Yuri Kochiyama: The Trip to
The 19th Venceremos Brigade
From Passing It On, A Memoir by Yuri Kochiyama
UCLA Asian American Studies Center Press 2004
Who is Yuri Kochiyama?
Listen to Yuri Kochiyama's interview with Tavis Smiley, which was
broadcast on National Public Radio on Monday, August 23, 2004.
It had always been my dream to go to Cuba with the Venceremos Brigade, but I didn't think that would be possible as I was in my sixties sixty seven years old to be exact when I applied. I didn't think that anyone as old as me would be accepted, but I later found out there were others even older than I was! I filled out my application, turned it in, and was accepted. I thank my husband for being supportive and helping me with the funds needed and taking care of the family while I was away.
I was also very grateful to Vilma Ramirez, a Chilean activist who kept encouraging me to try and apply. I was surprised to learn that of the 149 North Americans comprising the 19th Venceremos Brigade, some fifteen were senior citizens. The 1988 Brigade to Cuba ranged in age from fifteen to eighty-one.
After Cuba's victory, so many activists wanted to see what a socialist country would be like. The Venceremos Brigade, a left wing solidarity organization, developed work brigades to give grassroots organizers and activists an opportunity to go to Cuba to work together with the people there and experience first hand their way of living. It was such a golden opportunity to work, study, and learn about global liberation struggles and socialism in Cuba. There are still Brigades going to Cuba today.
Under the slogan "No More Contras Anywhere," the Brigade represented a broad cross section of students, workers, professionals, and retirees from all over the U.S. The gender breakdown included seventy two women and sixty nine men; the ethnic composition was sixty two whites and seventy-nine people of color (thirty-eight Latinos, thirty-two Blacks, three Middle Easterners, three Native Americans, and three Asians). The wide array of Brigadistas, however, was unified in their praise and admiration of Cuba's concerted efforts through self determination, its continuous struggle against the vestiges of racism and colonialism, and its effort to build a solid foundation for nurturing tomorrow's new socialist men and women.
The host organization, Cuban Institute for Friendship (ICAP), was instrumental in setting up tours and meetings, handling logistics, and recruiting speakers, translators, and camp work crew who were all exemplary hosts/ hostesses and emissaries of friendship.
Both eye opening and mind boggling for the North Americans was the spontaneous warmth and kindness of the Cuban people; the caring nature of medical practitioners (through the Family Doctor Units or hospitals); the humane policies of the penal system; the special programs for the elderly; the intensive construction work of the micro brigades; the work/ study combination in the educational system; and the deeply imbued patriotism of defending their revolution which seemed ingrained in all ages in the Cuban society.
Throughout our bus travels around Cuba, Brigadistas could see the tremendous amount of construction work sprouting in the hinterlands, by the ocean, or in the towns to meet the needs of housing, education, and health care. Cuba is truly a nation whose primary concern is the basic needs of her 10 million people beginning with the neediest. How different, we thought, from the U.S., where construction is geared toward building condominiums, luxury hotels, fashionable suburban homes, and high rise offices for corporations, while tens of thousands of Americans are homeless, jobless, and on the streets begging.
Members of Poder Popular took us to the Alamar area where workers (both men and women) in hard hats were busy at a construction site. They explained how Micro Brigades began in 1971. Castro's plan for 32,000 houses in a ten square kilometer area for 83,000 inhabitants was initiated. At the time of our visit, 25,000 had already been built as well as fifteen daycare centers, seven boarding schools, one polyclinic, sixty eight family doctor units, ten supermarkets, four trade centers, a furniture store, two textile factories, a coffee factory, a centralized laundry and kitchen, and three centers.
It was also obvious that education was one of the priorities in their socialist society. The Brigadistas were taken to a number of educational facilities and schools. In a Social Science class at an intermediate school, a Brigadista threw out the question "What is Marxism?" Without hesitation, a youngster rose up and explained: "Marxism is a doctrine to be followed by workers. It is a scientific philosophy where general problems of society can be handled by understanding matter and ideas. It gives us the possibility of performing the historical role of socialism." Although some Americans may consider the answer rhetorical and simple, most Brigadistas, were impressed by the answer, which revealed the seriousness with which students absorbed their lessons.
The concept of combining work and study, we learned, was proposed long ago by Jose Marti, whose prophetic ideas have given a solid base to Cuban education. At a nursing class for thirteen year olds, young girls were preparing to aid a birth. The realism of their demonstration was impressive. They even took the blood pressure of some of the visiting North Americans who watched in awe. At the Pioneer Center, dedicated to Che Guevara, youth from ages ten to fourteen were running the school's sugar cane factory, while high school science students were actually testing the sugar. Nine year olds were raising rabbits and chickens.
Another aspect of Cuban life is the importance of the elderly. Upon visiting a senior citizens complex where some 500 to 600 seniors congregated daily for exercises, excursions, and cultural activities, Brigadistas learned that 26,000 citizens in Havana belong to the Senior Citizens Club. The elderly are considered an integral part of Cuban society rather than being marginalized.
In fact, no one seemed marginal. Visiting a women's prison reinforced the socialist objectives of creating humane conditions everywhere. Inmates are allowed the right to work and earn salary. Bankbooks are issued to keep record of their earnings. A marriage pavilion allows the women to bring in husbands or boyfriends for conjugal visits. Even penal leaves are allowed to visit a sick child. A mother may go home for a year, then come back and finish her time.
