The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

They risked everything to open a door to Cuba. They were shunned for it.

A small group of Cuban Americans returned home only to be called traitors. One of their founders would be assassinated.

President Jimmy Carter, right, is surrounded by journalists in Washington after a news conference where he announced the lifting of the travel ban on Cuba, Vietnam, North Korea and Cambodia. Carter tried to normalize relations with Cuba shortly after taking office in 1977. (AP Photo, File)

In the complicated, sometimes violent, always emotional history of relations between the United States and Cuba, resides an obscure chapter about 55 young exiles. All were still children when they left Cuba in the early 1960s, after Fidel Castro took power. In 1977, they returned.

“Los Cincuenta y Cinco Hermanos.” The 55 brothers and sisters.  Better known as the Antonio Maceo Brigade, named for a revered general in the Cuban war for independence against the Spanish. Decades before President Obama and Cuban leader Raul Castro announced the restoration of diplomatic relations, the brigade was the standard bearer of an equal relationship between the two countries. Its youth risked everything to become a post-revolution bridge between Cuba and its exiles, shattering the persistent myth that all exiles were of the same mind, bent on the destruction of the Castro regime.

In Cuba, they would come to be welcomed as the brave heart of the revolutionary movement among youth throughout the world.

In the United States, they were called traitors, and one of their founders would be assassinated.

The young men and women of the Antonio Maceo Brigade brimmed with the zeal of the politically awakened and the anguish of childhoods interrupted. And they wanted to judge the results of the Cuban revolution for themselves. You could say they have been working and waiting 37 years for this new chapter to be written. And, true to their roots, you also could say they will believe its authenticity only when they see it.


What Nelson Valdes remembers about the 1977 brigade – and he seems to remember everything – was the darkness of the countryside outside Havana. The group he arrived with came through Jamaica. Most had never met each other and came from hotbeds of student activism in New York, Chicago or Puerto Rico, places largely outside Miami. Miami did not tolerate dissident views on Cuba.

The Antonio Maceo Brigade was born of ground made fertile by the Civil Rights and antiwar movements. It was animated by Black Panthers, Brown Berets, Puerto Rican nationalists, by U.S. interventionism in Latin America, and the United Farm Workers, by Cuban academics and the search for ethnic identity. It was given voice by magazines published by Cuban exile youth, including Revista Areito, which still exists as a leftist platform and whose leaders were critical to the creation of the brigade and the recruitment of youth who would travel to Cuba, says Raul Alzaga, one of the brigade founders.

In the cauldron of the ’70s, “we began to have opinions that were different from the rest of the Cuban community,” Alzaga says. “We began to see that people we sympathized with in the U.S sympathized with Cuba and the revolution. We combined all this with the emotional link to Cuba and the need to know where you come from and why you are here and why your parents took you out of Cuba.”

Says attorney Jose Pertierra, who joined the second contingent of the brigade, “We were without the political baggage of our parents.”

Valdes was 32, one of the older, if not the oldest, of the 55, he says. He was an assistant professor of sociology at the University of New Mexico, an author, a husband and father. His politics lay, as he likes to say, with his heart “on the left.”

The return for him transcended politics. He wanted to go home. Just a visit. To learn more about family members who had chosen to stay, to visit the neighborhoods here he had played baseball and dominoes, to ride along the streets of Havana and breathe its air again.

Valdes had been among the 14,000 children sent to America by their parents in the years following the overthrow of the Batista government. They lived with extended family, in foster homes and orphanages until their parents could join them. Valdes’s family never did. He spent the first 15 years of his life as a Cuban and the last 15 as an exiled Cuban on his own. He wanted to see what Castro had wrought. He had questions.

The desire to return, he says, was “a yearning almost spiritual.”

“If there was one thing that was uniform in the first brigade it was that yearning,” says Manuel Gomez of Washington, also one of the 55. “It is the yearning of all people who have left their home countries, of all immigrants, and it was multiplied by a yearning to see what was really going on, contrary to what we heard from our parents and to what was going on in Miami.”

In the darkness of the bus ride from the Havana airport to the youth camp where they would stay, Valdes remembers wondering if they would have electricity. Then he spotted lights.

“I am wondering, ‘What is going to happen?’ And at that moment, music begins. I still get choked up by it. And the music was like cha, cha, cha, and Cubanos from the island, who were waiting for us, came to us. And someone took me out to dance, and so we began communication by dancing. We danced and we cried.”

