In 1969, a coalition of young people formed the Venceremos (We Shall Overcome) Brigade, as a means of showing solidarity with the Cuban Revolution by working side by side with Cuban workers and challenging U.S. policies towards Cuba, including the economic blockade and our government’s ban on travel to the island. The first Brigades participated in sugar harvests and subsequent Brigades have done agricultural and construction work in many parts of the island.
Now, in 2004, the VB is celebrating its 35th Anniversary. Over the last 35 years, the VB has given over 8,000 people from U.S. the opportunity for a life-changing experience. While the trip has evolved over time, the Venceremos Brigade has always kept its format of work, educational activities, and travel. In addition, we remain committed to organizing the most diverse contingents possible; Brigadistas are young and older, of many races, nationalities, socioeconomic classes, and sexual orientations. The oldest Cuba solidarity organization in the world, the VB has never requested permission from the U.S. government to go to Cuba – and we never will! We believe it is our right as U.S. citizens to travel free of U.S. government obstacles. We also believe that we have much to learn from Cuba and the best way to do that is to travel there and see for ourselves.
Last summer, the VB joined with the IFCO-Pastors for Peace Caravan in declaring our most public and open challenge to the travel restrictions yet. We decided to organize a large and visible Travel Challenge because of the unique political climate of the times. Bush was increasing harassment of both “licensed” and non-licensed travelers. He eliminated the second largest category of so-called legal travel – the “people to people educational exchanges – and tightened the travel categories still allowed. Yet, polls showed that over 75% of the U.S. public, and over 50% of the Cuban American community, support an end to the travel ban. We knew it was time for people of conscience to make our challenge in a powerful and public way.
Our Travel Challenge was extremely successful. After spending 2 weeks in Cuba (during which we painted a neighborhood health clinic and celebrated the 50th anniversary of the attack on the Moncada Garrison), 80 Brigadistas and many supporters walked over the International Peace Bridge from Canada into Buffalo, New York. Customs officials were expecting us–as was a large rally of supporters who welcomed us on the U.S. side of the border. When faced with this organized political resistance, the U.S. government backed down. The Bush Administration is well aware that there is little support among the U.S. people for its policies towards Cuba. Not one Brigadista was harassed while crossing and to date no one from the last contingent has been fined or threatened by the U.S. government.
However, since our return to the U.S., the Bush administration has increased its attacks on travel to Cuba. After both Houses of Congress voted overwhelmingly against the enforcement of the travel restrictions in November, a special joint congressional committee stripped the Cuba provision from the bill and left the travel restrictions in place! For the first time in history, judges have now begun to hold hearings in order to fine people who have allegedly made “illegal” trips to Cuba ! The Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, charged with the responsibility of enforcing the travel restrictions, has already scheduled many hearings and has several thousand cases pending.
In October 2003, Bush formed a new “transition commission” headed by Secretary of State Powell to study further ways to overthrow the Cuban Revolution. Bush ordered hundreds of Homeland Security agents to interrogate and harass more than 44,000 legal travelers on their way to Cuba. Several organizational religious licenses have been suspended. Criminal investigations against unnamed organizations have been ordered. Top Administration flunkies have made slanderous attacks on Cuba with no evidence whatsoever. Candidates for office in Florida speak openly of favoring an invasion of Cuba and millions of U.S. taxpayer dollars continue to be appropriated for the subversion of the Cuban government.