A group shot featuring just a portion of the African contingent of the 50th anniversary Venceremos Brigade

African Solidarity with the Cuban Revolution

Fourteen days ago I was in Cuba, one of 160ish people there for the Venceremos Brigade – a solidarity delegation celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. The VB was started half a century ago, a first of its kind internationalist mission created by youth living and struggling in the United States who wanted to show their solidarity with the Cuban Revolution. The Brigade has shown up in many sizes and forms over the years but at its core it remains about people to people anti-imperialist solidarity in direct action form. The VB is an act of collective support for Cuba’s right to self-determination and an act of collective defiance against limitations on the free movement of US citizens and the devastating blockade that has stolen billions of dollars from the Cuban economy over the course of generations. In short the Venceremos Brigade is about acting in solidarity with Cuba, learning from the Cuban Revolution, and struggling collectively to build a better world and better versions of ourselves.

Before my time on the Brigade I already greatly admired the Cuban Revolution and the commitment of the Cuban people to an extremely principled form of international solidarity. I had read for a long time about Cuba’s internationalist missions that have provided military, medical, and material support to anti-colonial revolutions and struggles all over Africa and the global South. I knew all about Che’s mission in the Congo, about Cuba’s attempted resistance to the tragedy in Grenada, and about their sending troops to Guinea Bissau and Mozambique and Angola to help smash apartheid and European colonialism. I’d learned all about their sending medical support to Haiti after the earthquakes, about their fighting malaria in Tanzania, about their offer of free medical school to colonized students living in the US, and about their attempting to send medical support to Africans in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina – only to be turned away by the Bush administration. And  of course like any African revolutionary woman living and fighting in the United Snakes I knew all about and was deeply grateful for their harboring of African revolutionary and former political prisoner, Assata Shakur.

Fidel Castro greets  former Guinean President Ahmed Sekou Toure and former presidents  Agostino Neto of Angola and Luis Cabral of Guinea-Bissau during the  Non-Aligned Movement Summit in Cuba in 1979.
Fidel Castro greets former Guinean President Ahmed Sekou Toure and former presidents Agostino Neto of Angola and Luis Cabral of Guinea-Bissau during the Non-Aligned Movement Summit in Cuba in 1979.

For decades Cuba has displayed an uncompromising commitment not just to their own liberation and right to self-determination but also to the liberation and self-determination of all oppressed peoples, particularly Africans. Cuba has shown in word and deed for many years that they understand their freedom is ultimately inextricably connected to the freedom of all peoples and all life on Earth. They understand the capitalist-imperialist system that threatens them is global in reach and thus the fight to destroy it will require a global struggle to smash colonialism and build socialism – a war with many fronts. Cuba moves like international solidarity is essential to the future of humanity and life on Earth. Because it is.

So yeah, going into the Venceremos Brigade I already fucked with Cuba. I have also been a member of a revolutionary Pan-African socialist party for five years and as such I joined the Brigade with an understanding that building and fighting an anti-colonial socialist revolution is a largely slow and systematic process. Revolutionary organizing is comprised of more smedium steps forward, relationship building, learning from many many (many) mistakes, and interpersonal and ideological conflicts than moments of armed excitement. Because of that I was pleased to see that members of the 50th Anniversary Venceremos Brigade were prepared with a series of reading assignments and group discussions that were designed to get us comfortable with each other and exposed to some of the things we would be doing and experiencing that would be radically different in a socialist state. This mandatory political education covered everything from the food, to the water, to how to use the toilets (don’t flush the paper!), to how we were to treat each other – with grace, patience, and accountability rather than the fear of confrontation and trend toward disposability that we’d been taught in a settler-colonial capitalist context. We were truly going to a radically different place and we were prepped to become the new sort of people that it would require.

Our time on the VB was an extremely packed schedule of long bus rides, manual labor, cultural exchanges, political discussions, fancy receptions, and presentations from members of Cuban society like scientists, teachers, union leaders, students, veterans, sex educators, and community organizers. Every Cuban we met and our delegation hosts – members of the Cuban Institute for Friendship with the Peoples (or ICAP) – was warm, open, and patient with our many questions (even at times overly romantic and fawning questions) in a lot of broken spanish.

They were eager to share the truth about their revolution and the day to day process of building socialism as they understood it and experienced it. Not in the form of self-delusion or reactionary mythology, as we’re used to when hearing most self-identified Americans talk about the United States, but with a candor and willingness to self-criticize that was born from a sense of collective commitment to and ownership of their struggle and the ongoing transformation of Cuban society. So we learned about Cuba’s miraculous advances in the treatment of cancer and diabetes (your limbs don’t amputated if you get diabetes in Cuba – because they treat it soon enough and effectively enough to save them), about how Cuban citizens receive heavily subsidized housing, free education, and free medical care, about how Cuba is able to grow 80% of its own food supply,  but we also learned about shortfalls in growth and production, about being forced to go “green” out of necessity and scarcity after the fall of the USSR, and about the consequences of reacting too quickly to crisis and making serious mistakes.

