Breaking the Travel Ban: As the Venceremos Brigade marks 39th year of solidarity
The Venceremos Brigade returned to the United States this July 14, openly announcing to border agents that they had gone to Cuba, and without a license from the government. The walk across the Peace Bridge from Ontario, Canada to Buffalo, New York, marked the sixth anniversary of the brigade’s challenge to the travel ban on Cuba. Nearly 1,000 travel challengers have journey to the small island nation since 2003 when the Venceremos Brigade (VB) decided, along with their sister organization Pastors for Peace who simultaneously cross from Mexico, to up the ante.
Over 40 “brigadistas,” wearing matching t-shirts put their words into action and watched as the border agents tore apart their bags searching for anything that could have been obviously purchased in Cuba. Although they found nothing incriminating and let everyone go, they still took the opportunity to make copies of some of the travel challengers’ journal entries and personal documents to keep as evidence. The brigade has a policy of returning without souvenirs so they do not divert authorities from their real reason for their civil disobedience: the right to travel.
“It’s sad that people don’t know about Cuba,” said one first time brigadista from New York, referencing the futility many Americans feel about the possibility of making significant change in their society. Travel restrictions to Cuba serve as a means of hiding a thriving alternative to the American system. Americans “have no model on which to base a change,” explained the brigadista who asked not to be identified.
Before crossing, the brigade was met by a Canadian-Cuba solidarity group who acted as a neighborly morale booster to the soon-to-be crossing Americans. Ontario New Democratic Party provincial parliament member, Peter Kormos, even came to show his support to the brigade. On the other side, they were greeted again by an American welcoming crew.
Although the entire brigade got across without finding themselves in any trouble, they still run the risk of receiving a fine from the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), a part of the U.S. Department of Treasury, in the following months.
Herein lies the key misconception. There’s no getting arrested for going to Cuba because the current laws are only civil. While it’s still a serious matter to be fined thousands of dollars, the brigade has used each letter received as a way to challenge these restrictions in the legal system by requesting a hearing. However, to date, OFAC has dropped each case that the VB legal team has opted to fight.
During their two weeks there, members of the brigade were involved in all types of activities from volunteer work on a farm and in a publishing house, to conferences with members of Cuban society ranging from government ministries to trade unions and artists. “It was cool because aside from the physical work, we got to interact on a personal level with the people,” said Ashley Wolford. “Whether they really needed our help or not, I felt that it was more of gesture of solidarity than anything else … because of the blockade that my country placed on them, it made me want to work even harder.”
For many of the brigadistas this was the first time they had the opportunity to compare and contrast what they were always told about Cuba at home.
Over the years, the brigade has had the opportunity to see the changes that have taken place in Cuban society aside from addition of cell phones and Internet. “There are a lot more busses in urban areas, much more diversity in produce and the government has been replacing older appliances with new, more energy efficient ones,” explained brigade veteran Kathe Karlson, who commented on the fact that many of the public programs that she was told about on previous brigades are currently starting to bear fruit.
The fight to travel to Cuba legally began during the Kennedy administration, which in 1963, tried to restrict Americans from traveling to Cuba by making it illegal to spend money on the island or with its people, as stated in the Trading with the Enemy act. This act, which was originally passed in 1917 for wartime usage only, was later amended so the president can place countries of his choosing for a one-year period with an unlimited option to renew. Currently, Cuba is the only country listed as an enemy under this act as North Korea was just removed.
Historically speaking, it was out of this ongoing tense political atmosphere that the Venceremos (meaning “we shall overcome”) Brigade was born, with the aim of providing a friendly alternative to harsh U.S. foreign policy. At present, they remain the vanguard of the movement and an important counterweight to the U.S.’s harsh Cuba policy.
Just before the collapse of SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) in 1969, some of its members founded the VB in order to build a bridge between the United States’ revolutionary youth and an actual revolutionary society. From 1970 on, the brigade became a completely self-managing organization and was right in time to help out with Cuba’s unprecedented 10 million ton Zafra (sugar cane harvest). That year they recruited so many people (around 700) that they had to take a ship and a plane in what would be their largest brigade to date in order to lend a hand to the Cuban people in reaching this goal.
In the end, although the ten million tons were never reached (coming close at around 8.5 million), it still served as a learning experience for both Cubans and Americans alike. And it remains the same today; an educational exchange that hopes to break down the current obstacles that keep Cuba and the United States as enemies separated by ninety miles of sea and an arbitrary political blockade.
To obtain information about next year’s trip contact the brigade at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit venceremosbrigade.org.