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Rep. Karen Bass (D-CA) walks through the Statuary Hall of the U.S. Capitol on July 20, 2020 in Washington, DC.Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images
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Biden VP Favorite Karen Bass’ Journey From the Radical Fringe

California congresswoman was active in the Venceremos Brigade in the 1970s

by
Armin Rosen
July 27, 2020
Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images
Rep. Karen Bass (D-CA) walks through the Statuary Hall of the U.S. Capitol on July 20, 2020 in Washington, DC.Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images

One of the major long-term trends in American political culture is the migration of ideological hardliners from the fringes of the left to the more moderate and moderating mainstream. New Left radicals became rank-and-file Democrats; a youthful Saul Alinsky acolyte made it to the White House, where he governed as a fairly standard neoliberal.

And if there’s ever been a taboo against former committed Castro regime enthusiasts making it to the highest levels of national politics, it might be on the verge of being broken, too.

In the mid-1970s, California Congresswoman Karen Bass, who is now under consideration to be Joe Biden’s running mate, was an organizer for the Venceremos Brigade, according to several contemporaneous media accounts and an interview with the future congresswoman published in a 1996 Ph.D. dissertation. The brigade organized six-week work trips for American leftists of all tendencies who wanted to visit and support Cuba—think of a more overtly activist version of Birthright, but for people whose promised land was an anti-American, anti-gay communist dictatorship 90 miles off the coast of Florida.

An event blurb in an October 1975 issue of the communist Daily World newspaper describes Bass, then 22, as “leader of the Venceremos Brigade in southern California.” Bass herself explained her work for the brigade to a doctoral candidate working on a 1996 Ph.D. dissertation submitted to the Fielding Institute, titled “Women Activists of Diverse Backgrounds: A Qualitative Study of Perceived Influences and Values.” “Another critical influence for Bass began, at age 19, and spanned the next five years: Cuba,” reads the document, written by Dawn Noggle, who is currently the director of mental health services for the Maricopa County correctional system. “As a ‘brigadista’ and then organizer for the Venceremos Brigades, Karen visited Cuba every 6 months.”

When reached for comment about Bass’ involvement with the Venceremos Brigade on Monday, a spokesman for Bass’ office wrote the future congresswoman “wasn’t a leader—she went with other volunteers to build houses. She’s been to Cuba several times because she believes, like she said on MSNBC last night, the best way to improve relationships is through communication and diplomacy. It’s why she’s on the Ronald Reagan-founded Board of the National Endowment for Democracy, it’s why she went with President Obama, it’s why she went with Secretary Kerry, it’s why she went to visit USAID prisoner Alan Gross.”

The Venceremos Brigade’s pilgrimages to Cuba—the group was founded in 1969 by members of SDS and the Cuban government—were a magnet for the most radicalized and often delusional cadres of the American left, including overtly Maoist and pro-Soviet communist groups that preached the imminence of a U.S.-style workers revolution. The culture clash between American radicals and Cuban communist functionaries at times erupted into intense conflict during the early 1970s, most notably when it came to the Cuban government’s insistence that homosexuality was a form of illegal social deviance and that gay activists—and often individuals suspected of being homosexual—should be incarcerated under brutal conditions, for decades at a time.

Interestingly, Bass’ work in Cuba helped the future congresswoman reject the cultural looseness that 1960s radicalism had often championed. “Cuba was for her what psychotherapy is for others—a process through which she re-examined her values, her behavior, her relationship with her family, and her future goals,” Noggles’ dissertation concluded. “The irresponsibility and drug-taking of the ’60s had to be discarded; family was and is to be treated with respect; egotistical, self-indulgent behavior was to be confronted and changed. She still speaks of the experience and the individuals she met in Cuba with respect and a certain awe.”

Bass was one of numerous young radicals for whom a Venceremos trip proved formative. Joel Schwartz, a participant in an early brigade and a veteran labor activist, said his six-week, ground-level glimpse of the Cuban communist experiment was “life-transforming,” and added that he would “never say anything bad about anyone who went.” Schwartz also recalled that Brigadistas received threatening letters from the State and Treasury Departments, although the government never followed up on them. The leftist historian, author, and indigenous rights activist Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz remembered heading to the island with “500 squabbling Americans” of all different leftist persuasions when she traveled there on an early brigade. “It’s proof of the transformation they went through down there that they were actually not fighting at the end.”

The Venceremos Brigade’s links to the Cuban state were the subject of intermittently paranoid congressional hearings in July of 1972—witnesses alleged that a host of late-1960s radicals including Bernardine Dohrn and the sister of Angela Davis had been Brigadistas, and cited “Cuban underground” sources in claiming that a 1971 brigade had served as cover for a meeting between American leftists and North Vietnamese officials. In 1983, a former Cuban Directorate of General Intelligence captain who defected to the United States told the FBI that Cuban intelligence officers working under diplomatic cover at the Cuban U.N. mission in New York and the country’s interest section in Washington, D.C., controlled the brigades and selected their participants. Still, the brigade trips have continued into the present day—the 50th Brigade was held last year. While there are reports of trip participants being questioned by U.S. law enforcement over the years, no one has ever been successfully prosecuted in the United States for any brigade-related activity.

