In 1973, Representative Karen Bass traveled to Cuba with the Venceremos Brigade. “I didn’t have any illusions that the people in Cuba had the same freedoms I did,” she said.
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.
It’s a reflection of the changing politics around Cuba that Biden would consider a running mate whose past might hurt his chances in Florida, where anti-Castro Cubans are still an important constituency. In 1992, being associated with the Venceremos Brigade was enough to prevent Johnnetta Cole, the then-president of Spelman College who was coordinating education policy for Bill Clinton’s transition team, from being nominated to serve as secretary of education.
Bass’s interest in Cuba kept up after she became a member of the California assembly. She went to the country again in 2005, on a trip organized by the California lobbyist Darius Anderson and paid for out of her campaign account, according to campaign-finance records kept by the California secretary of state. She’s returned several times since being elected to the U.S. House in 2010. She visited Alan Gross, the USAID contractor whom Cuba accused of being a spy, during his five years in prison, and joined then–Secretary of State John Kerry when he went to Havana to raise the American flag over the reestablished U.S. embassy in 2015. President Barack Obama invited Bass—by then a key supporter of normalizing relations with Cuba—to join the presidential delegation during his historic trip in 2016. From there, she tweeted a sepia-toned photo of herself from her Venceremos Brigade trip, in sunglasses with a bandanna on her head.
Read: Fidel: ‘Cuban Model Doesn’t Even Work for Us Anymore’
In Obama’s speech to the Cuban people, he called on them to stop making America a scapegoat for their problems—and on Americans to admit that the embargo didn’t work. Bass said she agrees with Obama’s views. “How long can you have the same policy and not make a difference?” she said. “I thought things needed to change.” She trained as a physician’s assistant, and her interest in Cuba in recent years has focused on medical issues. She and several other members of Congress from underserved, heavily Black districts established a program to send students, particularly Black students, from Los Angeles to Cuba for medical training they wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford. She’s also tried to get California regulations changed to allow Cuban doctors to do their residencies in the state. This, she said, is a natural point of collaboration.
Bass’s affinity for Cuba grows out of a connection she has always seen between the histories of Black Americans and Black Cubans. “The other thing about Cuba, by the way, that has always interested me is that the Cuban people look like me,” she noted.
Cuba has been the main issue that people who don’t want Biden to pick Bass have focused on, mostly because of a statement she made after Castro died in 2016, when she referred to him as “comandante en jefe,” which she says was a poor attempt to translate commander in chief. In Cuba, this was a phrase Castro’s government often used to praise him. When I spoke with her in early July about that statement, she told me that she somehow hadn’t fully realized how Cuba and Castro were seen in Florida, as opposed to California. She told me last week that she’s since reached out to congressional colleagues from Florida, and to Cuban American leaders, to further her understanding of the issue.
“If I had to make that statement over again, I wouldn’t use those words,” she told me, repeating the practiced line she’s been giving in response to questions about the gaffe.
“The idea that this issue is the foremost issue on the minds of people in Florida, when people are dying, when there aren’t [enough] ICU beds—again, I would not make that same statement again,” Bass said, but “it’s hard for me to believe that that is what’s going to be on people’s minds in the next hundred days.”
Bass is right that there are more important issues than what she was doing in Cuba nearly half a century ago, Taddeo, the Florida state senator, told me. “However, Florida is going to be decided by less than 1 percent, and this would be exactly the changing of the subject that we should not change thanks to this emergency that we’re in, because of the leadership of the president and the governor,” she said. “Now we’re going to talk about Cuba? That’sThat’s exactly where we do not want to go.”
Roberto Rodriguez Tejera, a Cuban American who hosts a radio show popular with Cuban Americans in Florida, told me by text that he felt sure, given her history, that Bass would take the state off the table for Biden. “It’s not only about Cuba. It’s about the socialist narrative. She is the poster person for it. A dream come true for the Republicans,” he wrote. “It’s also about any independent voter, anywhere in the country, who may be afraid of a total takeover of the Biden presidency by the radical left.”
The Venceremos Brigade, which still exists, and still sends young Americans to Cuba, declined to comment on the record. All told, about 8,000 Americans have traveled to Cuba with the group over the past half century. A trip had been scheduled for July, but was delayed because of the pandemic.