Up From Nonviolence: A Catholic Worker in Cuba

June, 1970

Mike Scahill

This essay is to be a chronicle of impressions I have from a two-month visit to Cuba as a member of the Venceremos Brigade. I will caution you at the beginning of the particular biases I bring to the subject by first informing you of my credentials. They are, to be honest, quiet modes. The preceding months before  I journeyed to Cuba I worked with The Catholic Worker in New York city. My concerns there were of an eminently practical nature, as they must be if one is to daily practice the works of mercy; peeling potatoes, making soup, putting out a monthly newspaper, and providing hospitality. It was the days spend at the Catholic Worker which formed the convictions I brought to Cuba; it was time spent in the Bowery–which the Catholic Worker serves–that gave me a contempt for the theoretical and the abstract. I took offense at men of thought who dared enter and explain that mysterious realm of individual human destiny, as if sociologists and psychologists and theologians could rationally explain away how men and women born with obvious gifts and talents can suddenly abandon themselves and give way to waste and indulgence. In grasping this I began to grasp the meaning of revolution. One does not necessarily enter into revolution by reading Marx or Lenin; men will know and fight their oppression whether or not they have read the fathers of revolution. One enters into revolution only by first entering into that strangest of all riddles which is the common, ordinary, transient life of the world and entering into the souls of the people who give such a world its life. Not only to enter into it, but once there put to a full and creative use the faculties given a man by God so that is obvious both to himself and others that he has eyes and ears and a heart. These are the only credentials any man brings anywhere; these are the credentials I brought to Cuba. That being said, let me tell you how I used them.

The Venceremos Brigade consisted of about nine hundred American citizens (and also a group from the U.S. colony of Puerto Rico) representing every age group, every racial and ethnic group, and every political passion. The purpose of the trip was to participate in the historic harvest of the ten million tons of sugar which would hopefully be a big step in pulling Cuba out of the underdevelopment. There were two trips to Cuba by the brigade. One took place in November of last year; the other, which I attended, went in February of this year. Each group stayed in Cuba for two months; cutting sugar cane for six weeks and touring the island for two.

The origin of the Venceremos Brigade is rooted in two ideas.  The first is the economic blockade which the government of the United States has imposed on the people of Cuba. Given the nature of the Cuban economy, given the underdevelopment and the medical, educational, and technological needs such a blockade is a crime. Its name is economic aggression. Thus, for me to go to Cuba was to merely be consistent with the protest I voice against the crimes the United States daily commits against the underdeveloped world. Secondly, the Venceremos Brigade is rooted in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution. In 1970 work is the meaning of the revolution in Cuba. To be a revolutionary in that land today means to be a worker with a machete in your hand. We actively participated in the work of the revolution, and by so doing said it was right and good for the people, that such a revolution should even happen elsewhere. Since most of my time in Cuba was spent in the canefields, and since most of my impressions were formed simply by working in them, it might be of benefit to record a “typical day” in the camp of the Venceremos Brigade.

Our day began at five a.m. with a bugle reveille “De Pie” (meaning “on your feet” in Spanish), breakfast consisting of coffee and a roll, then off to your machete rack where along with the other thirty members of your work brigade you sharpened your machete. There were twenty-five work brigades, each consisting of about twenty-five Americans and five Cubans. At six o’clock we were off to the canefields and cut until nine, at which time we had a “merienda” for fifteen minutes (equivalent to the American coffee break at which a pastry and cool drink were served). Back to work until eleven then to the camp for lunch and a break until two-thirty. During the break you either slept, read, wrote in your journal, chatted, or listened to the news which was daily broadcast over the loudspeaker in the camp. I particularly enjoyed the news every afternoon  because it was so informative about events receiving little or no publicity in the States, especially accounts of the guerrilla struggles in Latin America. At two-thirty we again made the long walk to the canefields (sometimes as far as two miles). It was the course of these long walks that I came to know and become good friends with the Cuban students in my brigade Wilfredo, Rafael, Cristobal, Maria and the rest of us would pass the time away singing or discussing numerous political questions. At six-thirty we came back to the camp, washed up, and had dinner. Three evenings a week we had films in the camp. A number of them were documentaries by the Cuban director Santiago Alvarez. Most of the films were on various aspects of the revolution ranging from the early days in the mountains to agricultural experiences and to the history of Cuban ballet. After the film it was usually right to bed (We lived in tents with bunk beds to house twenty-five).

We worked five and a half days a week and on Saturday afternoons we had a “production meeting” with the entire camp in attendance. This was to discuss the work of the week, whether or not each work-brigade met the quota they set, and also to set work goals for the following week. It was meetings such as these that made me more enthusiastic about the work and more conscious of its importance. I have worked at many jobs in the states ranging from office work to construction and I can recall that every time I reflected on the meaning and value of my work and who it benefited, I became terribly depressed and even felt like quitting. Not so when I worked in Cuba. The more I learned of the purpose of the sugar harvest, of its importance for the economy, of what it would do for the people–the more my sweat and fatigue took on meaning. For the first time in my life I was employed to labor for people.