Over the next three weeks, the exiles traveled the island often with Cuban students, who asked as many questions as they answered. They reunited with joyous relatives who had spent nearly 20 years being told their American family members were defectors; “we were gusanos,” Valdes says, “worms.”

They knocked on strangers’ doors. I grew up in this house. They worked building housing and hospitals, cutting sugar cane. They slept in narrow beds in dormitories and were served more food than they could eat. They met with cultural icons and government dignitaries, including Fidel Castro, who posed, straight-faced, in their midst.

“Everywhere we went, people cried because they were seeing their own relatives, symbolically, who had left Cuba,” Valdes recalls. “They wanted to touch us, kiss us, embrace us. To them, we meant the beginning of the reunification of the Cuban family.”


But this was the ’70s, and they were exiles. The personal could not be separated from the political. To some degree, it still cannot.

The Cuban government would not allow anyone to enter the country with the brigade who was not a minor when he or she left, who had participated in counterrevolutionary activities, who did not oppose the U.S. embargo and favor normalization. The members of the first brigade and those following were cast as radical pro-Castro, pro-revolution sympathizers, which, by and large, they were – though not all remained so. Counterrevolutionary extremists issued death threats against some of the founders and were not averse to using bombs as a means to intimidate those they believed to be Castro agents or allies. One of the brigade’s founders, Carlos Muniz Varela, was assassinated in Puerto Rico.

Families were divided. Friends fell away.

“This was the Cold War and there was no nuance,” says Maria de los Angeles Torres, a professor of Latin American and Latino studies and executive director of the Inter-University Program for Latino Research at the University of Illinois in Chicago. She coordinated and made several brigade visits to Cuba. “My parents were absolutely horrified when I returned to Cuba. The idea was that we were going back as sympathizers to a government that had betrayed them.”

The fact is, “going back meant you were breaking someone’s heart,” says Guillermo Grenier, a professor of sociology at Florida International University. He joined the second brigade. His mother, still living, accused him of going to visit the assassins. To this day, he says, she does not like him to visit Cuba.

“I am wondering, ‘What is going to happen?’ And at that moment, music begins. I still get choked up by it. And the music was like cha, cha, cha, and Cubanos from the island, who were waiting for us, came to us. And someone took me out to dance and so we began communication by dancing. We danced and we cried.”

Grenier and others say the election of President Jimmy Carter in 1976 helped pave the way for their trip. Carter wanted to normalize relations with Cuba under the banner of human rights. The Cuban government was also open to the idea. The brigade, Valdes says, “met, in happy circumstance, a twofold need by each government. We did not verbalize this. We did not say, ‘We are helping to build a bridge between the U.S. and Cuba,’ but some of us were aware that would happen.”

Teishan Latner, a postdoctoral fellow at New York University’s Center for the United States and the Cold War, last week presented a paper on the brigade at the American Historical Society conference in New York. The brigade, he says, never fit the either-or dichotomy of its time, and it heralded the era to come.

“Today, it is Cuban American youth who are the standard bearers of normalizing relations with Cuba,” he says, “and the Antonio Maceo Brigade is their direct predecessor.”


The youth of the brigade returned to Cuba for different reasons and came away with different impressions and conclusions, including disillusionment. The last contingent went to Cuba in 1988, but the Antonio Maceo Brigade still exists as a small leftist organization in Miami, and it never stopped working for normalized relations.

Many will say they did not think this day would ever come. Pertierra was in Havana on Dec. 17 when Obama and Castro gave their simultaneous announcements that negotiations to resume diplomatic relations would begin

“Ordinary people would stop me in the streets to hug and cry with joy,” he says. “I have been coming to Cuba for many, many years now.  I have never seen such joy and hope for the future as I have been witnessing here in Cuba for the past two weeks.”

So they watch now, looking for signs that the countries are truly negotiating as equals.

“It will not be a fast process since there still is a profound mistrust between both parties,” Alzaga says. And, if the goal of the United States remains regime change, “maybe we are just at the front of a different war, one fought more in terms of ideas, ideology and economic development.”

Obama’s action has been decried by some in the exile community. But, it is different time, a different Miami, a different Cuban American community. “Public opinion shifted in the Cuban exile community, and it shifted because people were able to engage with their families and realize that even their hardline families were not that hardline,” Torres says.

Says Valdes: “We made our decision in 1977, but others made it in 1980 and others in 1990, and others still may not have yet made the decision. But I understood that eventually the issue of family would precede politics. And it did. It did. We are now all Antonio Maceos.”