Fidel Castro’s death on November 25 brought memories of the time, 46 years earlier, when I heard him speak in Havana. I was part of a group of anti-Vietnam War activists from Madison, Wisconsin, who traveled to Cuba with other Americans in open violation of U.S. policy. I have recently been writing a memoir, including my reflections on that long-ago trip.
In the fall of 1969, hundreds of young Americans had begun traveling to Cuba. They were part of a group called The Venceremos Brigade, volunteering to help with the great 10 million-ton Cuban sugar harvest that season. Three friends of mine were part of the second “brigade” in the spring of 1970. They returned excited by what they’d seen and recruited me for the third brigade, set for August.
We left Madison on August 19, riding on a bus to the port of St. John, New Brunswick. From St. John, we would sail to Havana on a Cuban freighter. It was tied up in port when we arrived. We climbed up the long gangplank and were shown to tightly packed bunks in the ship, where we’d be sleeping during the trip. The freighter was called the Conrado Benitez. It was named for a teacher who’d been killed by anti-Castro guerrillas during the Cuban Literacy Campaign that began shortly after the revolution of 1959. Defenders of Castro’s revolution considered Benitez a martyr.
It took nearly a week to reach Cuba. The trip down was pleasant, with calm seas, light winds, and flying fish and dolphins leaping alongside our vessel. Because our quarters were tight on the converted freighter, we spent as much time as possible out on the deck.
I met many of the 400 other volunteers from around the country. They were a diverse group. While most of our Wisconsin group were not extreme leftists, some volunteers from other states spoke freely of “picking up the gun to fight imperialism” when we returned home. I found such language foolish, especially after the deaths of several members of the Weather Underground in bomb accidents earlier that year.
Partway to Havana, we received some shocking news. Someone had blown up the Army Mathematics Research Center at the University of Wisconsin. A few members of our Wisconsin group cheered the news, considering the attack on Army Math a blow against the war and the university’s complicity with the military. But Roger Quindel, a Vietnam veteran from Milwaukee, and I were more circumspect. A graduate student from South Africa had died in the explosion. Whoever had perpetrated the crime wasn’t trying to kill him; they didn’t know he was hidden away in the basement doing research in the wee hours of morning. Roger and I believed that violence would only provoke a more powerful backlash while alienating many possible allies. We were right; when we returned to Madison, support for anti-war activities had waned considerably.
We arrived in Havana early on August 26, 1970, my 24th birthday, excited to be in Cuba. We passed ships with Russian names and flags and the old fortress of El Morro. When we landed, we were immediately escorted onto buses for a trip to a port on the south side of the island and an eight-hour trip on a huge ferry boat to the Isle of Youth, the place where Castro had been imprisoned 17 years earlier after his first, ill-fated attempt at revolution.
There, we would work in citrus fruit production, since the zafra, or sugar harvest, was now over. At its end, Castro had admitted defeat. Instead of the hoped for 10 million tons, the harvest had produced 8.6 million, still the largest haul ever but far short of the goal. And the focus on the giant harvest had created bottlenecks and difficulties in many other sectors of the economy. All in all, it had been a fiasco. To his credit, Castro did not hide this from the people.
We arrived in the small city of Nueva Gerona, the capital of the island, well after dark and were rushed onto another set of buses for the half hour drive to our camp. The next day, we received our work clothes, boots, red bandanas, and broad-brimmed hats. We were welcomed by the director of our camp, an impossibly-thin, no nonsense, black Cuban named Julian Rizo (who ended up being the Cuba ambassador to Grenada when the U.S. invaded that country in 1983). Only 26 when we met him, he had a maturity and confidence that made him seem much older. He thanked us for coming to help Cuba, and for resisting the embargo the Americans had placed on it. He set down some rules for camp life. Weapons of any type would not be tolerated. Nor would fighting or any efforts to cut in the long lines that gathered for meals. There had been a problem with that in the previous brigade. It was intolerable in a collective situation.
Rizo said the CIA and FBI would be encouraging such behavior, and the Cubans would be watching out for it. He also requested that we avoid overly revolutionary rhetoric or talk of violence. He said he was sure there were agents among us, and we should not give them any ammunition to use against us after we returned to home. Change in the United States would come from persuasion and by electoral means. Rizo said the Cubans hadn’t had such an opportunity because Castro was rebelling against a brutal dictatorship.
For the next month, we worked in the citrus fields five and a half days a week. A burst of music called De Pie – On Your Feet – woke us each morning at 5:30 a.m. Breakfast was served at six, cafeteria style on metal trays. By shortly past seven, we were loaded on trucks and driven to our work sites, which were at least half an hour from camp. We planted orange trees, fertilized grapefruit trees, and picked lemons, rotating so we all spent time on each activity. We stopped at ten for merienda, a break with sweet cakes and coffee, then continued working until noon, when we returned to camp for lunch and a siesta. By 2:30 p.m., we were back in the fields and continued work until 6:00 p.m.
