CBC chair and veepstakes contender: Sure, I hung out in Cuba with a radical Castro front group in the 70's

Hey, who didn’t? Er … probably everyone else on Joe Biden’s veepstakes list, or at least so we’d assume. The Atlantic’s Edward-Isaac Dovere discovered that Rep. Karen Bass (D-CA), who currently chairs the Congressional Black Caucus, spent some time in Cuba with the Venceremos Brigade, an initiative by Fidel Castro to encourage radicalization in the US through the extremist group Students for a Democratic Society:

Karen Bass, the congresswoman from California, is in contention to become Joe Biden’s running mate. There are good reasons for this. She is reliably liberal, she chairs the Congressional Black Caucus, and she shares a history of family loss with Biden. But she’s also the only person on Biden’s list who spent part of the 1970s working construction in Fidel Castro’s Cuba with the Venceremos Brigade, a group that has organized annual trips to Cuba for young, leftist Americans for half a century.

The Biden campaign knows about Bass’s history with the Brigade, which began as a joint venture of the Castro government and Students for a Democratic Society, the leftist, antiwar organization that gave birth to the Weather Underground terrorist group. She told Biden’s vetting committee weeks ago that this was probably going to come up. So far, it hasn’t been a deal breaker—in fact, her potential to drive up African-American votes might help in Florida among voters who traditionally haven’t been paid as much attention in the state.

When Dovere called to discuss it, Bass seemed eager to put it into context. Bass went there just to build houses and commune with the people, she told Dovere. Think of it as an early version of Habitat for Humanity … added to a lot of cult worship of Castro, natch:

“We built houses during the day,” Bass said, “and then we had what they called cultural activities and we called parties. There was great music, rum, dancing. And we toured the country.” Going to Cuba was a way to meet other young activists, Bass told me. “Obviously, there were Cubans there doing construction work,” she said. “But it was an opportunity for all of the various activists to get together.” She wasn’t the only future politician to join the Venceremos Brigade: Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a longtime friend of hers, also went.

Bass went to see Castro speak in Revolution Square in Havana, joining “about a bazillion people” in the crowd, she said. Although she couldn’t understand him, he was “extremely charismatic.” She said she was aware then that Cuba under Castro wasn’t the utopia that some of her friends believed it to be. “I know that the crowds cheered, but I have no idea what they were cheering about—and I’m not sure if they didn’t cheer, that wouldn’t have been a problem,” she said. That was the contrast she saw between American activists and Cubans at the time. “I didn’t have any illusions that the people in Cuba had the same freedoms I did. I came home and was protesting everything; I knew that the Cuban people didn’t have the ability to do that.” She didn’t buy the Cuban government’s propaganda, she insisted. I asked whether she knew any American activists who had gotten involved in espionage or violence, and she was firm in her response: “Let me say: Hell no. No, I did not know anybody like that.”

That might suffice as an explanation if Bass had left the program filled with a realization of what Cuba and radical Marxism meant. It didn’t, and it still didn’t prevent Bass from going back, however. Bass returned seven times after that supposed insight into oppression:

She was there eight times in the 1970s, and has been back about as many times since. That’s good evidence that she didn’t lead her life focused on building a résumé or trying to rise in politics, she argued.

Just how radical was the Venceremos Brigade? An undercover investigator told a congressional committee in 1972 — just before Bass traveled to Cuba for the first time — that it was no humanitarian mission. “To be a member of the brigade,” deputy sheriff Dwight Crews testified, “you have to be confirmed as a Marxist-Leninist.” They also had an assignment when they returned to the US, too:

To get into the Venceremos Brigade, he said, required filling out a detailed application, undergoing interviews concerning his political beliefs and three‐and‐a‐half months of twice‐a‐week indoctrination sessions. …

Deputy Crews said that the brigade members had been put into a Cuban labor camp east of Havana and had helped to build 14 houses for a new town, working five‐and‐a‐half days, 44 hours a week.

The deputy said that he joined a 20‐member “propaganda committee” of the brigade that was ordered to “develop propaganda for use on our return to the United States in support of the Cuban revolution and further the cause of Communism within the United States.”

Does that explain why Bass went back seven times to Cuba in the 1970s? It certainly raises questions about her political aspirations. It also raises serious questions about Joe Biden’s judgment in putting a one-time Castro propagandist-in-training on his veepstakes short list. However, it does tend to explain why Bass went out of her way to express her condolences for the death of the “Comandante in Jefe” when Castro died a few years ago — as well as her rapid retreat from that sentiment earlier this week.

Biden won’t pick Bass for other reasons; he already has California in the bag, and Bass doesn’t have any executive experience. However, he should have his head examined for putting her on the short list to begin with, and for keeping her on it while knowing about her connection to Castro’s propaganda efforts in the US.