In the spring of 1972, this Black single mother left her young son behind to travel to Cuba with the Fifth Contingent of the Venceremos Brigade, an organization that had been founded in 1969 in opposition to the U.S. blockade on Cuba, and one of its specific purposes was challenging the travel restrictions imposed by the United States Government. My contingent, like all of those before, consisted of more than 100 African-Americans, Latinos, Native-Americans, Asians and white activists. I wanted to see what this Cuban Revolution was all about. I did not believe in or have any identification with the U.S. government’s dominate hostility toward Cuba or the racist anti-Cuban narrative fueled by the exiles in Miami and New Jersey.
After more than five weeks, while we were sad to be leaving this “forbidden nation” just 90 miles from the shores of the United States, we were exuberant after one month of living and working side-by-side with the Cubans, who came from every walk of life and included secondary, technical, high school and college youth; construction workers, doctors, intellectuals and teachers; and artists, musicians and poets. This volunteer construction workforce was just one of the thousands implemented at the very beginning of the Cuban Revolution led by Castro. This one involved the construction of an entire new community in the town of Los Naranjos. The complex was designed to offer families new housing, a school, a community center and a polyclinic and included the renovation of a dairy farm. During our symbolic weeks of work, we also had free time and formally met with delegations from Vietnam, exiles and students studying on scholarship from Angola, Mozambique, Guinea Bissau, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe. Delegations from several Latin American and Caribbean nations spoke to our group of their own respective struggles.
The Cuban Institute for Friendship with the People was our host and arranged for us to travel throughout the island, visiting cultural institutions, schools, cooperatives, universities, historical sites and people’s homes in different provinces, some of which were located in the remotest parts of the country. In every town were billboards and photos of Castro and slogans that inspired the people to be engaged in “Constructing Socialism” and “Defending the Homeland.” Both the young and the old proudly welcomed us wherever we went, eagerly talking to us about the firsthand accounts of what “Fidel’s Revolution” had done for them and showing us those accomplishments, whether they were of a personal nature or broadly reflected community empowerment.
We heard firsthand from Cuban men and women of how their lives as poor Cubans after the Revolution were a living testimony to the positive changes, while contrasting life before the Revolution, when there was little food, no employment and no school, and there were no hospitals and no doctors. They and most Cubans could not even read or write. And then, the young people from the Literacy Brigades arrived, which was one of the first priorities of the Revolution, and taught them the skills. The illiteracy rate in Cuba went from 23.6 percent to 3.9 percent in less than one year. Here in the United States today, based on the latest 2003 data from the U.S. Department of Education, the illiteracy rate has not changed in the past 10 years. Thirty-two million adults cannot read in the United States, 14 percent of the population.
In Cuba, we met community leaders, young women and men who were elected to represent their constituents in what is known as the authorized and constitutionally legislated Assembly of People’s Power. Returning to our base, and the town where we had known as home, we found that it was almost completed in less than six months, constructed by all-volunteer labor. Bidding farewell to our new Cuban families, the next day we were bussed to Havana Harbor for the circuitous route back to the United States. We embarked on a cattle boat that set sail for Newfoundland, Canada, as that was the only way home because of the United States blockade against the country. We received gifts from the various Cuban institutions of books, tapes, journals, newspapers and posters, all of which we would incorporate into our public programs to share and educate the people in this country about what we as individuals had witnessed firsthand of Castro’s Cuba and its people. On the boat during that weeklong journey in the Atlantic, we passed the United States in international waters. Occasionally a U.S. helicopter buzzed overhead while we worked alongside our Cuban brothers and sisters, transforming that boat into a mini-luxury liner. We sang and studied. We listened and danced to Cuban music, ate Cuban food and together bonded in friendships and solidarity that last even until today.
Our ship docked on a cool Canadian spring night, and busses met us to take the group across the border. Reality hit when we crossed the border into the USA. Custom officials took photos and confiscated from the group huge amounts of our Cuban literature, books and even personal mementos and other effects. We were insulted and called “Cuba lovers,” and some wanted to know where our guerilla warfare training occurred. The CIA and FBI were already pumping the propaganda that members of the Venceremos Brigade were traveling to Cuba to be indoctrinated in Communist ideology. On the bright side, I, along with the other two sisters, managed to salvage enough of the gifts and other materials that, when combined once we reached home, were enough to be included in an International Expo and Cultural Festival at the North Philly Progress Plaza.