Among our Cuban interpreters were Gilda and Armando Echeverria, a brother and sister team. She was 20, he 19. A decade earlier, as children, they’d left a comfortable middle-class home in Havana to live in the countryside with illiterate peasant families teaching them to read. They were among the youngest teachers in this giant “alphabetization” campaign, perhaps the most successful improvement in literacy in history. In a short time, the teachers in the campaign, most untrained like Gilda and Armando, raised Cuba’s literacy rate from 70 percent to well over 90.
As we planted and fertilized young orange and grapefruit trees, I grew vaguely conscious that what we were doing made little ecological sense. The soil we were planting in was hardpan. Bulldozers had quickly stripped all the tropical cover from the earth in a hasty effort to increase citrus production. Here and there in the fields were enormous mounds where the bulldozers had pushed all the vegetation and most of the fertile topsoil. The mounds were small jungles of vegetative profusion. In due time, the trees we planted would be probably be dead from lack of water; they simply could not grow in the hard earth that had been left by the action of the bulldozers and into which the rains could not penetrate.
Moreover, the chemical fertilizers we sprinkled around the grapefruit trees did not stay there. With the first rains – and there were rains on many afternoons (casting beautiful rainbows over the countryside!) – they were washed into nearby gullies to run into reservoirs that would likely soon be covered by algal bloom.
While I was suspicious of our practices, I had no training that would allow me to question them. I did not fully realize how mistaken they’d been until I returned to Madison and read a scathing report on Cuban agriculture by Rene Dumont, a left-wing French agronomist who described precisely what I had been observing and how destructive it was.
The intentions of the Cuban leaders were good; they wanted to produce citrus fruit both for domestic consumption and to sell abroad for much-needed foreign currency. But in their hurry, they left science behind. In time, the Cubans realized their errors, but by 1976, Cuban agriculture was one-third less productive per acre than it had been when Castro came to power.
On the other hand, many things in Cuba were very impressive. The town of Nueva Gerona was lovely and free of the billboard clutter that mars most small American towns. The school children in their sparkling clean uniforms were precocious and direct, with none of the shy deference one often sees with poor children in other poor countries. They seemed well-educated and very healthy. While their knowledge was colored by government propaganda, they were far more informed about the world than American children of the same age. Moreover, people we spoke with in Nueva Gerona seemed genuine in their descriptions of the improvements in their lives that had come with the revolution.
Activities in Camp
Educational camp programs were held every evening. We enjoyed the music of Noel Nicola, one of the leading singers in the Cuban new song movement who came to play for us. He had a sweet tenor voice and a gift for poetic expression. I still listen to his beautiful song, To an Imaginary Maria del Carmen. It tells the story of a liberated woman who walks confidently though Nicola’s village, undeterred by Latino machismo. Films we watched also reinforced the theme of a new woman, equal to men in every respect. The best of them, Lucia, told a story of three different women of that name. One lived in the 1890s, another in the 1930s, and the third in today’s Cuba. The film powerfully portrayed their continuing struggle against the attitudes of unenlightened Cuban men. The Cuban films were artful and not propagandistic. Memories of Underdevelopment, honestly revealed the difficulties that even sympathetic professionals from the old order faced in fitting into the new one.
We also watched films of the Vietnam War made by the North Vietnamese, several of whom worked with us for about half of our time in the camp. They were shy and I had little interaction with them. But when a bus came to take them back to Havana, many of the Cubans were crying. John Bailey, a Cuban originally from Jamaica who worked with our Wisconsin group, was particularly distraught as his Vietnamese friend Tung got on the bus. “Please go home and stop the war,” he told me through his tears, “because Tung is my friend and he might get killed.” It was a simple expression of brotherly love and touched me deeply.
To Che Guevara’s Mountain Hideout
After four weeks in camp, we took the ferry back to the mainland and spent the next week and a half traveling across much of central and eastern Cuba, exploring the cities of Matanzas, Santa Clara, Cienfuegos, and Santiago, before returning to Havana. In Santiago, we visited the notorious Moncada Garrison, where Castro had launched the first, disastrous, attack of the Cuban Revolution in 1953. The bullet holes from the battle had been left in the walls of the fortress for posterity to witness. Leaving Santiago, I got my first indication that not everyone appreciated the revolution. As we passed her yard, an old woman, who must have known we were Americans supporting the regime, gave us the finger.
The highlight of the trip was a two-day hike into the remote Escambray Mountains to the site of Che Guevara’s rebel camp near the top of one of the highest peaks. On the way in, we camped for a night in a coffee grove. We had simple hammocks, which we strung from the coffee trees, and plastic tarps to cover us if it rained. Rain it did, in buckets, and we were also occasionally pelted with coffee beans dropping from the tree branches which shook wildly in the high winds.
