Interior Secretary's daughter has worked with environmental alliance tied to Cuba solidarity group
Somah Haaland works with the Pueblo Action Alliance, an environmental coalition that supports the decades-old Castro-regime inspired ‘Venceremos Brigade’
September 19, 2023 2:06am
Updated: October 25, 2023 4:30pm
An environmental coalition that has worked with Interior Secretary Deb Haaland’s daughter and successfully petitioned her mother’s agency to implement a New Mexico oil and gas drilling ban, openly associates with the Venceremos Brigade (VB), a U.S.-based organization that facilitates trips for young Americans to visit Cuba, where they are reportedly greeted and groomed by Cuban intelligence agents, ADN has learned based on a collection of information published online, social media accounts, news stories and official reports.
Somah Haaland began working with the Pueblo Action Alliance (PAA) in 2020, a New Mexico indigenous rights group that openly associates with the VB, and whose executive director, Julia Bernal, traveled with the group to Cuba the year before where it was hosted by the Institute of Friendship Along with the Peoples (ICAP), a regime sponsored organization led by one of Cuba’s most notorious spy, Fernando González Llort–-and a former member of the Wasp Network who was sentenced to prison in the U.S. for espionage.
Somah Haaland's social media accounts and a recent complaint filed with the Dept. of Interior suggest she still works with the PAA, but fair comment inquiries made to her and others by ADN went unanswered.
In 1983, the New York Times reported that former ICAP Director Jesus Raul Mendez Perez told a Miami radio station that the agency has an intelligence gathering role linked to the Directorio General de Intelligencia (DGI), Cuba's main intelligence agency.
Enrique García Díaz, a former DGI officer who oversaw Latin American affairs for Cuban intelligence before defecting to the United States, confirmed as much during an exclusive interview with ADN America.
The former Cuban intelligence officer told ADN that Cuban intelligence used ICAP as a cover to make contact with Western-based “solidarity movements.” The ICAP’s role, he added, was to provide both moral and financial support to targeted activist groups with the aim of influencing public opinion and politicians in both the U.S. and Latin America.
“I knew and had friendships with various chiefs and officials who operated under the cover of working for ICAP,” García Díaz told ADN. “DGI officers used the ICAP's façade to interact with foreign delegations in Cuba, and we systematically coordinated those activities with ICAP officials working in different countries, “They organized everything, even the tours we took guests on throughout the country, and so on. I had colleagues and friends operating inside the U.S. and Canada who told me they participated in all the Brigade’s visits to Cuba on behalf of the intelligence service. Naturally, they used the ICAP's façade for studying and recruiting foreigners who ”traveled to Cuba with the Brigade.”
Chris Simmons, a former Defense Intelligence Agency operative and one of America’s most accomplished Cuban agent spy catchers–whose work helped detain Fernando González Llort, other members of the Wasp Network, and Cuban spy Ana Belén Montes, told ADN America that when the Brigade and ICAP make contact with U.S. officials or their family members, there should be cause for concern.
“ICAP has been running for so long, it is a well-oiled machine, and as the visas and the passports come in, it does triage over which [American] candidates should be targeted [for recruitment] and the best ways to go about it,” Simmons told ADN America in a telephone interview. “In this case, you have the daughter of an administration official, who has built-in access to her mother and her connections… This enables her to give a heads up [to others] who her mother has problems with, and who is and who is not friends with Cuba.”
Deb Haaland’s interaction with her daughter’s employer is already the subject of a recent ethics complaint filed Aug. 17 with the DOI Inspector General. The complaint, which was filed by Protect the Public Trust (PPT), a government watchdog group, accused the interior secretary of “apparent ethical breaches.”
The PPT complaint was filed after it was discovered that Deb Haaland participated in a 2022 documentary film aimed at outlawing the development of oil and gas drilling leases near New Mexico’s Chaco Culture National Historic Park (CCNHP). The stated reason for pushing the drilling ban is to preserve Native American land and artifacts.
The complaint says the documentary depicts the former New Mexico congresswoman participating in PAA activities before and after she was confirmed in her current DOI role and requests the agency's Inspector General to investigate whether Haaland complied with her impartiality and ethics obligations when she exercised her regulatory authority in the matter.