Without a doubt I can say I experienced the very essence of the Cuban Revolution in the canefields. In fact as we rode into the camp that very first day I was to learn the basic lesson upon which that revolution and all others like it are founded. It was a lesson which the United States would learn by the embarrassing defeat at Playa Giron in 1961: a lesson which Fidel would stress with all the clarity and passion that is his; a lesson which the mother of Camilo Torres would explain in a manner so convincing and gentle that she could have been your mother or mine; a lesson, finally, which the Vietnamese testify to simply by their history and their lives. Let me go through with you, step by step, how this lesson was taught to me; for whenever it is asked of me, “What did you learn in Cuba?” my reply is, ” I have learned the meaning of la lucha armada–the armed struggle.”

Biding into the camp on that hot February day, the first person I spotted was the armed guard at the entrance. There were two others elsewhere. during my stay in Cuba I was to see innumerable arms: guns, machine guns, and pistols worn by young men and women as well as old men and women. I would swiftly learn the meaning of all this artillery. Not only would I learn its purpose but I would come to appreciate and condone its use. I think the meaning of all this military preparedness was best put at Playa Giron, the first step of our tour. Playa Giron is now a school and a museum displaying tanks, jeeps, army fatigues, machine guns–all made in the U.S.–captured in the U.S.-financed and supported mercenary invasion of Cuba in 1961. A major who commanded a battalion in one of the battles spoke to us. “A people who have built up a happiness have a right to defend that happiness,” he told us. On our two-week tour of Cuba we had an opportunity to see the happiness which the revolution is building up. We spent three days on the Isle of Youth (formerly the Isle of Pines where Fidel Castro was once imprisoned) where agricultural experiments are being tried by groups of students in the hope that a more original form of socialism or communism can be achieved. The experiment on the Isle of Youth reminds me, oddly enough, of one of the basic ideas of Peter Maurin–founder of the Catholic Worker–who wrote that “workers should become students and students should become workers.”

From the Isel of Youth we went on to many schools and universities. As we traveled through the five provinces of Cuba I began to feel a strange sensation, as if for the first time in my life, I was discovering the meaning of patriotism. People exhibited a certain pride, a sense of purpose and vision in their lives. All this came out when they spoke of the need to defend the happiness they were building because all I spoke with–from fifth graders in Havana to simple farmers in the mountains of Oriente–had a vivid recollection of the past and never, never again, they bowed, would that return.

It was to this very point Fidel addressed himself upon his visit to the camp.

Keep in mind as I offer a description of Fidel that it is a very superficial one since I only had contact with him on the day he was cutting cane with us and conducted a lengthy question and answer period. On the one hand he is very shrewd Marxist theoretician, a near genius; on the other hand he is like a fiery baptist preacher, possessing that rare brand of charisma which excited men to follow him.

He has that coveted gift of being able to speak to people of their problems in their language. Keeping in line with with the point i am pursuing, he said that if one wished to find out why Cuba is striving to arm itself so heavily one should not ask the Cuban government but should instead ask the government of the United States. While Fidel spoke, my own thoughts drifted back to the Mexico City Airport a few weeks previous.

As we awaited the Cuban plane to take us to Havana, numerous government agents scrupulously observed us and took our pictures, agents of a frightened and desperate government. I began to wonder how anyone could be so angry and disturbed with me for going to Cuba because my motives were of the most innocent nature. It seemed to me that any person who has even minimally witnessed the events of the past few years in America should eagerly want to see Cuba, to see a society which as resolved many of the basic ills currently rending this nation asunder. Bu as Fidel spoke I began to understand why he is a threat to the United States. Not militarily or economically–that is certain. Fidel is a threat because of his example. Here is a man who can not be bought off, who has no price, who, as the saying goes, does not live on bread alone. If the rest of Latin America and the rest of the world were to take up this example–as they are now doing–then the American way of life, a way of life based on cash registers, stocks, and multi-million-dollar business — in short, a way of life based on greed–if the rest of the world were to follow his example then that way of life would quickly perish from the earth.

The mother of Camilo Torres also picked up on the idea of example in the life of a revolutionary as she spoke of why her son, a priest, took a gun and went off to fight in the mountains. He really had no hope of winning but only sought to show others the way.