In touring the prison, we noticed its dining hall had
tablecloths and beds in cells had attractive covers. There was a beauty parlor,
sewing room, library, pharmacy and medical facilities. Noticeable in the library
collection were the autobiographies of Angela Davis and Malcolm X, and also the
Case of Dred Scott and the History of the Black Struggle in America. The finale
of the prison visit was the presentation of the most fabulous musical
imaginable, filled with vibrant talent, gorgeous costumes, and the enthusiastic
backup audience of fellow inmates who roared approval along with the Brigadistas.
However, why were there a disproportionate number of Blacks in prison? At a hospital facility a Black woman doctor gave her personal experience of having been once at the "lowest rung" of hospital work as a clean-up person. "After the revolution," she explained, "Cuba made overt changes in outlawing racism." So she was able to enroll in a nursing school, became a nurse, was later admitted to a medical school, and today she is a full-fledged doctor.
On several occasions, Cuban leaders have brought up the issue of racism giving historical background from the Spanish conquest, the annihilation of the indigenous, and the colonization of a mixed-race people. They admitted that vestiges of racism exist, but they feel that institutional recism is being wiped out.
One of the most moving experiences for our North American brigade was visiting the Camp for Disabled Salvadoreans. They were young men, ranging from thirteen to thirty. These young men and youth were once guerrillas engaged in battles against Salvadorean government tyranny and the U.S. mercenaries. They had seen their mothers and fathers killed, brothers taken away, villagers massacred. Many were without limbs, some on crutches, and others in wheelchairs. Yet, they expressed optimism for the future of Salvador. They were the quiet, unheralded heroes in the grim civil war for liberation, airlifted out of the war zone for medical treatment and rehabilitation, harbored in the safety of the Cuban hinterlands. Meeting such freedom fighters was a humbling experience.
Another exciting moment for us was when we attended the International Workers Day March, held annually on May 1, when President Fidel Castro led a contingent of over 500,000 participants through the Jose Marti Revolution Square. Wave after wave of an almost unceasing flow of people marched for two hours in a spectacular parade of humanity, interspersed with giant floats that represented all the various branches of work and industry.
Colorful and moving were the banners and people representing the number of nations and liberation struggles fighting in the Third World young men and women who were attending schools in Cuba or beginning new lives in this international, socialist society. Some of the countries and organizations represented by the flying colors were Ethiopia, Angola, Mozambique, the African National Congress, Southwest Africa Peoples Organization, Nicaragua, and Palestine. The finale of the marchers was the impressive regular army of Cuba, marching in clipped cadence, and the heroic survivors of the Moncada Barracks struggle.
As the Nineteenth Venceremos Brigade, we felt proud to be part of this historical march, which is well known in the states as former Brigadistas have carried on word of this event through the years.
An unexpected highlight for many Brigadistas, especially the Blacks, was the brief encounters with the highly esteemed, recognized folk hero, Black revolutionary Assata Shakur. Seeing Shakur and her daughter looking well and strong was heartwarming. Another delight for us was the quick meeting with Don Rojas, the former press secretary for Grenada's beloved martyred Prime Minister, Maurice Bishop, on the last night of our stay.
The Brigadistas were impressed with the meeting and hearing of the leadership of the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR), the political and revolutionary arm of the Communist Party. Working on the level of the Block Association, the CDR leaders defined and explained their intricate role, accessibility to their communities, obligations, training, selection process, and the social issues they guide constituencies through using Marxist-Leninist philosophy.
We were also elated to have the opportunity to meet and talk with some of the leadership of the Women's Federation, during which a free exchange of questions and answers took place. Women's issues involved the family code, women in the labor force, parenting, childcare, divorce, prostitution, and homosexuality.
All in all, our two weeks in Cuba was an extensive learning experience of a post revolutionary building era of rectification and progression that would impact our own community work when we returned to the U.S.
We found the Cuban people not just work intensive but life intensive and joyful. The national psyche of Cubans was best manifested when the Brigadistas were invited by Poder Popular to a rousing block party in the town of Santa Cruz, in Jibacoa. The hospitality, generosity, openness, and gaiety of the party were earthy and spirited, and the Latin/Caribbean and Afro Cuban music and dance was plainly endemic to life and culture in Cuba.
The Julio Antonio Mella Camp (named after the Cuban martyr)
was the home away from home for the 149 North Americans that made up
the Brigade. The contingent felt sorrowful in leaving, but grateful for an
unforgettable and heartwarming experience. We expressed our sentiments in unison
many times, hoping the echoes of our shouting "Cuba! Cuba! Cuba! Venceremos
te saluda!" ["We will win!"] would reverberate until the next
brigade arrived. Recuerdo siempre. [Always remember.]
Passing It On, A Memoir by Yuri Kochiyama
UCLA Asian American Studies Center Press 2004
ISBN O-934052-38-7 (hardcover)
ISBN O-934052-37-9 (softcover)
Read more about Yuri Kochiyama:
Who is Yuri Kochiyama? (2004)
Publishes Memoirs of Yuri Kochiyama (2004)
A Woman Pioneering The Future (2003)
On War, Imperialism, Osama bin Laden
and Black-Asian Politics (2003)
Elegy for Safiya
To Work Together" (2002)
With Justice In Her Heart (1998)
This page scanned and web-posted
by Walter Lippmann, June 2004