The documentary film, “Our Story: The Indigenous Led Fight to Protect Greater Chaco,” features interviews with Deb Haaland and her daughter, Somah Haaland, who serves as Communications Coordinator of the Pueblo Action Alliance (PAA), a coalition of environmental organizations that began lobbying on the issue prior to the interior secretary’s nomination.
Deb Haaland and her daughter have not been accused of any wrongdoing, but House Republicans have “sounded the alarm,” about the film, according to an Aug. 17 Fox News report. The PAA’s connections with the Venceremos Brigade could raise more questions about the DOI secretary, who, as a senior U.S. official, is subject to ongoing security checks and disclosures about her contacts.
The Venceremos Brigade’s long history of targeting American activists
In Spanish, “Venceremos” means “we shall overcome,” a popular Marxist revolutionary slogan that has been used by radical leftist organizations throughout Latin America since the late 1960s. It has also been incorporated into the most (in)famous Castro “revolution” slogan, which was/is “Patria o muerte! Venceremos!”
Since its inception in 1969, the Venceremos Brigade took aim at influencing Americans interested in politics, particularly those with a sympathetic ear. In 1977, the New York Times revealed details from an August 1976 FBI report that found Cuban intelligence agents “arranged for American youths to be inculcated with revolutionary fervor and, occasionally, to be trained in practical weaponry by Cuban military officers through the so‐called Venceremos Brigades.”
The report specifically identified one of the groups as the Weather Underground, an armed radical leftist collective described by the FBI as a “domestic terrorist group,” that committed 25 bombings, among them, at the Pentagon, U.S. Capitol, California Attorney General’s Office, and NYPD during the 1970s. As part of an interview with the FBI, the New York Times reported that a limited number of Brigade members were also trained in guerrilla warfare techniques, “including the use of arms and explosives.”
“In the case of the Venceremos Brigade, as it happens with other groups traveling to Cuba, the first common factor Cuban intelligence seeks in their profiling is sympathy for the regime,” Garcia Diaz told ADN.
“In many cases, potential recruitment candidates have succumbed or had succumbed, to the false sirens' songs of propaganda: equality, free education, free public health, and that whole list of falsehoods and half-truths that you and I are familiar with. They are experts in creating a whole sophism that confuses many. This motivation is the common denominator they seek when recruiting people.”
To that end, the Brigade has helped coordinate the travel of nearly 10,000 Americans to the communist island, according to Cuban-regime’s press accounts. The Brigade started their missions by volunteering U.S. students to help Cuban laborers work in sugarcane fields. However, reports published by U.S. government agencies and Congress say the missions have been used by the Cuban regime as a gateway to collect data on Americans and U.S. public officials.
A Feb. 26, 1982 report published by the U.S. Senate confirms that shortly after its formation, “the DGI [Cuban intelligence] quickly began tasking VB members to collect public information on prominent Americans. This was done to conserve Cuban resources, maximize Havana’s collection of open-source material, and to test a VB member’s degree of support. The DGI found telephone books to be an especially useful item, as the books could identify and verify the identity of high-interest personnel. VB members also provided considerable details on U.S. Congressional members, staff, and their relatives.”
While it has collected data on members of Congress, the aforementioned 1976 FBI report cited by the New York Times says the DGI’s real interest in the Brigade, “is the recruitment of individuals who are politically oriented and who someday may obtain a position, elective or appointive, somewhere in the U.S. government, which would provide the Cuban government with access to political, economic and military intelligence.”
Garcia Diaz confirmed that assertion directly to ADN America, saying that once potential targets are recruited, Havana explores how to utilize those individuals' positions in American society.
“Later, they are projected (once recruited) against targets of interest. If, for family reasons or personal characteristics, they had the potential to penetrate government or political institutions, they are guided to moderate their radical public positions so they could (can) better integrate themselves for the future (as was done with [convicted Cuban spy] Ana Belén Montes),” he said.
