Venceremos Brigade

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Venceremos Brigade


In 1969, the antiwar activist and former president of Students for a Democratic Society, Carl Oglesby, proposed that the SDS should organize a contingent of American students to travel to Cuba as a gesture of revolutionary solidarity. As guests of the Cuban government, members of what would be called the Venceremos Brigade would go not as tourists, but as workers intending to assist the struggling nation reach its ambitious goal of harvesting 10 million tons of sugarcane for export, allowing them to raise capital to shore up the economy and lessen dependence on the Soviet Union. Following on the heels of the First Brigade in 1969, the Venceremos Brigade became an annual project, sending thousands of American students over the years to work and to learn about Cuban history and culture.

Among the participants on the Second Brigade was a recent graduate of Smith College, Sandy Lillydahl. A native of Wisconsin, Lillydahl had become involved in SDS as an undergraduate and shared in the group's radical opposition to the war in Vietnam and their desire to remake American society on more egalitarian grounds.

In February 1970, nearly 1,000 volunteers from across the United States traveled to Cuba in two large groups defying the imposition of a comprehensive embargo on travel and trade. Several hundred Brigadistas from the western states flew to Havana by way of Mexico City, while approximately 500 participants from the east traveled to New Brunswick, Canada, to board a freighter, the Luis Arcos Bergnes, southward. Once they arrived in Cuba, the participants were subdivided into smaller Brigades based on their region of origin, with New Englanders comprising Brigades 5 and 6 -- the latter Lillydahl's Brigade.

After harvesting sugarcane in Aguacate, southeast of Havana, for several weeks, the Brigade spent two weeks touring the country from Santiago de Cuba and Oriente Province to Havana, visiting schools and other facilities to learn about Cuba's revolutionary project. After returning to the United States, Lillydahl, like nearly every other member of the Venceremos Brigade, was approached by the FBI about her involvement. She refused to cooperate.[1]

Tool of Cuban intelligence

CBC documentary 1982, on Venceremos Brigade and Cuban Intelligence

From its founding in 1969, the Venceremos Brigade was used by Cuban intelligence agency the DGI, to recruit American agents for use against their home country.

House Internal Security Committee Hearings/Report on the Venceremos Brigade

In 1972, as part of their "The Theory and Practice of Communism" series (1970-1974), the House Internal Security Committee (HISC) held a series of hearing on October 16, 18 & 19, 1972 in which they produced the most detailed history of the Venceremos Brigade (VB) ever done by Congress. It included not only internal documents, photos, and articles by and about the VB, but also the traveller manifests for the first 5 brigades (by state,city, name, etc).[2].

The number of Brigade members known for the first 5 trips were, as listed in the HISC hearings were:

  • - First Brigade, 216: Nov. 28, 1969 - Feb. 12, 1970
  • - Second Brigade, 687: Feb. 13 - April 28, 1970
  • - Third Brigade, 405: Aug. 25 - Oct. 29, 1970
  • - Fourth Brigade, 221: March 22 - May 29, 1971
  • - Fifth Brigade, 138: March 6 - May 4, 1972

Among the early "brigadistas" were two later-to-be key leaders of the AFL-CIO, Karen B. Ackerman and Karen Beth Nussbaum. Others included members of the violence-oriented Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), some of whom would become members of the communist, terrorist SDS-faction, the Weather Underground Organization (WUO), aka Weather Underground (WU), and the mixed anti-Vietnam group, Vietnam Veterans Against the War in Vietnam (VVAW). Some of the VVAW members became associated with and leaders of the maoist Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), who later captured the leadership of VVAW from other factions, including the one once led by John Kerry.

Another VB leader, Johnnetta Cole, eventually a college professor at Un. of Massachusetts, Amherst, and later president of Spelman College, Atlanta, was a member of President Bill Clinton's transition team for his first term, and was rumored to have been considered for the position of Secretary of Education for her communist past were revealed by several newspapers (Human Events, The Forward, etc). By that time she was also a member of the Advisory Board of the theoretical journal Marxist Perspectives.

Leaders and Members of the Venceremos Brigades

An attempt will be made to list all the known VB members from the 1st Brigade through whatever current number still exits. However, there were no known public lists of VB members after the publication of the HISC Hearings of October, 1972 so individual names found in various publications will be listed but the chances of obtaining full travel lists is slim unless they are to be found in the VB archives at an American university.