In the morning sun, things dried out quickly and we continued to Guevara’s post. Ernesto “Che” Guevara was an Argentine doctor who had joined forces with Castro in Mexico and been one of the most beloved leaders of the revolution. After Castro’s victory, he became Cuba’s minister of the economy and, inexperienced as he was, managed to mess things up quite badly. He ended up leading a group of rebels against the government of Bolivia. Betrayed to the CIA by peasants, he was captured and summarily executed by the Bolivian military on October 8, 1967.
With his dark beard and red-starred beret, Guevara now adorns T-shirts around the world, a martyr for revolutionary socialism. He was a man of great contradictions, suggesting that, “At the risk of seeming ridiculous, the true revolutionary is guided by feelings of love,” but capable of ruthless brutality when he felt it necessary to serve his goals. Nevertheless, he was that rarest of humans, one who seemed completely without self-interest or an instinct for self-preservation. Even the Bolivian soldier who killed him marveled at his courage.
A “Short” Speech by Castro
We returned to Havana, where on October 8, the third anniversary of Guevara’s death, we were taken to the immense Plaza of the Revolution. Hundreds of thousands of people had gathered beside a statue of Jose Marti, the hero of Cuba’s War of Independence against Spain, and beneath giant billboards portraying Guevara, Camilo Cienfuegos, and other heroes of Castro’s revolution. We were escorted to the very front of the festive crowd near the stage to hear Fidel Castro speak. Castro specifically pointed out our group of 400 Venceremos Brigade members, thanking us for having come from the United States to help in the agricultural effort. Cuba owed much to the solidarity of such distinguished guests, he said. We all waved to the massive cheering crowd, whose enthusiasm seemed genuine.
Castro’s speech lasted an hour and a half, “a short one,” the Cubans told us with wry smiles. Most were closer to four hours. In the hot sun, we were happy to have been spared. Though it soared rhetorically with references to Che, and at the end with its customary “Patria o Muerte! Venceremos!” (“Fatherland or Death! We will win!”) flourish, the speech (we were later given copies in English to read) was actually for the most part calm, well-reasoned, and backed with an impressive amount of detailed data, most of it, as best I could tell, completely factual. Castro demonstrated a sweeping command of world events and no small wit as well. After the speech, he walked by the Brigade, shaking hands with many of us. He was only 44 then, and brimming with confident energy.
After the speech, we were taken to nearby Jibacoa Beach for a little trip-ending R&R. The clear turquoise waters of the Atlantic were a welcome relief from the heat, and hundreds of multi-colored fish swam among the rocks on the west side of the beach, an amazing sight. While at the beach, I noticed a clear contradiction among the Cubans. Though kind and gentle with other people, they seemed to relish crushing the numerous small crabs that skittered across the beach. And despite their sense that they held the land as a common trust, they showed no hesitation in leaving litter on the sand or even throwing it from the bus windows as we traveled, marring the lovely countryside. I came to understand that consciousness does not develop evenly; sensitivity to one evil often comes with complete indifference to others. The terrible treatment of Cuban homosexuals in those days was another example, though not one I personally observed.
On October 10, I boarded the Conrado Benitez again for the sail back to Canada, sadly watching the skyline of Havana drop below the horizon line and wondering if I’d ever be back there. At the U.S. border, customs officials, aware of where we’d been, confiscated cigars and other items that were obviously of Cuban origin. But they did not deter us long and soon, I was back in Madison, a city far more subdued than the one I had left, a result of the fatal bombing there in August.
While in Cuba, my good friend Roger Quindel and I had engaged in arguments with a volunteer from Milwaukee who’d assumed a revolutionary posture and was constantly advocating that we all take up arms when we got back home. We thought he was crazy, but only after he disappeared after our return did we suspect he might have been an agent provocateur. It was a common procedure to use agents to encourage violent behavior. Reasonable and eloquent, Roger Quindel later became a prominent county supervisor in Milwaukee.
Missiles of Terror
Reports from some of the agents who’d been on the Venceremos Brigade led Mississippi senator James O. Eastland, a racist, right-wing Democrat, to call all of us who’d gone to Cuba “human missiles of terror” in a speech on the floor of Congress in 1971. Eastland entered all of our names into the Congressional Record, along with addresses, in my case the address of my poor unsuspecting Republican parents in California.
Following our trip, Roger and I – and I assume other volunteers – were visited by the FBI, in my case, four separate times over four years. During the visits, I argued with the agents about the war and the U.S. efforts to overthrow the elected Allende government in Chile. I returned to Cuba in 1984. By then, it seemed as though much of the early idealism and enthusiasm had evaporated It was a far cry from the optimistic, idealistic country I saw on my first visit. Someday I hope to find the optimism and idealism again. But despite Cuba’s remarkable advances in education and health care, without freedom, the socialist dream faded away.
John de Graaf is a documentary filmmaker, co-author of Affluenza and What’s the Economy For, Anyway?, and president of Take Back Your Time. He produced the film Castro’s Cuba: Two Views for PBS in 1990.