May Day in Cuba
A people ready for anything

By Jon Hillson

HAVANA—More than seven million Cuban workers, their families, and young people fill plazas in 15 provincial capitals here, making the May Day 2002 mobilization the nation’s largest ever. Over one million mass in the Plaza of the Revolution in Havana for a two hour rally that begins at 8:30 in the morning, earlier than usual, as May temperatures also break records.

The event, called by the Confederation of Cuban Workers (CTC), to which 98 percent of the country’s three million working people are voluntarily affiliated, is organized under the slogan of “primero, la patria [the homeland first].” This is a reference to escalating assaults mounted against Cuba by the United States, from its failed provocations through the office of Mexico’s president and foreign ministry to its effort to gain condemnation of Havana for “human rights violations” at the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in Geneva.

Cuba’s political and diplomatic campaign against these pressures—capped by Fidel Castro’s unmasking of the Mexico operation last month, playing a tape of conversation initiated by Vicente Fox to implore him to forego attendance at a recent Monterrey summit to please Washington—coupled with the impact of the crisis in Argentina and the popular overturn of the U.S.-backed coup in Venezuela, push attendance at and add energy to the May Day mobilization.

The central demand of the mass action is for freeing the Cuban Five—a quintet of revolutionaries framed-up under a Clinton era COINTELPRO-style investigation for “conspiracy” to commit espionage. The five, who were reporting to Havana on the terrorist activities of ultra-rightist organizations in Miami, are currently serving up to double-life sentences in U.S. prisons.

Cuban national assembly president Ricardo Alarcón addresses 300 Cuban unionists and visiting labor leaders and activists on May 2, delivering an extraordinary two-hour presentation in the CTC’s national headquarters explaining the character and stakes of this key fight being waged by the Cuban people. Alarcón urges the assembled unionists, from 20 countries, including the United States, to broaden and intensify work to free the five. Over 800 foreign guests from 70 countries attend the May Day mobilization.

The Havana demonstration, reproduced on smaller scale elsewhere, is an affirmation of Cuba’s national sovereignty and unwavering commitment to socialism.

Blasting regional presidents who capitulated to U.S. pressures in Geneva, Cuban leader Fidel Castro tells the crowd, “I am certain that not one of those Latin American countries that promoted, co-sponsored or supported this project could gather even five percent of the number here [in the plaza] in their respective capitals,” challenging those heads of state to call such actions. “The Latin American press here will report on them.”

“Total crisis” is now facing the vast majority of 526 million people who live in Latin America and the Caribbean, he explains.

“For the sake of time, I will outline just a few figures for Latin America as a whole as compared to Cuba,” the Cuban president states, offering the following data:

_Illiteracy: Latin America, 11.7 %; Cuba, 0.2 %
_Inhabitants per teacher: Latin America, 98.4; Cuba, 43.
_Primary education enrollment ratio: Latin America, 92%; Cuba, 100%
_Secondary education enrolment ratio: Latin America, 52 %; Cuba, 99.7 %
_Primary school students reaching Fifth Grade: Latin America, 76 %; Cuba, 100 %
_Infant mortality per thousand live births: Latin America, 32; Cuba, 6.2
_Medical doctors per hundred thousand inhabitants: Latin America, 160; Cuba, 590
_Dentists per hundred thousand inhabitants: Latin America, 63; Cuba, 89
_Nurses per hundred thousand inhabitants: Latin America, 69; Cuba, 743
_Hospital beds per 100 thousand inhabitants: Latin America, 220; Cuba, 631.6
_Medically attended births: Latin America, 86.5 %; Cuba, 100 %
_Life expectancy at birth: Latin America, 70 years; Cuba, 76 years
_Population between 15 and 49 years of age infected with HIV/AIDS: Latin America, 0.5 %; Cuba, 0.05 %
_Annual AIDS infection rate per million inhabitants, i.e. those who develop the disease: Latin America, 65.25; Cuba, 15.6

The huge crowd cheers as Castro ticks off each figure. Each person has a small Cuban flag. Instead of applauding, they wave the flags, creating the sound of an immense flock of birds in flight.

These statistics are all the more impressive, given the economic difficulties facing Cuba.

A Cuban “dollar economy,” nurtured by world capitalism, has taken root in Cuba, and with it, the “ethics” of market relations and the appearance of growing inequality between those with access to such hard currency—estimated at 70 percent of the population—and those without.

