Not deterred by tougher U.S. laws, Brigadistas prepare new trips to Cuba

By Minnie Bruce Pratt

September 30, 2004--The U.S. government has recently intensified its attacks on Cuba. But supporters of that revolutionary country are breaking the U.S.-imposed economic and travel blockade in ever greater numbers. And the Venceremos Brigade is leading the way, as it has for the last 35 years.

On July 19, brigadistas who had traveled to Cuba defied the U.S. government once again, completing their trip by crossing the border with a march across the International Peace Bridge between Canada and Buffalo, N.Y.

Joined by activists from the African Awareness Association and the U.S. Cuba-Labor Exchange, brigadistas chanted, "Who's gonna break the travel ban? We're gonna break the travel ban!" and "Cuba sí, bloqueo no!"

The Brigade has never requested U.S. permission to travel to Cuba.

Immediately on their return, brigadistas began organizing for next year's trip. Regular meetings and committee structures are already in place. Interest in traveling with the Brigade is reaching an intensity not seen for decades.

The heightened travel ban now restricts Cubans living in the United States to visiting their family members in Cuba only once every three years. The ban also severely limits how much money those in the United States can send to relatives and friends in Cuba.

These strangling new restrictions prohibit any significant contributions from people here to the Cuban victims of Hurricane Ivan, classified a Category 5 storm, the worst to hit the island in over 80 years. Despite this, defiant supporters of the revolution, like the Bay Area Cuban Alliance, are mobilizing to send help.

Of the increased interest in travel to Cuba, Brigade spokesperson Bonnie Massey says: "I think people are upset about the war in Iraq, about what's going on domestically--with women, with people of color, and with poor folks--so they are more willing to keep an open mind about the role that the U.S. is playing in the world. Also, the extreme measures that Bush has taken against Cuba and those of us who do travel there have definitely galvanized people."

Venceremos means "We will win!"

Formed in 1969, the Venceremos Brigade is the oldest Cuba solidarity organization in the world. Brigadistas travel to the island every year to show solidarity with Cubans by working alongside them, and also to challenge the economic blockade and travel ban imposed by the United States. In addition to work assignments, the brigadistas participate in educational and cultural visits.

Bonnie Massey comments: "Traveling with the Brigade gives you a chance to contextualize the things you see and hear--and there is also a tremendous sense of history. Cubans all over the island know about the Brigade, and repeatedly have expressed how important the work we do is to them. This year, for instance, we were given the prestigious 'Distinguished Visitor to the City' award by the mayor of Santiago."

They met the families of the Cuban Five, who are imprisoned in the United States, as well as artists from the Cuban Hip Hop movement and organizers from the Fede ration of Cuban Women. They visited several neighborhoods as guests of the local Committees for the Defense of the Revolution. These community-based organizations are legendary for uniting the daily lives of the Cuban people with the broader plans and hopes of the revolution.

Some participants spent time with Assata Shakur, a former Black Panther leader who escaped a U.S. prison in 1986 and sought asylum in Cuba.

More plans for strengthening support for the Cuban Revolution are under way. The National Network on Cuba, an umbrella group that opposes the U.S. travel ban and blockade and advocates "normalizing" U.S. relations with Cuba, will hold a conference in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 1-3. For more information, go to www.CubaSolidarity.com.

IFCO/Pastors for Peace provides ongoing support for Cuba as well. This includes the annual Friendshipment Caravans breaking the blockade to bring educational supplies, books, art materials, construction supplies and even vehicles like school buses and ambulances in solidarity to Cuba. For more information, see www.ifconews.org.

Contingent forming now

Massey urges people who wish to travel with the Brigade to apply soon, saying, "Crossing the border as a brigadista, doing a travel challenge, has been one of the most politically fulfilling experiences I've had."

The Brigade actively organizes contingents that are diverse in many ways, including a wide range of ages, nationalities, socioeconomic classes and sexual orientations. It is currently accepting applications for the 36th Contingent, tentatively scheduled for July 17-Aug. 1, 2005. Scholarships are available, depending on the success of fundraising efforts.

Completed applications received by the Brigade no later than Dec. 31 will get a $100 deduction off the total cost of the trip.

For more information about costs and schedule, contact the Brigade web site at www.venceremosbrigade.org, send an email to vbrigade@aol.com, phone (212) 560-4360 or send a letter to Venceremos Brigade, P.O. Box 5202, Englewood, NJ 07631-5202.

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