The Pueblo Action Alliance and the New Mexico Regional Committee for the Venceremos Brigade
The New Mexico Regional Committee for the Venceremos Brigade helps coordinate the delegations of “anyone” who wants to travel with them to Cuba, according to Roberto Roibal, a decades-long Brigade member and self-described “office manager” at the SouthWest Organizing Project, an entity that fiscally sponsor[s] the Pueblo Action Alliance (PAA), according to SWOP’s website.
Roibal and others corroborated the New Mexico Regional Committee’s work with the national organization in personal accounts memorialized in a social media video reviewed by ADN America.
Roibal is not the only SWOP staff member with ties with the Venceremos Brigade. Retired environmentalist activist Joaquín Luján was also a Venceremos Brigade member. His son George Luján, later took over as SWOP Executive Director.
SWOP was founded in 1980 by youth activists, and its logo and brand were influenced by the Venceremos Brigade trip, “going to Cuba and bringing this internationalist perspective,” according to Robby Rodriguez, a longtime member who spoke about the issue during a podcast with Karlos Gauna Schmeider, the son of SWOP founders.
“My second Brigade was in 1979,” Roibal said in a June 3, 2020 video in which he shared details about his 2019 trip with PAA Executive Director Julia Bernal (Somah Haaland’s boss and executive director of the Pueblo Action Alliance).
“I’ve been to Cuba with the Brigades, about you know, almost 20 times. I just am so invigorated, I get so much energy going, from the people in Cuba just seeing what we should have, what they have, they have: free education, free healthcare, free college, there is no employment, no homeless people, no houseless people in Cuba…” Roibal is depicted as saying. “It's a great example of what we should be.”
The same day the New Mexico Venceremos Brigade Public Meeting video was published on June 3, 2020, it was also shared by Deb Haaland’s daughter on her personal Facebook page with a caption inviting Americans to travel to Cuba with the group.
A month before, In May 2020, Somah Haaland had changed her personal Facebook profile to identify herself as the Media Coordinator of the Pueblo Action Alliance.
The video she shared depicts her now boss, PAA Executive Director Julia Bernal, and other members of the New Mexico Venceremos Brigade Committee discussing the group’s trip and calling upon young Americans to join.
“Want to go to Cuba with the Venceremos Brigade? Want to help an African, Indigenous, or Chicano youth or family go to Cuba with the #VenceremosBrigade? Come to this public meeting!” a post on Somah Haaland’s Facebook personal page reads.
The post also explains how the Brigade “never requests permission from the U.S. government to go to Cuba, and we never will!”
During the course of ADN’s investigation, the New Mexico Venceremos Brigade Regional Committee Facebook page went offline. Yet, ADN was able to capture images of Ms. Haaland’s daughter sharing Brigade propaganda with the intent to recruit U.S. youth to travel to Cuba.
In recent years, the national Venceremos Brigade has taken an apparent interest in environmental activism, even featuring on their home page a conference promoting Cuba’s so-called environmental justice in which Bernal appears on the panel.
The panel promoted by the Brigade was hosted by another member of the VB’s New Mexico Regional Committee, Onyesonwe, and features “Indigenous nations in the U.S. talking about taking the land back as part of a process of decolonization and building socialism.”
The PAA’s connection with the Brigade goes back at least as far as July 2019 after Bernal traveled to Cuba, a trip she talked about in PAA committee meetings, which were shared by Somah Haaland on social media.
Bernal subsequently participated in online panels, praising the Cuban regime while making the case that the communist island is the most sustainable country in the world and a “land of the future.”
When Bernal and at least one other PAA member named Sheldon Tenorio traveled to Cuba in 2019 for the Brigade’s 50th anniversary, they were received by Fernando González LLort at ICAP headquarters–-one of the Cuban Five (part of the Wasp Network)–-the spy ring that made its mark by deceiving, infiltrating and manipulating Americans in the Miami Cuban exile community.
González was arrested with other spies in 1998 and convicted of espionage in 2001 for sending the Castro regime thousands of pages of national security information revealing sensitive data on U.S. airports, air bases, and the personal data of Cuban exile groups.
He was subsequently sentenced to 19 years in federal prison. Only three years after González’s release in 2014, the master spy who had on-the-ground experience deceiving Americans took the position of heading up the ICAP to give visitors a whitewashed tour of life in Cuba.