A member of ICAP and also a veteran of Cuban internationalist missions to Africa, speaking at panel on the role of veterans in Cuban society.
A member of ICAP and also a veteran of Cuban internationalist missions to Africa, speaking at panel on the role of veterans in Cuban society.

There were many moments where we were able to witness this collective humility and honesty that the process of building socialism had developed within Cuban people, but two instances were particularly impactful for me. Some context: we spent the first ten days of the Brigade at a beautiful camp constructed for the purpose of hosting solidarity delegations from all over the world. We slept six to a room in concrete bunkhouses surrounded by avocado trees, hibiscus flowers, stray puppies, and tarantulas (I heard). It was idyllic, beautiful and I could describe it for hours. But the point is: when we got to the camp we were greeted with a warm reception and a number of flags representing nations all over the world. Front and center was the US flag. The immediate response from a number of us on the delegation was, “bruh, what the fuck is this.” To those of us who objected – African, Indigenous, Chicanx, and Palestinian colonized people struggling against settler-colonialism and empire – the US flag is a symbol of slavery, genocide, terrorism, and exploitation domestically and internationally. We learned from ICAP after raising the issue that the flag had been put up as an act of solidarity and welcome with citizens of the United States. But of course those of us who had been colonized by the United States could not feel represented.

Out the gate this struggle was interesting for several reasons – first that Cuban people were able to raise that flag in an attempt at solidarity with us after enduring blockades, sabotage, and invasion at the hands of an empire waving it for over 50 years was amazing to me. Cubans are able to separate the  US empire from it’s people in a way that holds us accountable – to solidarity with them and the oppressed world – but also holds us with love. Even while suffering under the US blockade they made enormous sacrifices – without saying anything! – in order to host us, feed us, heal us, house us, and teach us about socialism and their revolution. They are engaged in an existential struggle against US imperialism but they hold onto a remarkable compassion for US citizens as fellow living beings first and foremost. I personally do not yet possess that kind of grace towards the citizens of the great Satan and witnessing it from Cubans after all they’ve been through was humbling and awe-inspiring. Second, when we raised the struggle they didn’t retreat from it, they didn’t take it as an attack, and they didn’t try to sweep it under the rug. They faced it head on by asking us why it bothered us and they heard us. After some consideration and discussion they took it down. But they went even further than that in their commitment to understand and learn from the struggle.

An open ceremony to welcome the Venceremos brigade to the camp where we spent the first 10 days of the trip.
An opening ceremony to welcome the Venceremos brigade to the camp where we spent the first 10 days of the trip.

Some more context: the 50th Venceremos Brigade was remarkably diverse – the most diverse in its history. We brigadistas and responsables (the US-based organizers of the Brigade) were comprised of all races, ages, abilities, genders, and sexual identities – with a sizeable number of us being Africans of all ages. Elder Europeans represented the largest demographic (followed by Africans), then Latinx, Chicanx, Puerto Rican, Arabic, and East Asian comrades. A tiny minority of the brigade – just a handful of people – was Indigenous to the Americas. We learned later that these comrades were perhaps some of the very first Indigenous relatives to be part of the Venceremos Brigade.

Indigenous erasure, like anti-African racism, is a pervasive and border-less problem in a global context that has been dominated by European colonialism and imperialism. Cuba was not spared those contradictions. Throughout the Brigade we learned the history of successful struggles against first Spanish and then American imperialism but we heard scarcely anything about the resistance of Indigenous and enslaved African peoples that had preceded those struggles and indeed made them possible. One particularly jarring example of this came during a presentation on race and African identity in the Cuban context where a presenter, an African man and a professor, described the enslavement and rape of Indigenous and African peoples by the Spanish in pre-colonial Cuba as an inevitable consequence of leaving men without women for too long.

A statue of Carlotta Lucumí in Cuba. Carlotta was an enslavd African woman who led an uprising at the Triumvirato sugar mill in Cuba's Matanzas Province. Her name was later given to Cuba's 1980's operation Black Carlota in Southern Africa, which culminated in the battle of  Cuito Cuanavale that ultimately  lead to the negotiations that ended Apartheid.
A statue of Carlotta Lucumí in Cuba. Carlotta was an enslaved African woman who led an uprising at the Triumvirato sugar mill in Cuba’s Matanzas Province. Her name was later given to Cuba’s 1980’s operation Black Carlota in Southern Africa, which culminated in the battle of Cuito Cuanavale that ultimately lead to the negotiations that ended Apartheid.

