The Venceremos Brigade: North Americans in Cuba since 1969

By Iyengar, Kavitha | The International Journal of Cuban Studies, Winter 2015 | Go to article overview

The Venceremos Brigade: North Americans in Cuba since 1969


Iyengar, Kavitha, The International Journal of Cuban Studies


As Cuba and the US approach normalised relations, the moment manifests with a presence that most US citizens have not experienced for decades. For most North Americans, the current shift is a complete turn from relations begun at the inception of the Cuban Revolution. In truth, this shift mirrors the work that the Venceremos Brigade has been realising for decades. I found the Venceremos Brigade among the weeds of the American Left, modelling a distinct and positive form of US-Cuban relations amidst a political context hostile to Cuba. Born from fraught relations, the Brigade has persisted throughout the period defined by negative relations and demonstrates how a productive politics can emerge from a politics of hostility: when mutual interests are involved. The current relational shift offers a new vantage point from which to reconsider US-Cuban relations - offering a space to explore the Venceremos Brigade.

The Venceremos Brigade was a political education project founded in 1969 by members of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) along with officials of the Republic of Cuba. The Brigade continues to travel to Cuba today, and to date has sent more than 9,000 activists to the island (Sale 1973). Those who have participated in the Brigade have done so to demonstrate support for the Cuban Revolution/Government, foster socio-economic growth in the country, develop political and social consciousness, and learn about Cuba. 'Brigadistas' have traditionally demonstrated support and helped to foster growth on the island by participating in national sugar harvests or housing projects, all the while learning from the Cuban Revolution. Today, brigadistas continue to travel to Cuba and work on the island while learning of its politics and culture.

Having begun ten years after the 1959 culmination of the Cuban Revolution, this long-standing North American project of support for Cuba should be known. The group's participants embody a recurring trend from the course of US history: North Americans negotiate the contradictions of the US's proffered patriotism that simultaneously allows for institutionally marginalising certain subgroups of citizens. The Brigade's participants demonstrate this historical tendency through their collective, demograph diversity - they represent a broad scope of the US along the dimensions of race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc. There is little written on the Venceremos Brigade within the pertinent historiographies - neither in the history of US-Cuban relations nor in the history of the New Left. The story's importance and relevance become increasingly apparent as our present moment asks us to rethink our orientation towards Cuba.

The age into which the Brigade was born was one dominated by a fundamentally anti-Cuban narrative. The narrative was historically constructed, having begun long before 1959, and the story has only marginally changed since the culmination of Cuba's communist revolution. Looking to Cuban-American policy today, we are entering a new policy arena, one governed by a decrease in hostility, a spirit of reconciliation, and fundamentally speaking, a future of productive relations between the US and Cuba. This is the US in which I read the Venceremos Brigade, not a US that was ruled by 'an impulsive force calling for the invasion of Cuba and the overthrow of its government' or a US ruled by 'expansionism and industrialism - the territorial urge accompanied by a search for markets' (Langley 1968, 185-186). Rather, I locate the Venceremos Brigade today, in an evolving political situation wherein the US president has begun to ease travel restrictions to Cuba, and diplomatic talks are transpiring between the nations for the first time in more than half a century. From this grounding, I articulate an untold story.

Although productive relations persisted beneath relations of hostility between the US and Cuba for decades, the American Left did not share the story of the Venceremos Brigade, during an era when Cuba and Cuban activism caused for crisis. …

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