Thoughts on the Recent May Day Parades in Cuba

By Osmel Ramirez Alvarez

International Workers Day parade in Holguin, Cuba.  Photo:

HAVANA TIMES – Another May Day rolled around and the Cuban government, which declares itself to be the Vanguard of the working class, made its workers march in every square across the country. They carried placards and shouted out cheers for the Revolution and its leaders.

It’s another workday, just the content of their work changes. And, it’s a more attractive change than cutting cane. It’s a lot better to be out on the street than working. But companies’ human resources managers aren’t punching in time cards, instead union leaders are checking attendance lists. And, this act entails “measurable” merit. Because every worker has an evaluation at the end of the year, which partially assesses their performance, and a discretional component that management and leaders assess, depending on their behavior.

What does not going mean?

Well, it means that you would be failing to comply with one of the company’s most important events, which you get a day’s wages for. If you don’t go, they don’t discount this from your payslip, but you get marked as “disinterested and undisciplined” if there isn’t any other motive. Worse yet, if you make anti-government remarks, you end up on the “blacklist” and you’ll be laid off the next time you slip up. It doesn’t matter how good a worker you are, what counts is political commitment to the leaders or at least being neutral.

This is how it works everywhere, at work and in schools. Because students are an important component of the workers’ parade, who are taken in busloads. And workers’ families too, lured with different bait. It can be an opportunity for a family outing in a country where there are very limited recreational options and it can be quite exciting. And, May Day in Cuba is like Carnival. There is also the promise of a fair and street parties at the end of the parade, where they sell many basic items that are hard to come by.

Private business owners are charged extra for a special license so they can sell their goods as if it were Carnival, making the most of the crowd. And, of course, there’s always beer in barrels, six times cheaper than the most affordable version in a can, which costs 18 pesos. Even though 3 pesos for a glass of bitter water is not at all reasonable if you take a look at our workers’ wages, they buy it overcome with anxiety. It’s something that has been proven to work for them and helps to make them look “more united”.

Communist Party, union and military leaders in Holguin, Cuba watch over the May Day parade.

By 8 PM, I could see almost a hundred drunks in the center of my city of Mayari, in the square where the parade had finished earlier in the morning. They were holding each other up while they finished off their glasses of beer. A unique opportunity in exchange for a small mouthful of hypocrisy, something that is done on a daily basis and no longer weighs on consciences as it’s become habit.

Few remember the name of their union leaders, who bear no relevance in their lives whatsoever. Nor do they know that this day has another meaning, to shine a light on the struggle for their just demands. But, what does that matter? Don’t Cuban workers have effective government solutions to their problems, and they don’t need to protest, just thank them?

Not at all. There isn’t a worker in the world that is more impelled to make demands than Cuban workers. Molded off the political system, union leaders can only be nominated and directly elected by workers by appointing a labor union representative. From then on, union leaders at workplaces, on a municipal, provincial and national level, are appointed with the Communist Party’s agreement and they have to answer to its interests.

Cuban workers wages are the lowest in the world: 10 USD per month minimum. Less than 1% earn more than 200 USD and the average wage is under 30 USD; the retirement age was raised to 65 years for men and 60 for women with worse working conditions and a diet that negatively affects health; technology is archaic at most factories and they lack protection measures on a systematic basis, with a transport deficit that affects the majority. And there are thousands of other problems. But, neither the State, nor workers have the right to publicly demand the obligation for solutions.

We need to highlight the fact that the Cuban government/State is the boss of over 70% of workers. And it’s worth remembering the saying “he who pays the piper, calls the tune”, even when they don’t pay a lot like in this case.

A well-organized event

The International Workers Day parade in Holguin, Cuba. Photo:

National media and organizations such as the CDRs (Neighborhood Defense Committees), which operate block to block, also contribute to the call to take part in the parade. Everyone is assigned a place in the bloc, with a departure point for transport (which never fails on this day), if you live far away and get together before marching. This is when workers’ attendance is recorded. Some union leaders advise them to take attendance at the end in a certain place, to ensure no one leaves beforehand.

So, why do so many dissidents judge our workers to be sheep for marching? Why does this understandable event dishearten them and take away their desire to fight for the rights that the government denies them? Do they not understand survival or the mimetic behavior of obedience of people who live under totalitarian regimes? Do they not know what the Cuban system is like?

I must admit that I find it really normal for the Cuban people to march en masse. I understand it and I don’t think that it deserves pity for that reason. I believe that they will do this even the day before we have a democratic change of government. If an immigration visa was being offered to those who march, most people would run to accept it so they could escape the government they hypocritically cheer.

This is the real story of May Day in Cuba, not the one of “mass support for the Revolution and its leadership”, like the government itself tells. Nor the one of “they deserve what they get for going out and marching with the government”, like some heated dissidents wave about. In politics, you need to understand the people in order to be successful.

Osmel Ramirez

I'm from Mayari, a little village in Holguín. I was born on the same day that the Vietnam War ended on April 30, 1975. A good omen, since I identify myself as a pacifist. I am a biologist but I am passionate about politics, history and political philosophy. Writing about these topics, I got to journalism, precisely here on Havana Times. I consider myself a democratic socialist and my main motivation is to try to be useful to the positive change that Cuba needs.

4 thoughts on “Thoughts on the Recent May Day Parades in Cuba

  • May 8, 2019 at 11:11 am

    I wouldn’t presume to present any perfect solution for Cuba. I would however, suggest that perfect solutions are seldom arrived at via simplistic paths.
    On the specific matter of May Day, I speak from personal experience going back for the best part of a quarter century. The truth of what occurrs on May Day is somewhere in between that described in these pro and anti articles.
    Like many truths, this one has a good hint of the paradoxical.

  • May 7, 2019 at 6:27 pm

    Although I don’t agree with you conclusions Nick, I do agree that Osmel and Elio are miles apart in their view although both are of the left, Elio as a communist and Osmel as a (would-be given democracy) democratic socialist.
    Between them, they clarify the hypocrisy of the Castro regime endeavoring to persuade the innocent in the outside world that Cuba is socialist rather than communist and democratic rather than totalitarian. I see no middle ground – unless you can define a half-way form of government?

  • May 7, 2019 at 1:19 am

    Osmel and Elio present very different versions of Cuba’s May Day tradition.
    This is understandable given the very different political opinions they hold.
    Having been present at these events and having met people who participate or who feel obliged to participate in cities and villages the length and breadth of the island, I would suggest that the reality of the matter lies somewhere in between these two versions.
    Osmel and Elio present anti and pro government opinions. They are miles apart in their opposing views. Neither have a monopoly on the truth.

  • May 6, 2019 at 4:13 pm

    Dr. Ernesto de La Serna Lynch carefully defined the desirable characteristics for members of the communist “mass” – the so-called “new man”. (A concept originally conceived by Stalin and adopted by Che).

    “Selfless and cooperative, obedient and hard-working, gender-blind, incorruptible, non-materialistic and anti-imperialist.”

    Your article Osmel, fairly describes the methods by which the regime organizes the “obedient and hard-working” Cubans to pay fealty to their political Lords.

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