Looking to May Day in “Socialist” Cuba

Cuban trade unions will not take to the streets to protest over the miserable salaries paid by the State. Nor will we see banners calling for discussion on the problems that oppress Cuban society.

By Pedro Campos

Raul Castro and other Cuban leaders observe workers march past on International Workers Day in 2014.

HAVANA TIMES — Cuba will soon be celebrating yet another May Day (or International Workers’ Day), 54 years after declaring the “socialist” nature of the revolution.

Hundreds of thousands of workers – wage laborers employed, not by private capitalist companies or multi-nationals, but by a massive State that owns the vast majority of the means of production – will again rally to Havana’s Revolution Square.

Yes, even though Karl Marx describes capitalism as wage exploitation, in “socialist” Cuba that is the defining and predominant form of exploitation, but it is practiced by a State that owns and decides all.

Ownership by freely associated laborers, what socialism should aim at according to that wise German communist, is far from the reality in Cuba. The Communist Party that has established the “dictatorship of the proletariat”, according to the principles of so-called Marxism-Leninism, continues to maintain that socialism is characterized by State ownership over the means of production and wage labor.

The guidelines of the Cuban Communist Party (PCC) economic reforms don’t even mention freely associated labor. Cooperativism is considered a “non-State means of production” and restricted by all imaginable obstacles. Free, individual labor has been equated with small-scale private capitalism and distorted at its very essence.

This is what we inherited from the neo-Stalinist conception of socialism, applied in the former Soviet Union and defended today by a Left that my friend and colleague Armando Chaguaceda justifiably calls “Jurassic.”

At this new international workers’ celebration to be held in Havana, Cuba’s trade unions, efficient conveyor belts for the PCC, will rally, organized into different sectors headed by civilians employed by monopolies operated by the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR), monopolies that control tourism, commercial airliners and the country’s domestic hard-currency food, clothing, footwear and household appliances market.

We should also be seeing detachments of the self-employed and members of cooperatives, productive areas that have been restricted at all levels by the regulations of State monopolies, to be used to “demonstrate” that the “updating” of Cuba’s economic model is well underway.

In nearly all countries around the world, workers will take to the streets to demand raises in salaries and pensions, regulations for companies that pollute the environment and a reduction of transportation, rent and food prices – and to protest repressive actions against trade union leaders, unions and social organizations and movements that defend the interests of different groups and sectors.

This won’t happen in Cuba.

In Cuba, the rallies will have the same starchy solemnity of the marches organized in Moscow’s Red Square, with the leaders of the State and government on the grandstand, saluting “their” workers. This year, the rally will be dedicated to the five Cuban intelligence agents (named Heroes of the Republic), who were recently released from US prisons – not thanks to the propaganda campaign deployed by Cuba, but in exchange for another Cuban spy who had infiltrated the island’s special services on orders from the United States.

Here, the signs and banners held up by workers will speak of goals reached or about to be reached, of the Communist Party Guidelines, of the prosperous and sustainable form of socialism that the Party/government/State seeks to build.

No standard-bearing workers banner will hold any exchange with the leaders on the grandstand about the problems that oppress Cuban society.

The trade unions won’t condemn the miserable salaries paid by the State or demand that the two-currency system be dismantled, that effective and urgent measures be taken to address the high cost of living and high prices of food, essential products and household appliances.

We won’t see any signs demanding freedom of expression, association and election or asking for freedom for political prisoners. No one will protest over those who have been imprisoned for months, waiting for due process. No one at the rally will protest over the public reprisals taken against dissidents or the beatings others have been subjected to.

We won’t be seeing any signs demanding solutions to the serious transportation, housing and sanitation problems in the cities.

We may see signs and slogans condemning the “terrorists and mercenaries” who want to disguise themselves as civil society advocates and other well-illustrated and designed banners that have been serially manufactured, expressing support for the intransigently anti-imperialist stance of the revolutionary government, which is privately negotiating the “normalization” of relations with the United States.

Members of the opposition, independent trade unionists, divergent schools of socialist thought – none of this will be granted a voice at the rally. Whoever dares question any official position, whoever carries a sign that is out of the step with the rest, may be cordially invited to leave the procession or taken to one of the police trucks parked around the square to “maintain order.”

It will be yet another demonstration of the fact that Cuban trade unions aren’t designed to defend the “narrow range of interests” of workers, against those of their respective employers or the oppressive State that is the seat of power.

The message will be clear: trade unions here support their “socialist” State and exist to defend the interests of all workers and the whole of the population, organized into a “revolutionary government” headed by the Communist Party.

An old banner, painted with black letters on a tattered bedspread that was once white, bearing the simple inscription of “Socialist Self-Management”, put together by anarchists and democratic socialists, a banner that was not permitted at the May Day rally of 2008, is now in storage, waiting for the day in which people in Cuba enjoy the right to publicly defend authentic socialism and to genuinely celebrate International Workers’ Day.

