Over 50 years of solidarity with Cuba.
In 1969, a coalition of young people formed the Venceremos (“We Shall Overcome”) Brigade in an act of solidarity with the Cuban Revolution, by working side by side with Cuban workers and challenging US policies towards Cuba, including the economic blockade and the US government’s ban on travel to the island. The people who came together to initiate this project represented a broad cross-section of the radical movements of the era: they were members of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Communist Party, the Black Panther Party, the Young Lords, and other organizations on the frontlines of the struggles for socialism and against racism, sexism, and US imperialism and war.
The first Brigades, comprised of as many as 700 “brigadistas”, traveled to Cuba via converted cattle ship and participated in sugar harvests across the island; subsequent Brigades, traveling by more modern means, have continued this legacy in agricultural, construction, and light manufacturing work: whatever has been needed.
In the last 50 years, approximately 10,000 people from the US have traveled to Cuba with the VB, including elected officials, labor leaders, artists and entertainers, academics, activists, and social movement leaders, among them the late Yuri Kochiyama, who described the experience in 1989 as a “golden opportunity to work, study, and learn about global liberation struggles and socialism in Cuba.”
The post-1989, post-9/11/2001, and post-2008-financial-crisis world is a different one (now, the post-2020 world). Much has changed in Cuba and in the United States, in the relationship between our governments and peoples, and in the movements of the left globally. The VB has repeatedly adapted in response to these changing conditions.
Economic realities have made brigades smaller and shorter, with programs more focused on education than labor. Political ups and downs have led to strategic and tactical changes, including the use of public civil disobedience (“travel challenges”) from 2003-2017 and, since 2019, licensed direct travel. Dynamics within the Cuban Solidarity Movement have challenged the network of volunteer organizers and activists who sustain the VB to develop new structures for carrying out its work.
The structure of the Brigade has shifted and the size and capacity have waned; however, the significance of this project for Cuba and for the US movement remains. The Venceremos Brigade still manifests friendship and solidarity with the Cuban people and their revolutionary process through voluntary work and educational exchange. The Brigade still challenges the blockade and other attempts to isolate Cuba by building liberated relationships between our peoples and sharing the realities we see and experience. And the Brigade still represents a unique opportunity and context for people in the movement to practice being in revolutionary community and to assess our ability to do so. In the words of early VB leaders writing in the 1971 book, Venceremos Brigade, “a chance to come together in an ‘ordinary’ revolutionary situation and see if it is possible for [US] American radicals…to live and work hard together in a structured, disciplined, collective way.”
The impact of this project extends beyond individual transformation to victories in the spheres of public opinion, policy, and enforcement. In 2004, one year after the VB partnered with Pastors for Peace to enact the first public travel challenge, the two groups’ return from Cuba garnered unprecedented media coverage, including articles in more than 300 newspapers and dozens of TV and radio stations. Despite FBI harassment of VB organizers, and thanks to a robust response from the VB legal team, in 2007, the US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control reported that attempts to strictly enforce the travel restrictions against Pastors for Peace and the VB had resulted in “a public relations and enforcement dilemma” and all but stopped pursuing cases against unlicensed travelers to Cuba.
Finally, in late 2014, the US government conceded the failure of the blockade and initiated a process of rapprochement with Cuba, beginning with the liberation of the Cuban 5 political prisoners. Their freedom is a victory that cannot be undone, but many of the gains made through executive order under the Obama Administration were rolled back by Trump, who added 243 unilateral coercive measures to the Cuba sanctions program, most of which have been upheld by Biden. As the US government continues its systematic attempt to strangle Cuba and overthrow the revolution, the work of the VB is as relevant as ever. The struggle continues.
Want to go to Cuba with us?
The 52nd Venceremos Brigade is traveling to Cuba in 2024. Get on our mailing list now to get updates on the organizing and be notified when the application opens.