Brigadistas Judy, Dianne, Yvonne and Bonnie: A Change in their Lives

An interview with members of the Venceremos Brigade

From the Left: Judy, Dianne, Yvonne and Bonnie

Formed in the United States 1969 the Venceremos Brigade (VB) was the first of the now many Cuban solidarity organisations.

Brigadistas work side-by-side with Cubans and their mere presence on the Caribbean archipelago is a challenge to the US administration’s hostile Cuba policy, including Washington’s economic blockade and travel ban.

The first Brigades participated in sugar harvests and subsequent contingents have done agricultural and construction work. Besides work, they have also participated in various cultural and educational activities. Brigade members are of all ages and from all walks of

Judy, Dianne, Yvonne and Bonnie four members of the 39th Contingent and all “repeaters” –(that is, all of them have come on a VB more than once) are interviewed by Telma Rodríguez.

I was looking for an interview and I don’t remember how, all of a sudden, I had four enthusiastic potential interviewees in front of me. I wanted to know if the experience of coming to Cuba had somehow represented a change in their lives.

Judy, for example, who is from Texas, is like a “founder” of the Brigade, since she came to Cuba with the first contingent, in 1969.

What can you say about changes that have taken place in Cuba and in your own life since your first trip here?

"Well, I’ve been asked that question a lot and I wasn’t able to answer it until yesterday, after we went to CENESEX (National Center for Sex Education), and the difference between what we learned yesterday there and what I encountered on the first brigade is just worlds apart –black and white. It’s just so different! The development of sex education and prevention of sexually transmitted diseases; all that in Cuba is just worlds ahead of what it was before, and probably worlds ahead of what it is in the United States as well."

What will you tell the American people when you return to your country about what you have done here and about Cuba? Do they ask many questions?

"Well, when they don’t ask I volunteer it (laughter). Mainly, the message that needs to go out from me and from all of us is that we need to end this damn blockade. We need to allow U.S. citizens to come here to Cuba … and we need to allow Cuba to be able to trade with the United States and with other countries without their sanction. So that’s the main thing, and then of course, you know, the Cuban Five it’s a very important subject -I know for Cubans and also for us. And that’s something that we need to disseminate to everybody that we talk to in the United States. It’s a horrendous thing that’s been done to those young men, and I personally have had a son in prison in the U.S. and I know that it was a terrible experience for him and for us in his family and I can imagine how much more terrible that must be for people to be incarcerated in a foreign country and not have access to their families and to their government’s support. It’s terrible and it should be the mission of all of us to organize around that issue."

Then Dianne comments she’s from Atlanta, where the appeals of the original trial of the Cuban Five have taken place -- at the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. She told me she has been involved in activities of committees in solidarity with the Five in her country, participating in demonstrations, showing films, gathering petitions, writing letters, and sending them birthday greetings, among other tasks. The conversation brought back fond memories of her first trip...

"When I came in 1972, the fifth Brigade helped build housing -- just a few miles from where this camp is (Caimito municipality, on the outskirts of Havana) -- and when I came back on the 25th anniversary brigade I saw that house again. It was the most liberating experience for me as a young woman from the United States to work in construction and to see the product of one’s labor and to know that a family was going to live there, and that it was going to be part of the development of Cuban agriculture and Cuban society, and providing new housing and education. And when I came back years later, it was still standing and there were beautiful flowering trees and bushes around it. And it was clear that this family, whoever was living there now, had pride in their house and had beautified their house and was enjoying it. There are just no words to describe how wonderful that felt to see it."

I asked Yvonne about her experiences here in Cuba -- this was her fifth trip with the VB -- and about what she’d take with her when she returned home.

"What I take with me is what the government here does for its people and what people do with a socialist government, that is, to provide housing for everyone, to make sure people can get educated -- they do so freely, they have health care that’s also free. In the United States, those are items that can wipe out a family completely -- any critical disease, illness, can completely wipe a family out. So I take that back and I’m energized every time I come to Cuba."

My conversation with these four brigadistas took place on July 4th, when Independence Day is celebrated in the United States. They were not only far from home, but here in Cuba.

Bonnie, it’s July 4 and you’re here on the island. What ideas does that bring to your mind?

"Two things: First, we’re about to…we’re leaving right now to go to an event in Havana that’s going to be a 4th of July celebration, and when brigadistas hear that they’re always shocked. Why would Cubans celebrate the 4th of July? This is a country that’s blockaded them and invaded them… One of the brigadistas said it yesterday that she thought she knew what solidarity meant before she came here but that when she hears stuff like that she feels she’s learning a whole new depth, a whole new understanding, so it’s a different depth of what it really means to have solidarity with people. So Cuba is teaching us that.

The other thing that I think about is that we’re here doing a travel challenge. As you know, the U.S. government does not allow citizens from the U.S. to travel to Cuba freely. It’s restricted that we do that and our belief in the VB is that it’s one of our constitutional rights to be able to travel to Cuba, and that we have to exercise that right; that Cuba is not our enemy and we have all the right in the world to come here. So it also makes me think of that, that we live in a country that’s supposed to be free and we’re supposed to be celebrating our independence, and really what we’re doing is being patriots, because we’re exercising that right that we have, and we’re fighting for a better world and a better country, and we don’t want the government that has the power in the U.S. right now telling us what to do or representing our interests, to Cuba or to the rest of the world."

You have come to Cuba with 10 brigades. Has this experience enriched your life somehow?

"I came on the brigade for the first time when I was 18 and that experience changed my life. It was like you had grown up hearing about Revolution or thinking about Revolution, and almost idealizing the way that maybe it could have happened in the 60’s during your parents’ time and it didn’t happen, and then you kind of came here and you got to see -- really see -- a place that was actually trying to make that happen. And that Revolution is a process, and that is not something that happens overnight. That struggles are happening on a daily basis and just being able to see that changed me, and I want other people to be able to see that. And I want people to have that experience, so that’s part of why I keep coming back, so that I can try to help other people have that experience. And also, once you come here, you make relationships, so I have people here that are like my family, and I think it’s disgusting that my government would tell me I can’t come and give them a kiss. And so for me it’s also very personal to do the travel challenge because you’re trying to keep me from people who I love, and that’s not acceptable."

The oldest Cuba solidarity organization in the world, the Venceremos Brigade has never requested permission from the U.S. government to go to Cuba. “And we never will!” –reads an article on the VB’s Web site. “We believe it’s our right as U.S. citizens to travel free of U.S. government obstacles. We also believe that we have much to learn from Cuba and the best way to do that is to travel there and see for ourselves!”

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