25 thoughts on “Looking to May Day in “Socialist” Cuba

  • What about all of the current movements I mentioned? Those haven’t failed. In fact, most of them are humming along quite nicely, some are even expanding.

    We can play the same game with Christianity. The Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the power plays of the Catholic Church, and the brutality of the Dark Ages were all done in the name of Christianity. Does that make them Christian? Of course not. None of those things have much to do with what is laid out in the Gospels. Do the awful, homophobic, racist, fundamentalist evangelicals who bomb abortion clinics represent Christianity as a whole? Again, no. No serious person would try to make such a claim. We can’t just take at face value the labels different leaders and movements slap on themselves. We have to look at their actions and their ideology and see if it matches the basic tenets of the religion/political system they’re ascribed to.

    Therefore, if we look critically at the actions undertaken by the likes of Stalin, Castro, and Kim Jong-Il, we can see that they have nothing to do with the basics of socialism as laid out by Marx, Engels, Rosa Luxemburg, Anton Pannekoek, Peter Kropotkin, and numerous other thinkers. If we laugh at Pat Robertson calling himself a Christian, why can’t we do the same with Fidel calling himself a socialist?

    I implore to you explore the sites I linked to. You’ll get a clear understanding of why the major socialist movements of the 20th century were unsuccessful. When revolution broke out, every force in the world came cracking down. States did not hesitate to unleash fascist hordes or utilize military aggression. Compradore Stalinist parties undermined them, and bourgeois politicians subtly placed mass movements back into the ballot box. Sometimes seeming allies stabbed these movements in the back. Like when the president of Germany (the social democrat Friedrich Ebert) stabbed the German Revolution in the back by sicking the proto-fascist Freikorps on workers, resulting in the murder of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht.

    Again, socialism can work, it’s just rarely allowed to.

  • As you indicate these movements eventually fail. The reasons vary, but they fail. However what is being discussed here is the reality of communism in practice. In practice it has invariably ended in dictatorship with few differences between its dictatorships and fascist dictatorships. Stalin was supposedly a communist – but he did the deal with a National Socialist, Adolf Hitler, to attack and divide Poland between them. (The pact was negotiated and signed by Molotov acting for Stalin and Ribbentrop acting for Hitler).Hitler was an ally of Mussolini a fascist and also of Franco.
    The world at large accepts that Cuba and the Communist Party of Cuba are communist controlled by the Castro family regime. Similarly the world at large accepts that North Korea is a communist country controlled by the Kim family regime. I realise that academics may debate various theories – see the numerous posts made by Mr. John Goodrich. But my concerns are with the reality of Cuba and its people. To me this is not an academic discussion.
    The ‘socialismo’ policies pursued by the Castro family regime for over fifty five years are a proven failure. Cuba is in one word, crumbling. The infrastructure, roads, rail, transport for the Cubans, water supplies, electricity supplies are crumbling, the buildings, schools, hospitals, and a very high percentage of homes are crumbling. That is reality! As I have previously written, most of the theorists should adhere to the writings of the late Lewis Carroll – Alice in Wonderland.
    One final comment and a question. Most of the countries you have listed are Latin and were predominantly colonised by Spain (which you include), but you missed the Philippines. If you examine their economic standards and performance you may conclude that Spanish colonialism was the worst of all. Spain itself has a horrific history with cruelty being prominent over the centuries, from the Inquisition, to the Conquistadores, in Cuba to the elimination of the Taino and the last country to abandon slavery (1886) and the horrific record of General Weigan in Cuba immediately prior to the Spanish American war. It still hasn’t ceased as the torturing to death of bulls in the bullrings is still regarded as entertainment.
    My question Kino is whether the inheritance of the culture and practices of the Spanish has led to those economic and social problems of the so-called Latin American countries? It was the white (predominantly of Spanish origins) government of Cuba that decided that the increasing black population was a threat to their power and consequently recruited white immigrants to change the population balance – and amongst them was the Castro brothers grandfather.

  • In addition, there are movements happening right now that are trying to build alternative, anti-capitalist societies.

    – The Zapatistas in Mexico
    – The Landless Workers Movment in Brazil
    – The Recovered Factories Movement in Argentina
    – The communes and colectivos in Venezuela
    – The town of Marinaleda, Spain
    – The Mondragon Corporation in Spain
    – The Parecon movement in the rust belt of the U.S.
    – The Solidarity Network stuff happening currently in Greece
    – Syrian Kurdistan

    Libcom and In Defence of Marxism are good resources if you’re interested in learning more.


  • But it’s not communist though! Augh! If the workers don’t own the means of production it can’t, by definition, be called socialist/communist. We have a name for what Cuba is: authoritarian, totalitarian, a dictatorship (albeit one that’s pretty soft all things considered). There’s no justification for calling it communist.

