May 19, 1921 – June 1, 2014
Yuri Kochiyama: The Trip to Cuba
The 19th Venceremos Brigade
From Passing It On, A Memoir
by Yuri Kochiyama
UCLA Asian American Studies Center Press 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
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
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
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 http://www.aasc.ucla.edu ISBN O-934052-38-7
(hardcover) ISBN O-934052-37-9 (softcover)
Read more about Yuri Kochiyama:
Civil Rights Champion Yuri Kochiyama Dies At 93 June 02, 2014 5:11 AM ET
Japanese-American activist and Malcolm X Ally, Yuri Kochiyama, has died
at the age of 93. She spent two years in an internment camp and helped
win reparations for Japanese-Americans.
Who is Yuri Kochiyama? (2004)
UCLA AASC 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 (2003)
The Last Revolutionary (2002)
"It's Time To Work Together" (2002)
With Justice In Her Heart (1998)
Who is Yuri Kochiyama? Listen to Yuri Kochiyama's interview with
which was broadcast on National Public Radio on Monday, August 23, 2004.
(this link no longer works. I'm looking for link which works for this
This page scanned and web-posted by Walter Lippmann, June 2004