On Sept. 28, 2019, a few months after Bernal traveled to Cuba, the New Mexico Venceremos Brigade Facebook page went live, according to Facebook records.
PAA’s current website also went live in 2019, about the same time the New Mexico Venceremos Brigade Facebook page was launched, according to records from Web Archive reviewed by ADN.
“Through Pueblo Action Alliance and our partnership with the SouthWest Organizing Project, there were a few of us who were able to travel to the island in July 2019,” a Feb. 26 blog entry on their site detailing the experience by PAA member Sheldon Tenorio, reads.
Shortly before her own 2019 visit to Cuba, Ms. Bernal appeared on an April 23, 2019 panel, on Generation Justice, a former grantee of SWOP, an entity that fiscally contributes to Pueblo Action Alliance, discussing how the concept of “climate justice” was an indigenous-led decision.
One of her co-panelists was Somah’s mother, then Rep. Deb Haaland who was a New Mexico-based U.S. congresswoman.
The panel also featured SWOP member Juan Reynosa, and was part of the “2019 Climate Justice Alliance Member Convening which happened in Albuquerque, NM.”
Members of the Climate Justice Alliance, which includes the Global Justice Alliance, a coalition of organizations of which SWOP is a founding member, along with the Chinese Progressive Association-San Francisco (CPA). The CPA is a group whose founders have praised communist China and who began as a pro-People’s Republic of China organization, according to a Stanford paper published at a site called ‘marxists.org.”
Two years later on Dec. 18, 2021, after Deb Haaland was confirmed as Secretary of the Department of Interior, the PAA celebrated her nomination, displayed its support, and published a photo of the newly appointed secretary wearing one of the PAA’s t-shirts.
Deb Haaland is depicted in the photo posing next to PAA Director Bernal, Sheldon Tenorio, and another PAA member. Both have participated in New Mexico Venceremos Brigade activities.
The blog entry with the photo refers to the U.S. cabinet member with affection and familiarity, congratulating “Auntie Deb” for all the triumphs and efforts she has pursued in securing this position as Secretary of the Department of Interior.”
Sec. Haaland’s Dept. of Interior is targeting natural resource drilling projects in other states
New Mexico is not the only state where Deb Haaland has used Native American cultural preservation as a justification to cripple natural resource drilling projects. A Jan. 29 Wall Street Journal editorial says the interior secretary’s “anti-permitting reform” has left mining projects in Alaska, Arizona, Minnesota, and Nevada “stuck in permitting purgatory.” The piece highlighted the irony that while the Biden administration has heavily subsidized electric vehicles, its Department of Interior is blocking the mineral projects needed to produce them.
Citing the necessity of protecting “fragile and vital social and natural resources” as well as the “traditional cultural values” and “subsistence-based lifestyles” of Native American tribes, Haaland has blocked mining in Minnesota’s Superior National Forest and the Duluth Complex, which has one of the world’s largest undeveloped mineral deposits including cobalt, copper and nickel, the key elements needed for EV batteries. Obstructing the mining of such elements in Minnesota has forced the U.S. to turn to other countries such as China and Russia, which lead the world in nickel mining and processing, according to the editorial.
“The reality is that if minerals aren’t mined in the U.S., they will be extracted in countries with far less stringent environmental and labor standards. Not that this seems to bother the White House,” the editorial asserts. “The State Department this month pledged to help build EV battery supply chains in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Zambia. The DRC produces more than 70% of the world’s cobalt, and Zambia is the world’s sixth-largest copper producer.”
A subsequent March 14 report published by 14ymedio, an independent Cuban news site suggests that Haaland’s walling off Minnesota’s Superior National Forest from mining has benefited the communist Cuban regime by forcing the U.S. to turn to Canadian companies that sell minerals extracted from lands illegally seized by the Castro regime after the 1959 Cuban Revolution.
ADN made multiple attempts to reach Secretary Deb Haaland at the press office for the U.S. Department of Interior, Julia Bernal through the Pueblo Action Alliance and Somah Haaland on her personal social media, but none of the fair comment inquiries were answered.
ADN America Staff contributed to this report.