September 1971 VB internal publication Turquino listed the following as members of the "new Comite' Nacional":

Of these individuals, at least Cannon, Demmings, Pollack and possibly Reed were identified or open members of the Communist Party USA (CPUSA). Reed eventually married a Cuban "diplomat" and intelligence agent DGI operative named Julian Rizo, both of whom were later captured by U.S. troops in Grenada in 1983.

Gail Reed wrote a poem in tribute to Pollack for the book "Sandy Pollack: Her Life", 1987, U.S. Peace Council, Page 39, and was simply identified as "a journalist living in Havana." She married Cuban DGI agent Julian Rizo, who had been the "top official of the DGI's American station, and since 1974, first secretary of the Cuban U.N. Mission".(37) He "headed Castro's Venceremos Brigade program which was established to facilitate young American leftists' travel to Cuba for the purpose of indoctrination in Marxism-Leninism, which often led to recruitment by Cuban DGI intelligence." ..."Rizo was also liaison with terrorist organizations in the United States, including the [[Weathermen}, the Puerto Rican FALN, the PLO, and the Chilean MIR, (58) and organized the Puerto Rican Solidarity Committee (PRSC) in New York, a political supporter group for the pro-Castro Puerto Rican Socialist Party (PRSP)."[3].

Sandy Pollack eventually became a national leader of the VB and returned there in 1971. She later married Terry Cannon, another brigadista and CP member (and writer for their paper, the Daily World). Details about them appear in the tribute book "Sandy Pollack: Her Life" put out by the CPUSA front, the U.S. Peace Council US Peace Council, 1985. In fact, this book was put together by many leading members of the VB and the CPUSA including Cannon, Demmings, Susan Borenstein, and Prof. Johnnetta Cole (Page 5).

Also in the tribute was an excerpt Pollack wrote about "The Venceremos Brigade" (i.e. the first two), that appeared in the CPUSA publication New World Review (NWR) of Summer, 1970.

Pollack appeared in a photograph (Page 40) regarding the VB's 1983 trip, along with "Venceremos Brigade leaders Eddie and Dara Demmings".

Individual VB Members from Other Sources

Source: "Frontline" newspaper, June 27, 1983, Page 16, article by Shirley Nagai, "In Cuba With the Venceremos Brigade".

Nagai covered the "14th Brigade" and their 135-members trip to Cuba in June 1983. She described the VB as follows:

"The Venceremos Brigade was organized in 1969 to send North Americans to Cuba and break the U.S. government's informational blockade of the Western Hemisphere's first socialist country. Over the last 14 years, the Brigade has sent 14 contingents to Cuba - over 5,000 people - and it has the longest history of any U.S. educational project in solidarity with teh Cuban Revolution."

  • Julie Nachiman - a founder of the VB, HISC Hearings, T&PC-VB, Part 2, 1972 op. cit., 7824/7825. She was also identified as a "leader of the Weatherman faction", Page 7824.

Members of NACLA North American Congress on Latin America, who were in the VB, as identified by S. Steven Powell:

Weathermen Underground Members Who Were in the Venceremos Brigades

A number of WUO terrorists had previously gone to Cuba in the Venceremos Brigades, especially numbers 1 and 2, and their names appeared throughout the HISC Hearings on the VB, 1972. Among the WUO leaders identified as having been in Cuba were:

Newsletters and Mailings From the Venceremos Brigades

Relevant information about the VB, individuals, programs, contacts, etc. found in some early VB publications will be presented here.

Venceremos Brigade Participation in Various Communist Fronts, Activities and Causes

List of Venceremos Brigades

Venceremos Brigade members returning to U.S. from Canada


  1. Sandy Lillydahl Venceremos Brigade Photograph Collection 1970-2005 (Bulk: 1970)
  2. The Theory and Practice of Communism in 1972 (Venceremos Brigade), Part 2, House Internal Security Committee, Hearings, Oct. 16, 18 & 19, 1972
  3. S. Steven Powell,Covert Cadre:Inside the Institute for Policy Studies, Green Hill Publishers, 1987, citing to footnotes 37 and 58
  4. S.Steven Powell, "Covert Cadre: Inside the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS)", 1987, Green Hill Publishers, Page 230
  5. Congressional Record, March 16, 1970, pages S 3758-3762, 3758, "The Venceremos Brigade - Agrarians or Anarchists?"