May 1st, May Day, International Workers Day - This is a day of both celebration and struggle for working people around the world. In Cuba though, May Day, or Primero de Mayo, is an experience like none other. In Cuba, where the highest honour one has is that of being a worker, May 1st is a day of celebration and revolutionary pride, encompassing the entire population of Cuba.
Coming from Vancouver, Canada to Holguin, Cuba, feels like being given a precious gift, that of feeling what International Workers Day should feel like, and seeing what it should look like. Holguin, a city of about 320,000, brings out an enormous 200,000 Cubans for the May Day march. But it isn’t really just the number of people that make the difference between May Day in Canada and in Cuba, it is the spirit. In Canada, and many other countries around the world, International Workers Day means a march of defiance, of protest, of fighting to turn the tide in the favour of working people. In Cuba, this is a day in which the Cuban government, unions, workplaces, military and people of every part of society are joined together in celebrating the strength of the working class.
My first May Day experience in Cuba was several years ago, also in the city of Holguin. That day was an overwhelmingly joyous memory of realizing that I had never before been together with so many people, a never-ending sea moving together with the force of revolutionary conviction. Last year, in 2016 I saw even more people marching together than I could think was possible, in Havana, Cuba. There I saw an out-pouring of more than a million Cuban workers pass through the Plaza of the Revolution, creatively depicting their organizations or workplaces with their signs, banners and flags. We were also very excited to see Cuban president Raul Castro on the plaza stage, and all five of the recently released Cuban 5 heroes who were political prisoners in US jails for as long as 16 years.
This year on May 1st I joined Holguin’s International Worker’s Day with the 25th Ernesto Che Guevara Volunteer Work brigade. Keeping in mind the hot Cuban sun, May Day in Cuba starts very early, and it was still dark when I woke up for the march. It was a lucky chance that the brigade stays in a Cuban hotel whose room windows face the Revolution Square of Holguin, and even though the morning was still dark, when I opened the windows I was greeted by well-known Cuban revolutionary songs blasting out over the sound systems, already welcoming me to May Day in Cuba.
As my fellow brigadistas and I walked down the street, small Cuban flags waving on little sticks in our hands, our early morning sleepiness was quickly replaced with a bubbling excitement. We joined the streams of Cubans taking their places for the march, dressed in whatever red, white and blue they could find from their wardrobes to represent the Cuban flag on their bodies. The Che Guevara Brigade found our place behind a big banner from the Cuban Institute of Friendship with the Peoples, (ICAP), which in large letters said “Block of Solidarity”. Behind our group of international guests and flags from a multitude of different countries we saw a group of Cubans dressed in traditional Chinese clothing, with a sign reading “Chinese Colony of Holguin – Long Live May 1st!” Ahead of us were a group of Cubans, many in wheelchairs or with crutches, with the sign “Association of Cubans with Mobility Limitations”. Just in our immediate area, the diversity of Cubans was well represented!
As the sun started to rise and light up the crowds around us the march began, and soon we were part of this moving force chanting “Viva la solidaridad!” (Long Live Solidarity!) “Abajo el Blockade!” (Down with the Blockade!)
The whole atmosphere was filled with an infectious enthusiasm, and not only was I smiling to the people I knew, but to everyone passing by, as if to say, “we are all here together, all 200,000 of us!” Before long we are coming up to the stage of the Plaza of the Revolution, waving our Cuban flags and chanting as loud as we could while the sound system announces our arrival, the block of solidarity!
Although at this point we had finished marching, it was really just the beginning. I quickly found myself the best vantage point from which to watch the rest of the march come through the plaza, eyes wide open as I tried to take it all in! The march was well organized into groups of workers, like electrical workers holding a banner with their trade logo proclaiming “United in the Construction of Socialism”, and other banners identifying everyone from bank tellers to retail workers, farmers to restaurant staff, and young students holding signs from their schools and universities. Within this organization of the march was also the most beautiful personal creativity. Framed photos that looked like they were taken down from living room walls that morning were held high, showing the faces of Cuban revolutionary leaders like Fidel and Raul, Che Guevara and Vilma Espin, as well as Venezuelan leaders Chavez and Maduro. Homemade signs read things like “viva la revolution”, “we are proud of our history” and “yo soy Fidel” (I am Fidel), a saying that Cubans picked up since the Cuban revolutionary leader, Fidel Castro, passed away late last year. The theme of this year’s May Day was also on signs everywhere, “nuestra fortaleza es la unidad” (our strength is in unity), and I thought to myself, that is an important slogan not only in Cuba but home in Canada too. We have a lot to learn from Cuba!
I tried as much as my camera would allow to take photos of all I saw, eager to share all these sights back home. An elderly woman, her shirt heavy with military medals stood strong for a photo, and I caught plenty of photos of children furiously waving their flags on the shoulders of their parents, some enjoying their first May Day. The final group to close the march were Cuban soldiers, but these weren’t the stiff, rigid marching soldiers you may expect. Somewhat keeping their lines in order, they were running, dancing, smiling and waving in their olive green military fatigues, also holding their homemade signs and framed photos of Fidel.
In joining the May Day march, we represented solidarity with Cuba, but from the experience of this march you realize that solidarity works both ways. We were marching in solidarity with Cuba, but also feeling the solidarity of Cubans towards us, who are still struggling in “the belly of the beast” where capitalism and imperialism dominate society. Our fight is much stronger with the inspiration that the Cuban May Day experience instilled in us!
¡Viva Primero de Mayo!
Long Live May Day!
¡Viva la Revolución!
Follow Janine Solanki on Twitter: @janinesolanki
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