These challenges are compounded by recent blows to the economy, including a temporary drop—now arrested—in all-important tourist income as a result of the post-September 11 downturn in the industry, and the effects of Hurricane Michelle which struck hard a tobacco and sugar production and devastated the country’s chicken industry.

As well, Cuban officials have faced the arduous task of renegotiating the country’s growing external debt, now over $12 billion. The steady exchange rate of 20 Cuban pesos to $1USD has risen to 26 to 1, leading to price increases in both dollar and peso denominated products.

Still, unemployment stands at a remarkably low official rate of 4.1 percent. No hospitals or schools have been closed. And the government is on a crash program to train teachers to create a classroom ratio of one per 15 students by the end of next year.

This plan is part of package of creative initiatives employing the central resource of the Cuban people, “human capital” as it is referred to here, unleashing revolutionary energy that is focused on concrete projects. These include:

  • Creating a national School of Social Work, which, by next year, will involve 7,000 pre-university high-school students, who, for various reasons, could not go on to higher education. Their one-year training program prepares them to deal with social problems ranging from unemployment to delinquency and drop-outs, prostitution and the problems of the elderly. The students receive technical and academic preparation, as well as classes in Marxism, and are eligible for night school at the university without cost, upon completion of their course-work
  • Youth Computer Clubs, which provide neighborhood settings for computer using, free of charge.
  • Placing VCRs and a computer in every school in the country, including the most remote mountain communities.
  • The booming popularity of the University for All, which provides live daily televised courses in English, French, mathematics, culture, and geography. The programs are repeated twice daily, and course work is readily available in tabloid form for a few cents.
  • Nightly “round tables”—panel discussions on Cuban television on world and domestic events, from Argentina to Palestine, the international economic crisis, social, and political issues—which serve to deepen direct, popular political education and further bring the world to the Cuban people.

This simple axiom of José Martí—“ser culto, ser libre [too be cultured is to be free]”—was also on display in the plaza. For many years, May Day was a celebratory pageant of workers’ floats and union contingents, which passed by a vast reviewing platform—militant, but traditional.

Last year, 600,000 workers, their families, and contingents of young people gathered in the plaza, witnessed an extraordinary cultural presentation—from salsa to classical music, folkloric dance and ballet, poetry, an political satire with life-sized puppets—then snake-danced their way through Havana down to the ocean-side Malecón Boulevard past the U.S. Interests Section.

This year, its ranks swelled by an additional 400,000 people, the gigantic human bloc remains stationary. Interspersed between speakers is a series of cultural acts, narrated by a young woman and man.

These are crisply organized, from start to finish, featuring hundreds of young Cubans; in interpretive dance, sleek, in black leotards; in a representation of different epochs of revolutionary struggle, from the 19th century to the present, featuring men in period dress—from mambi fighters to the bearded guerrillas of the Sierra Maestra—on horseback, descending from behind the reviewing platform; a poetry reading; and a youth chorus, which sing a composition in honor of “the five heroes, imprisoned by the empire.”

The explosion of reading, typified by the success of the recent Havana Book Fair—which became an island wide celebration of literature, poetry, historical writing and the arts—preceded May Day, whose musical and artistic component was simply an expression of the cultural level attained by the average Cuban.

Still, as Castro explains, “no book by Marx or Lenin could illustrate the anti-national, submissive and treacherous nature of the Latin American oligarchies and true significance of imperialism for the destiny of our people.”

The people of the continent “have had the opportunity to learn firsthand the meaning of imperialist domination, exploitation, injustice and pillage.” The prostration of Latin America’s ruling class before this onslaught, on the one hand, and their increased condemnation of Cuba, as proof of their dependence on Washington, on the other, is something to behold.

“What garbage are many of those who pretend to be sovereign governors,” the Cuban president explains, his contempt echoing across the vast plaza.

But the tune to which Washington’s hired hands dance did not play well at home.

On May Day in Montevideo, up to 20,000 people march in solidarity with Cuba.

In Havana, Jorge Castro, general secretary of the National Convention of Uruguayan Workers denounces the government of his country, and salutes Cuba.

May Day speaker Ramón Pacheco, head of the independent Electricians Union of Mexico, repudiates Fox and hails the “relations” between “the peoples of Juárez and Martí” that are “stronger than ever.”

Pablo Michelli, general secretary of the Confederation of Argentine Workers, details the crisis in his country, including the growing number of deaths by hunger of Argentine children. He salutes the example of Cuba.

