Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Jonathan Stein

American Students’ Trip to Cuba Creates Furor

First Published: Columbia Daily Spectator, Volume CVIII, Number 2, 26 September 1963 .
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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The story of the 59 Americans who visited Cuba this summer–and who are being investigated by both a Federal grand jury and the House Un-American Activities Committee–started last fall in the apartment of a Columbia College senior.

Twenty-seven students met in the apartment of Levi Laub to discuss plans for a trip to Cuba. Laub, who became a leader of the eight-week trip, must pass make-up examinations to graduate.

The Cuban student’s organization, Fereracion de Estudiantes Universitarios (FEU), had sent out an invitation inviting any American students to visit Cuba at no cost. The organization is supported in part by government funds.

Members of the left-wing Progressive Labor Movement formed part of the Student Committee for Travel to Cuba. Laub, a member of the two-year old Marxist-Leninist group, explained in an interview that the Progressive Labor members functioned as individuals and not as representatives of the organization.

Laub spoke in a dimly-lit bar on W. 68th St. where he was avoiding federal marshals seeking to serve him with a subpeona. He denied that, that the Committee was a “front” organization. Laub said the identity of PL members were known, and asserted that the travel group had received no financial support from the left-wing group.

An attempt was made in December to fly from Montreal to Cuba. But the night before the flight was scheduled to take off, the Canadian Foreign Ministry cancelled the landing permit of the Cuban plane.

Vicki Ortiz, a Barnard junior who has recently appeared before the grand jury, said in another interview that formal plans for the trip were made last April and May and that one hundred applications were received. Fifty-nine made the flight to Cuba. Each paid a fee of $100 to cover incidental expenses.

The group, including a volunteer undercover agent for the FBI and CIA, left Idlewild Airport on June 29 for Prague, Czechoslovakia. From there they made their flight to Cuba. The exact flight plans were kept secret although public notice of a flight had been released, according to Miss Ortiz. Flights to Cuba can only be arranged from Prague, Moscow, Madrid and Mexico City.

The group arrived in Havana and was met by guides of the Cuban touristy agency, the Cuban Institute for Friendship with the People. Most of the guides were university students who gave up five weeks of school to accompany the Americans.

At Varadara Beach in Havana, the group met Fidel Castro. The CIA agent, Barry Hoffman, described the meeting to the House committee this way:

“He (Castro) wanted to play again. He went on for two-and-a-half to three hours. Four or five students played him. They wanted to go on, but he said, ’I’m sorry. I can’t. I’ve got to get back to affairs of state.’ I believe that was some indication of how his mind works.”

The first part of their stay was spent in guided tours of the country and interviews with citizens. Laub and Miss Ortiz were greatly impressed with a three-hour interview with Che Guevara, minister of industries. Miss Ortiz believed that this was the “most exciting part of the trip.”

Guevara asked a number of students what they liked least about Cuba. Students complained about the degree of bureaucracy and disorganization that they had observed. Guevara, according to Laub, acknowledged the criticism and said that attempts were being made to rectify the situation. Guevara also was critical of attempts in Cuba to shift the blame of internal difficulties to outside forces.

Guevara added, according to Laub, that the Cuban press did not always give a fair picture of developments in Cuba. At times the Voice of America broadcasts news which the Cuban press leaves out, Guevara reportedly said.

The Cuban press gave full coverage to the visiting Americans, and reprinted verbatim accounts of interviews, according to Laub. Steve Martinot, an Antioch graduate and graduate student in mathematics at Columbia last year, asked Guevara about certain lacks he found in the “socialist consciousness of the people.”

Carlos Rafael Rodriguez, head of the National Institute for Agrarian Reform explained the problems which Cuba was encountering in agriculture. According to Miss Ortiz’s account of the four hour interview, Rodriguez pointed out that 60 per cent of the land was state owned, but that 60 per cent of the productivity came from privately owned land.

Miss Ortiz explained that when Cubans were asked about why elections were not held, they were told that they were not necessary. Miss Ortiz asserted that “every day the Cuban people vote” by supporting or criticizing government policy.

Martinot was impressed with what he called the “fantastic democracy” in the United Party of the Socialist Revolution, Cuba’s only political party. In an interview yesterday he praised the election of party members “from the grass roots level up.”

Martinot, who was elected chairman of the Progressive Labor Club at Columbia, estimated the support of the Cuban government as “95 or 96 per cent.” Miss Ortiz’s estimate is about “80 to 85 per cent.”

The students agreed that the standard of living in Cuba was higher than reported in the United States press. Miss Ortiz said that although real poverty can be seen in Mexico, there is none in Cuba.

The first sign of trouble for the returning group came when customs officials demanded the passports of the students who broke the State Department’s travel restriction. Several handed over their passports which were then stamped temporarily invalid. The rest refused to surrender their passports.

Soon after the House Un-American Affairs Committee subpoenaed five student travelers on Sept. 11. According to Laub, all but one were in Progressive Labor. The police first went into action at the hearing when a student yelled out that the United States had become a totalitarian country. Police were forced to eject fifteen screaming and kicking demonstrators.

Laub was prepared to discuss the travel ban with the committee. He said he had studied the legal history of it for eight months. He was asked questions, however, on his political beliefs and personal and political associations. Laub answered questions on his political beliefs, but refused to answer “third party questions.”

The violence at the hearing came each time during Laub’s testimony. Congressman Edwin Willis, Democrat of Louisiana, adjourned the Sept. 11 hearing when Laub said the trip was aimed “at the same kind of racists who are sitting up here in front of me now.’ The audience had previously applauded Laub’s calling Hoffman, the government agent, a “rat” for giving names to the committee.

More serious trouble for the students came when a federal grand jury issued fifteen subpoenas, including at least five leaders of Progressive Labor. Fred Jerome, editor of the movement’s monthly magazine, said that only five had taken part in the trip to Cuba.

Miss Ortiz, who was called to appear before the grand jury, only answered questions concerning her identity and pleaded the Fifth Amendment to the other questions.

Laub wanted to join his family in California for the Jewish High Holidays before appearing before the grand jury. In an interview held last week–the day before he flew to California–Laub said that he would soon appear before the grand jury.

Meanwhile, the Student Committee for Travel to Cuba, which includes the students who made the trip, held a rally in Town Hall on September 16. Corliss Lamont, chairman of the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee, filled in as moderator when I. F. Stone, a writer, refused to appear, citing the “naivete” and the “out-of-this-world leftism” of the group.

Outside the Town Hall meeting thousands of anti-Castro demonstrators filled the Times Square area.