It is important to understand that while this framing on rape and genocide is unquestionably rough as fuck it is not an attitude or a narrative that is indigenous to Cuba or any other colonized or formerly colonized place. The global spread of capitalism required the domination and enslavement of darker peoples all over the world through military, political, and ideological violence. Colonizers couldn’t just enslave us and massacre us and hope for that to take on it’s own, they had to develop a belief system that codified our exploitation by dehumanizing us – literally stripping us of person hood within the global capitalist system they built – and erasing our history, doing their best (but still failing) to destroy our culture and identity, and replacing it all with their own constructions. It’s why Amilcar Cabral refers to this process of conquest as “taking us out of history” (and decolonization as returning to history) and it happened all over the world. And so when this dark-skinned well-educated African man opened his mouth to repeat the conquistador’s perspective of pre-colonial Cuban history, we have to remember that he, with all of his degrees and contradictions, is the product of an intentional centuries long process that was designed to make him believe that that colonizer’s perspective is his own. We also only need to look so far as the academy (or the entertainment industry or the sports industry) within the US to understand that this indoctrination is not unique to Cuba.

So yeah: still rough as fuck. A widespread contradiction that we and Cuba have a responsibility to struggle against and overcome tho. And those comments were the catalyst for a generative and healing meeting among the colonized peoples on the Brigade in which we were able to be real about the Euro-centrism and the erasure of Indigenous peoples and pre-revolution anti-colonial resistance that we experienced on the trip.

After this meeting, the ICAP comrades approached the Indigenous members of the delegation and asked them for a deeper discussion of their history, their nationhood, and their relationship to the United States. A meeting followed in which a number of us showed up in solidarity and listened to the Indigenous comrades share their histories of five centuries of resistance with ICAP. The meeting began as a historical exchange and developed into relationship building with representatives of sovereign nations who were forging new ties on new terms. Once again, the Cuban comrades owned their mistakes and blind spots and listened with patience and humility.  At the end of the meeting they accepted a list of demands and committed to learning more about and moving in better solidarity with the Indigenous peoples of New Mexico and occupied Turtle Island. Leaving the meeting I had a sense that I had been party to something historic and those of us Brigadistas who’d had the privilege to sit in on it spoke excitedly about the possibility of Cuba forming independent relations with Indigenous and colonized nations fighting inside the United States.

Cuba and its revolution are not perfect or error free – no such nation or struggle has ever existed on this planet. But the remarkable thing about Cubans and their socialist revolution is that they have institutionalized a practice of collective self-criticism, learning, and collectivism on a society wide scale. In doing so they have managed to slowly and systematically create a new type of human and a new type of living and relating to each other and to the earth. Cubans don’t expect perfection of each other or their revolution,  but rather they expect and come with honesty, transparency, and accountability that can be used as a means to move forward collectively, even under seemingly impossible circumstances. They have transformed themselves into a resilient, honorable, and inventive people. When they fall short they say so and then they investigate why and then they do better. It reads so simple typed but coming from a context in which as El Hajj Malik el-Shabazz aka Malcolm X says “they won’t even admit the knife is there” it’s revelatory. Imagine a whole nation owning it’s shit. Before the Brigade I’d never seen it before.

So yeah. I am grateful for my experience on the Venceremos Brigade and I am committed to contributing to this revolutionary form of anti-imperialist solidarity between peoples. I was already fucking with Cuba before the VB but I would categorize my love back then as that of a shy fan-girl. Now, thanks to the Venceremos Brigade, I am an unapologetic and unconditional supporter of the Cuban Revolution. I have seen it’s on the ground reality. I have seen what it looks like when a people have decided collectively that they will be free and that they will be so in a just way on their terms and I will never forget it as long as I live.

Revolution is the sense of the historical moment; it is changing everything that must be changed; it is full equality and freedom; it is being treated and treating others like human beings; it is emancipating ourselves, by ourselves and with our very own efforts; it is challenging the dominant powerful forces within and outside of the social and national arena; it is defending the values one believes in at the cost of any sacrifice; it is modesty, selflessness, altruism, solidarity and heroism; it is fighting with audacity, intelligence and realism; it is never telling a lie or violating ethical principles; it is the profound conviction that there is no force on earth that can crush truth and ideas. Revolution is unity, it is independence, it is fighting for our dreams of justice for Cuba and the world that is the basis of our patriotism, our socialism and our internationalism.

Speech by Dr. Fidel Castro Ruz, President of the Republic of Cuba, at the mass rally called by the Cuban youths, students and workers on the occasion of the International Labor Day at the Revolution Square

Long Live the Cuban People and the Cuban Revolution.

End the Criminal US Blockade.  

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Onyesonwu Chatoyer is an African woman marooned in the United States, organizing to defeat capitalism, colonialism, and imperialism. She is an organizer with the All-African People's Revolutionary Party and the All-African Women's Revolutionary Union, an editor with Hood Communist, and also serves on the national committee of the Venceremos Brigade.