Castro summarizes Cuba’s achievements. “Our people's glorious tradition of rebellion and patriotic struggle, to which we must today add a full and profound understanding of freedom, equality and human dignity; their solidarity and internationalist spirit; their self-confidence and heroic conduct; 43 years of tenacious and unrelenting struggle against the powerful empire; a broad and solid political culture and an extraordinary humanism—all of these qualities cultivated by the Revolution—have made Cuba a unique country.”

“We are in the trench of ideas,” says Pedro Ross, a former bricklayer, then a teacher, then a leader of their union, who for 13 years has been general secretary of CTC. “We defend our revolution with ideas,” he tells the crowd, speaking to and for the workers, “but, listen well, ‘senores imperialistas,’ we will defend it with arms if necessary, no matter the cost.”

The Cuban people, Ross says, are in “an incessant struggle” to be free, independent, sovereign, and socialist.

Two other speakers, one a student in the Social Work School, and the other, a seven-year old Pioneer, also speak, reflecting the dynamism of the youngest generations. Through the integration of the Union of Young Communists in the vast array of new educational and cultural projects, and as a fruit of the leadership of Cuban youth in the mass campaign to win repatriation of Elián González—which many here consider a baptismal struggle for the nation’s young people—the UJC has recruited 115,000 new members in the past 15 months.

This growth verifies the strength of the revolutionary pole in what Cuban leaders have termed “the battle of ideas,” a phrase which emerged in the fight around the sequestration of the González child. The axis of the battle of ideas is the contest between the example, precepts, and ethics, of the Cuban revolution—starting with those forged in the insurrectionary struggle against the U.S.-backed Batista dictatorship, and as they evolved through deepening of the process which began with its triumph on January 1, 1959—and the “values” of the capitalist system, whose shoots now exist in Cuba.

These economic measures, taken to ensure a source of hard currency in the wake of the collapse of the USSR include the free circulation of the dollar, joint ventures—under strict Cuban control—with foreign capitalists, and the tourist industry.

This form of economy is reinforced by the world marketplace, into which Cuba consciously inserted itself when the Soviet-backed Council of Mutual Economic Assistance—Havana’s main trading arena—shattered. The “market reforms” clash with the dominant economic reality in Cuba: nationalized property, and production organized for human need, not profit, under the political control of legislative institutions committed to socialism and a mass communist party, support by revolutionary popular organization.

The battle of ideas expresses, in political shorthand, the deliberate ideological response of the revolution to the challenges presented by capitalism. It permeates daily life here. But in Cuba, unlike any other country in the world where the fight for social solidarity by working people unfolds on the hostile terrain of the profit system and governments in the hands of the super-rich, the battle is politically directed by a broad, conscious, revolutionary leadership, elected, selected, and tested by the vast majority of working people and farmers on which it is based.

This majority takes immense physical form on May 1st here, spirited, festive, militant, and confident.

Cuba was, as the Buenos Aires daily Clarín would comment a day later, “the inescapable axis of May Day in Latin America.”

The huge throng waves flags and cheered mightily for seven-year old Lazarito Castro, dressed in his red and white Pioneer uniform, as he explains how Cuba’s medical system saved his eyesight from impending blindness. His ringing defense of his homeland ends with his arms extend to the million people in front of him. “I am socialism,” he says, a small voice amplified across the plaza and up the broad avenue choked with people, “and we are the revolution.”

Many children, several Cubans tell me later, can speak like that. They are not exaggerating. The battle of ideas has incorporated the youngest Cubans, who are already the most educated and cultured children in the Third World, perhaps the entire world.

One of the oldest on the platform is Fidel Castro himself, wearing familiar olive fatigues and military cap. He is dressed for battle. The rest of the crowd is in civilian clothes—tens of thousands of young people in red tee-shirts, the common color of the Social Work students, youth from all over the continent studying at the Latin American School of Medical Sciences, university students and young communists—but they are ready too.

Here when this mass of humanity concludes their May Day and sings the International, to the cadence of a military orchestra, they are not intoning lyrics by rote.

Here, when the words “arise, ye prisoners of starvation, arise ye wretched of the earth, for justice thunders condemnation, a better world’s in birth,” are lifted in one voice, there is a sense that this anthem of the international labor movement is being sung the way it was meant to be.

A battle hymn, a preview of what is to come. The day for which Cuba’s working people are preparing and urge their brothers and sisters across the globe to do likewise.

Jon Hillson is a member of the International Association of Machinists at United Airlines at LAX, and recently led a 13-member delegation of students, unionists, and activists to deliver over 116,000 doses of pain reliever, vitamins, and other humanitarian aid to Cuban medical facilities.