May Day in Cuba
By Osmel Ramirez Alvarez
HAVANA TIMES — As always, a sea of people filled the great avenues that surround Revolution Square in the Cuban capital for May Day this year, well-organized, with banners in their hands, waiting their turn to march. The same thing happened in provincial and municipal capitals in the country, which took place simultaneously, celebrating International Workers’ Day.
It would be beautiful if not only in Cuba, but in the rest of the world, this concept could be truly celebrated, that May 1st be a reason for celebration and not a workers’ protest. It’s a dream, maybe unattainable as a whole, a day when we no longer have to fight for a tarnished right or labor concessions, where the working class only have to parade to praise their governments and leaders, for having all of their needs met and their rights respected.
I think about this and I believe it’s only possible in those utopian or glorified places that man has conceived as a happy and perfect ending for humanity: paradise, heaven, and communism.
However, I challenge my imagination, I make a great mental abstraction and apply a great deal of tolerance to the analysis and even so I’m unable to fit Cuba’s May Day parade into such a concept; in spite of this being the government’s focus and it’s precisely this official focus which has led me to reflect on such a special date and its festivities.
The government prepared this parade for weeks, as if it were an official event, with all of the necessary resources; and official labor union leaders are those who are in charge of this, who are always reporting back to the Communist Party. It’s a top priority political task.
May Day is a national holiday and all workers, except for the most crucial, are freed from their daily work, with pay. That is to say, you don’t have to go, because they don’t take away your wages for the day and you aren’t penalized; but the truth is that it really is because whoever goes is measured and checked by social control mechanisms.
Every workplace takes note of which of their employees attend, which is then translated into a trade union merit as an employee. That’s enough for any laborer to immediately join up with the block that corresponds to their labor union in an obedient manner. There is a popular term to define this symbiosis of compulsory and voluntary at the same time: “obliguntario”. And laborers aren’t the only ones to march in the parade, students are also taken by schools and checked in the same way.
There is another way to drag the masses along, and that is to convert the parade into a popular celebration. It’s well known that there isn’t a lot of entertainment here in Cuba, only carnival once a year; and May Day becomes a great binge. Everybody knows that there are bottles of beer, sweets and fast food stands and all kinds of things on sale so that as soon as the parade is over, carnival breaks out.
It’s a party and you have to make the most of it; and this is without a doubt an incentive. In the capital, I have even seen them offering free WIFI connections at recent political events in order to attract younger crowds; but I don’t know if they did the same thing this May Day.
Basically, returning to the Cuban concept of a parade for International Workers’ Day, I dare to say that almost 100% of the millions of workers who recently paraded greatly disagree with policies at their workplaces and have many demands; but, none of this was represented on their banners and in their chants. Their messages said the complete opposite, praising and defending the same system which exploits them and denies them the right to complain. So this is a beautiful, maybe utopian, concept, applied with hypocrisy; and we can even say with vileness.
If only we could take to the street with our free unions and thank the political Party in power, who has been democratically elected, in a sincere and spontaneous manner, for their great administration and for the prosperity they have managed to achieve. However, I don’t think this will ever be possible, because the battle to “conquer all justice” is necessarily eternal; it will only end if humanity also ends that same day: that’s what the dialectics say anyway.
Many people don’t understand us Cubans: why we parade en masse knowing that the system uses these things to flaunt an apparent base of popular support; why we don’t dare to write what we really feel on our signs, our demands, for example: We want a dignified salary! They even judge us scornfully, as if we deserve what happens to us because we behave like sheep.
A Cuban who still lives on the island would rarely say such a thing, even if they were a dissident, for two reasons: firstly because human beings only think according to what they know and Cubans abroad can’t stop themselves from judging based on their newfound viewpoints, where demanding your rights is easier than swimming outside of the current than in it. However, it’s fair to say that those who say such things are only revealing their lack of understanding about how the Cuban system works and the situation we’ve been living in for the last almost six decades of “Revolution”.
The truth is that Cubans paraded in masse and they will continue to do so as if it were just another political event: out of habit, out of tradition, because the system has us by the nose, because it’s a national holiday, and because nobody still believes that not turning up is a greater advantage. The day things change we will have a very different May Day: I’m sure of it!