    I know it sounds like I’m being pedantic, but I’m a strong believer in the libertarian, emancipatory, radically democrat values that socialism always stood for before the Bolsheviks used its good name as cover for the very anti-socialist things they were doing. It is very important to reclaim that legacy, and the first way of doing that is to explain why the “socialist states” are anything but.

    Also, I mean you’re right that the type of socialism I’m talking about has never “worked” in the sense that the world isn’t a magical, anti-capitalist paradise today, but there have been periods where something like socialism has been built on a city to country-wide level.

    The Big Ones:
    – The Paris Commune (1871)
    – Russia in 1917 (before the Leninist counter-revolution took hold)
    – The Free Territory of Ukraine (1918-1921)
    – The Shinmin Autonomous Zone in Manchuria (1929-1932)
    – Various parts of Spain during the 30’s

    Smaller movements that weren’t as stable, but did seek to implement worker control:
    – May 68′ in France
    – The Autonomist Movement in Italy
    – Chile under Salvador Allende
    – The Carnation Revolution in Portugal
    – The Iranian Revolution

    Again, none of these movements succeeded, in that capitalism wasn’t overthrown, but they got really close. The issue is that mass, libertarian socialist movements are so dangerous to any established power that A) entrenched elites will resort to fascism and military aggression to crush them, or B) opportunists will coopt them by draping themselves in progressive rhetoric. Those are both issues that need to be studied to ensure the same mistakes aren’t made should a revolutionary moment occur today, but this doesn’t mean that socialism is inherently impossible.

  • Kino, one definition of socialism is that which you give. It is as you know a Utopian concept and has never been practiced. The Lewis Carroll type of thinking.
    For the non-theoretical socialists, reality is what matters. Cuba is recognised out there in the wide world as a communist country which practices what it describes as: “Socialismo”.
    Like all countries claiming to be communist the system becomes one of dictatorship. There is no difference in reality between Stalin, Mao, the Asad family, the Kim family and the Castro family – there is a slight question of degree.
    Mr. Goodrich has explained innumerable times in these columns that in his view Cuba is “state capitalist” and those of us who participate recognise his repeatedly expressed opinion. But for 11.2 million Cubans it is communist and controlled by the Castro family and their Communist Party of Cuba.
    Regarding the so called co-ops in Cuba, the ones I have visited are not operated from the floor up, but from the top down. The workers do as they are instructed.
    Cuba is the reality of communism and academic debate does not change that.

  • John is right in his critique of Cuba. The definition of socialism is “worker control of the means of production”. That means workers democratically running the factories, stores, shops, and fields they work in, in a sustainable way, for their own benefit and for the benefit of their communities. Not so a private individual, or a state, can increase its profits. Short and sweet synonyms include economic democracy and democracy at work.

    This type of relation to production does not exist Cuba, barring a few co-ops. Therefore, Cuba is not socialist, no matter what its leaders, hostile politicians, and confused leftists say. Cuba remains “state capitalist” just like the Soviet Union was.

  • That’s the first original thought that I have observed coming from your pen Dan. Christmas on June 2. Do you suggest retaining the 25 December as Christmas as well? I recall all the massive hoardings in Cuba exolling the virtues of “los ideas’ which apparently emanate from the octogenarian minds of the country’s ministers and of course the Castro brothers. Your idea could be added to those addle headed ones dreamed up by Raul et al.

  • …and both are firmly capitalist!

  • Still at it Mr. Goodrich. Lewis Carroll would have deeply admired your persistent view that Cuba is not communist or socialist. The Mad Hatter has a role to play. For those who live in the real world, Cuba is a communist country practicing “Socialismo”. Cuba is controlled by the Castro family regime with the Communist Party of Cuba being superior to the state. I have been interested in your constant criticism of your own country and wonder why you remain there. I’m not necessarily disagreeing with much of your criticism of US politics – I think the root problem is that the Constitution is archaic. Would you be happier in Sweden or which country do you most admire?

  • The US looks like a third world country simply because we don’t celebrate International Workers Day? I should have said those Socialist countries that celebrate. ..

  • Just got home, plopped down on the crunch, turned on the TV., and lo and behold the news coverage is about May Day rallies across the country and specifically a local rally in Downtown Miami. Dan and John will still be pissed however because of lack of interest and participation. Not enough people to topple our government and change our way of life. I’m not really feeling to bad for them.

  • Really Dan? Yes, compelled to attend. I thought I was quite clear. Don’t attend and you could suffer serious problems. It’s not quite as bad now but if you work under the auspices of the Cuban government you better damn we’ll be at the rally!

    …..I was born in Cuba and came to Miami with my parents when I was young. I remember those marches and interminable speeches, although I spent most of the time goofing off. So don’t you go telling me about The real Cuba

  • I have lived in Germany as well as Switzerland. Both celebrate May 1st. Both make the USA look like the 3rd world.