We jumped at the opportunity to bring Cuba to the event and booked a booth. Little did we know that in defending the Cuban Revolution and by bringing some truth about it to the Philadelphia community, talking about Castro, giving out authentic Cuban literature and memorabilia and chatting up what we had witnessed relative to the accomplishments of the Revolution, we were actually risking our lives, much like the people of Cuba were risking theirs from some of the same terrorist ilk right here in the United States who confronted us that afternoon. One of my co-activists was actually born in Cuba, and had been brought to the U.S. by her exiled Union City, N.J., parents. When she returned to Cuba and one day met her Cuban family, she shared the emotions of both joy and anger. Joy at meeting her Cuban family in Cuba and anger at having been taught the lies peppered upon her by her Union City parents.
Everything was going just great at our booth. We flew the Cuban flag, blanketed our booth with pictures of Castro and Che Guevara and hung colorful posters of the island’s panorama. Cuban salsa was blaring from our tape recorder and people who stopped by were briefed on our trip, and we even had applications to give out encouraging folks to consider traveling on the next brigade. Suddenly we saw a group of men in fatigues heading toward our booth, flagging their arms in menacing and intimidating gestures. In a loud voice over the booming music one of them speaking in Spanish ordered us to take the Cuba flag down! Who did these strange men think they were, ordering two Black and one Cuban woman to take down the Cuban flag? Our Cuban sister responded, “Who are you to be coming in here ordering us to take down the Cuban flag?” We all said in unison, “We ain’t taking nothing down, and you had better move on.” Then, the leader pointing his finger at all of us said, “If you don’t take down that flag you are going to be sorry, and we will be back in an hour and the wrath of Abdala will be upon you.” They left as quickly as they had appeared. Well, we were shaken by the intrusion of these strangers, and wondered if they would return and what would we do? We knew of the seriousness and existence of Cuban exile terrorist, who directed their acts against civilians and supporters of the Cuban Revolution. Yet, we did not think we were that significant to be targeted in broad daylight here in the hood of North Philadelphia. We decided nevertheless to remain at our post and continued talking, taking photos and passing out the free materials all made in Cuba. I do not know how much time had passed, but in a fleeting moment, we saw the men on the other side of the expo heading our way again, while at the same time, someone shouted, “Stevie Wonder is here and he will be coming around to the booths.” TV cameras and lights started focusing in the direction of the crowd who obviously were all waiting to get a glimpse of Stevie. The men in fatigues fled when they saw the cameras and lights. I looked at my two sistas and said they were coming back for us. I think we had better pack up and get out of here. Somebody said Stevie heard the Cuban music and he was trying to find out where it was coming from. We were too frightened to keep it going.
Later, after describing the incident to some well-connected friends from New York, we were informed that we had Stevie Wonder to “thank” for saving us from what obviously was a planned attack against three women who had stood up in defense of Castro and the Cuban Revolution. We later learned that the terrorists we had come face to face with were possibly from the group Abdala. This anti-Cuba terrorist organization was founded in 1968 and in 1975 had claimed credit for the bombing of the Torch of Friendship in downtown Miami and the bombing of the Venezuelan consulate in New York City.
So when I watched TV and saw the worn and angered faces of mainly old white Cuban exiles, whose behavior was so repugnant as to be celebrating Castro’s death in Miami and Union City, N.J., I wonder if any one of them was in that terrorist group that came that day to do harm and to take my life away and the life of my two sistas.
While we never really found out if Stevie Wonder was really at the expo heading for our Cuba booth, it matters not. But just for the fact that someone said he was, I breathe easy and “thank” him if no more than for his name being called out for saving my life, so that I am able to share these reflections and to pay tribute to Comandante Fidel Castro, an extraordinary man indeed, whose spirit has now transitioned to another realm—Fidel, the founder of the Cuban Revolution, champion of the global south, the great teacher of principles and values, who taught us the true meaning of internationalism and that all commitments in our struggles to make changes must be done in the interest of all humanity. That is what Castro taught.
Dr. Rosemari Mealy is the author of “Fidel and Malcolm X—Memories of a Meeting,” published by Black Classic Press.