If Fidel and Cuba now set the example for the rest of Latin America, the Vietnamese certainly set the example for Cuba. Everywhere we went in Cuba billboards and posters could be seen with saying, COMO EN VIETNAM. It means to imitate the Vietnamese in all that you do; in your life, your work, your study. A poster in our camp went like this:

COMO EN VIETNAM

TENACIDAD, ORGONOZACION,

DISIPLINA

HEROISMO DIARIO, EN EL TRABAJO

DIEZ ANOS DE LUCHA ANTIYANQUI

DEL PUEBLO VIETNAMITA DIEZ

MILLONES DE TONELADAS DE

AZUCAR

I had the occasion to experience the content of such a statement in a unique and moving way. On one of the visits of the Vietnamese to our camp my work brigade was on of the ones they worked with. Each of us had one of the Vietnamese for a cutting partner. There were five worker-students from Hanoi and five fighters from the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam. My cutting partner for a good part of this morning was one of the fighters from the NLF. A Vietnamese girl named Susan, who is studying at the University of Havana, translated for us. Carlos is his name in Spanish (I can’t recall his name in Vietnamese). He is twenty-two years old and has been fighting with the Front since he was fifteen. Both of his parents were killed in the course of the war. He holds the ran of captain in the NLF and has won seven out of thirty-two battles. W spoke a little of one of hie battles he was in where he led an attack on an air base, was wounded, but still managed to capture the base. Much of our conversation was on the politics of the war–common knowledge to most of us by now–but a more horrible tale when it is spun from the lips of a man who has lived his life in the midst of it. Needless to say the morning spent with Carlos brought the war to a new point of unbearable in my life. Think of the finest person you know being executed for a crime he did not commit. Think of the Vietnamese.

More than anything else it was the conversation with Carlos that inspired the title of this piece. I did not intend the title to be witty or clever. It would, I hoped, connote a new understanding of certain issues on my part; as if for the first time I was seeing and feeling within my own guts what was taking place in the world. I mentioned earlier how prior to going to Cuba I worked with the Catholic Work. I mentioned how my main concern was with the tradition and life of the Catholic Worker, that is, with nonviolence. Yet in Cuba I found some of basic premises for nonviolence to be shaken. A violent revolution seemed to produce a decent society. Guns and coercion were not necessary to preserve the revolution. Workers preserve it. Still, even questions as these approach the issue vaguely and theoretically. There was something which pushed me beyond all theory in speaking with this little man with the almond-shaped eyes, the high cheek bones, and the speech that was more like song than speech. Something about the compassion expressed in being overly apologetic for having killed American soldiers; a compassion so vast a number of Americans fall to show. Finally, his his constant distinction between the American government and the American people there was a great similarity to that command given in one of the Testaments about separating the sin from the sinner. In learning this I was to learn to see the issue of Vietnam and even Latin America in a more profound way. What exists in these lands is not so much a revolution in the sense of a planned and calculated overthrow of a tyranny, as it is a classical ease of self-defense against an oppression so sophisticated that its means range from corporations to napal. So, to support the Vietnamese and the National Liberation Front is not so much to support a people striving to bring on a new society; no, it is a far deeper issue, of saying they have a right to be men, a right to the most venerable and ancient of all aspirations–the right of a man to live as he wants. in such a context not only do the Vietnamese have aright to shoot down B-52s; they have a moral obligations–out of demands of justice and charity–to do so.

I suppose in light of the foregoing and my obvious affirmation of Carlos and the cause he represents that is means I support him and the NLF. If that, be an abandonment of nonviolence, so be it. I only intended to state in this essay all I saw and felt and learned while in Cuba.

The final word I have to offer is taken from a meditation I recorded in my journal upon the first visit of the Vietnamese to our camp. Speaking of the Veneremos Brigade they referred to it as “an act of militant friendship.” Somehow that is the only way to describe the bonds and ties which were formed between myself and Cubans and Vietnamese, bonds and ties which neither time nor distance can separate. The significance of the Veneremos Brigade, at least to me, is that a friendship has happened between citizens of America and victims of America. No longer is it a case of the United States government committing aggression against faraway lands which many of us could barely write a single page essay on at one time. It s now a case of aggression against our friends.

My thoughts this moment are of the Cuban students I worked with. Suppose Bafael, Wilfredo, Cristobal, or Maria are killed the next time the U.S. finances an assault on Cuba? And Carlos. What awaits him on his return to Vietnam? I call these questions to mind with you because of the degree of intensity and spirit, the degree of courage and hope with which a man struggles in incredible heightened, when a man struggles on behalf of his friends. since the struggle of today is no different from any other struggle, in any other place, any other time.

Follow-up piece by Scahill “Freedom to Become

The accompanying “On Pilgrimage” column from Dorothy Day

One thought on “Up From Nonviolence: A Catholic Worker in Cuba

  1. Pingback: Catholic Workers: We Do Nice Things, But We Are Not Nice People | visiitor

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