Bass’ Cuba-related work drew the attention of the Los Angeles Police Department, which had successfully infiltrated the local wing of the Venceremos Brigade. Per a 1983 LA Times article, a 1973 LAPD intelligence document described Bass as a “leader” in Venceremos, which was alleged to “train revolutionary-prone Americans in terrorist tactics and guerrilla warfare while claiming to harvest sugar cane.” Bass, then a 30-year-old physician’s assistant, acknowledged to the Times that she had traveled to Cuba eight times in the 1970s and had been active in the brigade, but said the only firearms training she had received had come from an undercover LAPD officer who, according to Bass, had “encouraged many different folks who had leadership responsibilities in the LA progressive community to learn how to use weapons.” Bass was later one of several plaintiffs in an ACLU-led class action lawsuit against the LAPD and 12 undercover officers over the department’s allegedly illegal spying.

When reached for comment, a spokesman for Bass said that the lawsuit was eventually successful, and that the case alleged more than just unlawful surveillance. “The Chief of Police fancied himself to be the Los Angeles version of J. Edgar Hoover. He kept files on activists and elected officials including the mayor and members of the city council. Rep. Bass was spied on and harassed by LAPD as were the more than 100 activists that were plaintiffs in lawsuit and that’s why they won.”

Neither Bass’ long-term involvement with the Venceremos Brigade nor her being targeted by a possibly illegal police operation have made it into accounts of Bass’ career after the mid-1990s. A June New York Times article about Bass discussed the congresswoman’s leading role in police reform efforts on Capitol Hill, but did not mention that she was herself targeted in a legally questionable police spying ring. A 2016 LA Times article about Bass’ participation in President Barack Obama’s landmark trip to Cuba says that she frequently traveled to Cuba in the ’70s for volunteer work, but does not name the Venceremos Brigade. The brigade and the LAPD spying scandal currently don’t appear in the congresswoman’s Wikipedia page.

Bass’ involvement in the Venceremos Brigade is hardly the most important feature of the congresswoman’s career, although it does help illustrate her larger political trajectory. Bass is no dilettante community organizer. She did not get involved in activism as an elite resume-padding exercise, or as a jumping-off point to some other, more lucrative career. She wanted to solve problems in the community where she had spent her entire life, and then dedicated the next several decades to doing exactly that—she was only elected to the California state legislature in 2005, at the relatively late age of 52. For the 20 years before her election, she had founded and led organizations like the Community Coalition, which focused on the effects of the crack epidemic in LA and organized against the opening of new liquor stores in minority neighborhoods.

At the same time that she became one of LA’s most prominent activists, Bass was working as a physician’s assistant, a suitably skilled yet working-class career for someone who would go on to represent her community in the state legislature and in Congress. She is a Southern California lifer, earning degrees from San Diego State and Cal State-Dominguez Hills, rather than Harvard or Stanford. Somewhat unbelievably from our present vantage point, Bass was the only African American woman in the California state legislature when she was first elected in 2005. By 2008, she was California assembly speaker, and the first black woman in American history to lead a state legislative chamber.

It is worth asking how Bass’ career might have been different—and, perhaps, less consequential—without the radicalism of her 20s. According to that 1996 interview, Bass was in contact with Angela Davis when the future congresswoman was still in high school.

An undated, typewritten document uploaded to a Wiki page in July of 2016 that appears to have been written by an activist with the organization Line of March lists a “Karen Bass” as one of the “forces working directly under the guidance of the rect. line” in Los Angeles. In the context of the document, “rect.” is short for “rectificationist,” referring to communists who opposed the revisionist turn typified by Khrushchev’s condemnation of Stalin and Deng Xiaoping’s repudiation of Mao. In 1977, West Coast rectificationists formed Line of March, which consolidated the efforts of activists affiliated with the Union of Democratic Filipinos, the Northern California Alliance, and the Third World Women’s Alliance (an organization that grew out of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC). When reached for comment about Bass’s possible involvement with Line of March, a spokesperson for Bass said that the future congresswoman had “attended events.”

Like Bass herself, the rectificationists’ political journey soon turned into evidence of the magnetic pull of the American political mainstream and its remarkable ability to internalize a vast range of obscure and even semi-exotic political tendencies, the same way American pop music ate punk and grunge.

In a July 2008 interview, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz recalled that in San Francisco, Line of March and other far-left groups “got radicals into key local positions, which has had a permanent effect on local politics.” When reached by Tablet, Dunbar-Ortiz recalled that “quite a few Line of March activists did go on and work in civic organizations. It became pretty standard.” She recalled the group as being “kind of cult-y,” and remembered that it published a “scholarly, kind of academic journal” of Marxist theory that she found “unreadable.” Dunbar-Ortiz said she did not know any of the LA-based Line of March activists and could not recall one way or the other whether Bass was a member of the group.

According to Paul Saba, an Arizona-based grant-writer and former attorney and an archivist of the American anti-revisionist movement, many rectificationist activists including those grouped under the Line of March umbrella became involved in Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaign, which provided them with a gateway to mainstream politics.

“Most of them have blended in relatively smoothly to a kind of left wing of the Democratic Party,” said Saba. “They came out of the wilderness of ultra-leftism and found a place in the political system where they thought they could really make a difference and stayed there ever since.”

A Bass vice presidency might turn out to be the ultimate test of whether the system changed these activists more than these activists changed the system.

Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet magazine.

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