Bass recognizes that the issue still matters: When I called last week and told an aide I wanted to talk about her history in Communist Cuba, she quickly scheduled a time to talk. But Bass believes that, in the midst of a pandemic and an economic crisis, many Americans have more pressing concerns than what she did in Cuba 47 years ago. Florida State Senator Annette Taddeo, a Democrat who was born in Colombia but represents a swing district where many Latinos and Cubans live, agrees, but worries that Bass’s spot on the ticket, given her history in Havana, “would be a game changer in Florida, certainly among the Hispanic community.” There’s no question that Democratic Party politics, the resonance of anti-Communism, and Americans’ feelings about Cuba have all evolved since Bass first visited the island. The question now, as Biden makes his choice, is whether they’ve evolved enough to put Bass on the ticket.
“There has been a shift on how to engage with Cuba, but there hasn’t been a shift in Castro’s popularity,” argues Fernand Amandi, a Florida-based Democratic consultant and pollster of Cuban heritage whose past clients include the Obama-Biden campaigns. Referring to comments Senator Bernie Sanders made in March that “it’s unfair to simply say everything is bad” about Castro’s government, Amandi added, “Fairly or unfairly, Karen Bass’s history on this subject makes Bernie Sanders look like Ronald Reagan.”
If Biden picks Bass, he’d be betting that Amandi, and people who agree with him, are overestimating how much voters still care about Castro—and communism.
Bass’s high school in Los Angeles was the kind of place where students were always striking or boycotting something, she told me. Her Spanish teacher, like many of her teachers and other leftist radicals of the ’60s and ’70s, talked warmly about Cuba, where Castro’s revolution was less than two decades old. This wasn’t uncommon: Some Americans on the left, including some Black activists, celebrated the Cuban revolution and the toppling of the Batista government as the end of a racist system. Cuba is “a shining example of hope in our hemisphere,” Stokely Carmichael, the founder of the Black Power movement, said in a 1967 speech in Havana. The best way to think of Bass’s politics at the time—and now—is “as a Black activist who was deeply concerned about what the activists are raising today: systemic racism,” she told me. “I was also deeply concerned on the international front about issues like apartheid in South Africa and supporting the independence movements in Africa. And a lot of times that did not align with U.S. policy.”
It was in this atmosphere, and with Castro scrambling to fulfill a promise of a 10-million-ton sugarcane harvest, that Students for a Democratic Society organized the first Venceremos Brigade. The Cuban government was eager for the help—and especially for the opportunity to bring sympathetic Americans into the country. Venceremos translates to either “we shall overcome” or, perhaps more pointedly, “we shall triumph.” The first group, which called itself an “anti-imperialist education project” to protest the U.S. blockade of Cuba and show solidarity with the revolution, headed to Havana in early 1970. The members of the group, mostly students, lived alongside Cubans, and initially focused on harvesting sugarcane.