  • Compelled ? I’ve been going to Cuba for 22 years. My wife is Cuban. You either are disingenious,or have never been to Cuba.

  • My point is that May 1st, which originated as a holiday to celebrate worker’s struggles in the USA, has been intentionally erased from public consciousness, just like Stalin would erase Trotsky from photographs. You could celebrate Christmas in Cuba every June 2nd too if you wanted.

  • We have other days we take off my friend. We get Labor Day. If people choose to go to the beach and rag hot dogs and hamburgers so be it! In the US we don’t have orchestrated marches which people are compelled to attend.

    And Dan, if someone wants to take off May1st there welcome to do so. That’s what vacation days are for….with pay

  • So let me understand. You are pissed because there are not enough people who agree with you to upset the US capitalist system? Furthermore you’re pissed because 1. Not enough people agree or care what you think and 2. Mass media doesn’t “educate” the U.S. population In socialist values 3. And that not enough people care. ….well tough luck John!

  • There are two issues here. The first issue is whether or not you are free to celebrate May Day in the US. Albeit begrudgingly, I think you will acknowledge that this is true. The second is is how widespread and impactful are May Day celebrations in the US? Admitedly, this is a non-holiday in the US. Why is that? It’s probably because those countries who do wildly celebrate May Day suck in comparison to the US. We are not impressed.

  • Dan please read what that last person wrote. You will see they said “May First or the closest Sunday.”

  • You can demonstrate all you’d like against capitalism, imperialism etc in the USA because the US electorate is overwhelmingly supportive of capitalism, of imperialism and of the oligarchy they actually believe is a democratic government.
    The small percentage if people who choose to protest in the USA do not represent an existential threat to the government and so they are allowed to protest.
    There is no hyper-power above the USA that threatens it as it does the existence of Cuba .
    You might want to familiarize yourself with the 70 or so interventions into the internal affairs of other countries committed by the USA since the end of WWII so you can understand the reality of the situation .
    ( Suggested website for you …” Killing Hope” (please do read the introduction to the book at the website )

  • Who are you kidding ? Try telling the boss that you’re taking off May Day with pay- -or without. See what happens. You obviously live in a big metropolis and the fact that you see cuatro gatos milling around a table in a park w/ Che t shirts means about as much as all the people I see walking around Havana with American Flag t shirts..

  • Dan,
    In the USA you can celebrate May Day if you want. In my city, every May First or the closest Sunday there are booths and activities in the central city green, and they rally against capitalism there with Che Guevara shirts, etc. Can you do anything like that in Cuba? NOOOO…. The lack of freedom in Cuba is soo large that it is not even worth it to compare with the USA. Believe me.

  • Thanks for an excellent piece that explains what so many in the USA need to know but do not: that Cuba is not socialist and not communist but state capitalist.
    As such it is just as undemocratic as U.S. private-enterprise capitalism .
    For that reason May Day should not be celebrated in Cuba nor should the word socialist be used to describe anything other than the egalitarian distribution of necessities.
    This until the Cuban people run their own systems in a democratic fashion; from the bottom up as socialism and communism demand.
    Cuban officials talking about their devotion to socialism on May Day is analogous to U.S. politicians extolling the virtues of democracy on the Fourth of July in a country in which every pillar if the society is totalitarian: the oligarchic state, the dictatorship that is capitalism, the absolute and unquestionable power that is organized religion and the predominantly male-dominated nuclear family structure
    But yeah, Americans will, almost to a person, tell you that they love democracy when they have rarely experienced it in their entire lives. .

  • I have marched in the Primero de Mayo parade in Havana, not as a show of support, but to photograph it. I started at the beginning and faded to the end so I could see everyone in the parade.

    A large majority of the people marching in the parade seemed only interested in it ending so they could enjoy the rest of their day out of work. I saw almost no enthusiasm for socialism or their jobs, just a self centered view of a day they did not have to work. Everyone was thrilled that Raul did not speak when we arrived in Plaza de Revolution so they could go home.

  • Pedro, at least Cuba HAS a May Day. In the USA we can’t even come to use the words “working class” much less proletariat. We have been indoctrinated to refer only to the “Middle Class” or even fuzzier and warmer, “Main Street”. No class conflict needed here, as any of the usual Anti-Cubans that post here can tell you, anybody, including kids from inner city Baltimore can become the next Bill Gates if they just apply themselves. Any those poor wage slaves in Cuba, who deserve $15/hr., just like are workers (don’t get), can at least take some solice in the fact that any surplus value (profit) that they generate is not going into the pockets of some maceta, but rather in those of a State which does what in can within its limited means to provide for them and their families. So from fellow worker in the USA, I say, un fuerte abrazo a la Revolucion Cubana, y que viva el 1o de Mayo.

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