominance of Spanish influences on cultural expression in Cuba recalled for me a May 1 celebration I had witnessed on an earlier trip. Both West African Yoruba traditions and hip-hop dancing were featured, and a mélange of Latin and African rhythms was evident.

Afro-Cuban empowerment

Arandia introduced us to the “California Project” with which she is involved. Residents of a district with a rich cultural heritage organized themselves into work brigades to repair and restore substandard housing. In the process, talents and experience came to the fore as proud, empowered people created a vibrant community.

The La Guinera community became for the group a symbol of Afro-Cuban empowerment. Fifi, one of the leaders, described the projects of a women’s brigade that ended up transforming “a marginalized neighborhood.” They built a day care center, houses, health centers and community centers. Eventually, according to Fifi, the whole community joined in. The women made special efforts to involve at-risk youth, ex-prisoners and the unemployed.

Fifi described with pride the sense of unity felt within her community as the project, assisted by the government, evolved. Fifi had a leading role in a 1995 film entitled “Butterflies on the Scaffold,” made by U.S. journalist Margaret Gilpin. Depicting drag queens from the community organizing themselves into work brigades, the film promoted sympathy and understanding for the struggles of oppressed peoples, in particular those of La Guinera.

Coming home

When we returned to U.S. soil after our week in Cuba, many of us were defiantly wearing “Free the Cuban Five” T-shirts. While we encountered no serious problems from U.S. Customs agents, we did experience some harassment. This was especially true for the members of our group who are people of color or obviously queer; they always have a harder time in this regard.

We brought back enthusiasm and love from people we had encountered in Cuba. Now we are committed to doing all we can to end the U.S. blockade, to free the Cuban 5 and to support the right of all people everywhere to self-determination and dignity.

I recall the words of a young Cuban lesbian I interviewed: “The Cuban Revolution has never been static, it has always been changing.”

And once more after returning from Cuba, I am inspired by the creativity, ingenuity, and determination of the Cuban people to improve their society and to include all of their citizens.

One final point: We learned during the trip that in honor of the brigade, a Henry Wallace Center for Senior Citizens is going to be built in the heart of Havana.

Sonja de Vries is a filmmaker and activist in Louisville, Ky.