May 13, 1996
BY BRIAN TAYLOR
HAVANA – Dancing to Afro-Cuban beats from drums and trumpets, singing, blowing whistles, and chanting, more than one million workers, students, members of Cuba’s Revolutionary Armed Forces, and others marched here on May Day.
Similar actions involving hundreds of thousands took place in every provincial capital and other cities across the country. Pedro Ross, general secretary of the Central Organization of Cuban Workers (CTC), reported the next day that 5.5 million demonstrated throughout the island.
The 1,900 delegates from the congress of the CTC, which had concluded its working sessions the night before, led the Havana march.
“This day is ours. It belongs to the proletariat around the world,” said Grisela Feyové, a production worker at the Dairy Complex outside Havana, who, with a bullhorn, was leading a contingent of 22,000 workers from the municipality of Cotorro. “We are here to show the Yankee imperialists we’ll defend our revolution to the last drop of blood.”
“This is one of the biggest May Day marches ever,” said Carlos Sánchez, a foundry worker at the Antillana de Acero steel mill near Havana. “We all feel like we’re coming out of an impasse in the economy. We have more control. We can see the light of the dawn.”
Sánchez pointed to the improvement in the sugar harvest this year as an example of a slight economic upturn that has boosted the self-confidence of working people. “We’re up to 4 million tons. We’re sure to make the 4.5 million goal,” he said. Sánchez, 54, who has worked at the steel plant for 34 years, remarked that the five-year decline in Cuba’s main export crop had hurt the morale of the workers.
“We now know we can make a difference,” added José Isaqi, one of Sánchez’s 2,000 co-workers who turned out for the march. Isaqi volunteered on several weekends in the last two months to cut sugarcane in rural areas.
Their group was nearing Revolution Square, filled with colorful banners, where waves of workers marched for hours past the statue of Jose Martí, Cuba’s national hero.
Starting in the early morning hours, contingents of members of the metal, electrical, food processing, agricultural, construction, transportation, and many other unions assembled at the center of the city. Other groups were organized from the municipalities and from mass organizations like the Union of Young Communists (UJC) and the Federation of University Students (FEU).
CTC leader Ross, opened a short rally at 9:00 a.m. to kick off the demonstration. The trade union federation, which organized the march, decided to dedicate the massive proletarian mobilization to the Cuban youth, he said. Ross introduced Victoria Velázquez, first secretary of the Union of Young Communists, who gave the main address.
“Tomorrow we will read how this day unfolded across the world,” Velázquez said, “where many workers lack a future, where the future is uncertain.”
“For all those workers who are not able to march today, for all of those proletarians who cannot raise their voices, the Cuban people will march united with them.”
Ross and Velázquez were joined on the reviewing stand at Revolution Square by Cuban president Fidel Castro, other members of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of Cuba, government ministers, the newly elected members of the CTC’s National Committee, and representatives of trade union federations from around the world.
Velázquez thanked the CTC for honoring young people in this way. “For Cuban youth, the workers organizations are the best schools of communism, which we’ll never renounce,” she stated.
As the next century approaches, the disparities between imperialist powers and the underdeveloped world widen, the UJC leader said, and the gap between the poor and the opulent increases.
In this world, where the struggle of humanity for a better future continues, Velázquez stated, the UJC calls on youth around the globe to join the World Festival of Youth and Students to take place in Cuba in the summer of 1997.
Among the topics to be discussed at the international youth gathering will be democracy, peace, the struggle for sovereignty, women’s rights, employment, protection of the environment, and “how to raise our voices to condemn racism, xenophobia, and imperialism.”
“In 1997 we will meet in socialist Cuba,” Velázquez said, where “nothing has been impossible for Cuban patriots since we got rid of capitalism through a genuine revolution.”
Denouncing U.S. economic war
Some of the largest contingents at the march were organized by the Pioneers, Federation of High School Students, Federation of University Students, and the UJC. The FEU contingent was led by two tractor trailers and a truck full of young people who had just participated in volunteer brigades in agriculture. A large group of young soldiers from the Revolutionary Armed Forces and the Youth Army of Labor, which works in agriculture, was also part of the youth contingent that followed the trade union columns.
“There are so many of us here today because we want to protest all the attacks against us,” said Elsa Tavares, a language student at the University of Havana. “The blockade, the violation of our airspace. We want the world to know that we are for the revolution and for socialism.”
Tavares was referring to the so-called Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act, also known as the Helms-Burton act, passed by U.S. Congress and signed into law by President William Clinton March 12. The measure tightens Washington’s embargo on Cuba and legitimizes claims by capitalists abroad on property that was nationalized by Cuban workers.
“It’s unjust,” stated Marcia Hinojosa, a bank worker, referring to the U.S. law. “Why should someone who abandoned the country and the revolution come back after 37 years and say `this is my housé and kick the person living there out? I was born in 1959, the year the revolution triumphed, and I’ll defend it to the end.”
“Socialism or death,” “Long live May Day,” and “Down with Helms-Burton” were among the many handmade signs. “Even with a thousand ignorant laws you can’t crush the people” read another banner carried by a group of young people.
“Clinton delincuente, no conoces a esta gente,” (Clinton, you criminal, you don’t know our people) chanted a group of agricultural workers from Guines in Havana province.
Asked about Cuba’s downing of two U.S. planes that violated the country’s airspace February 24, Demetrio Guerra García, from the Guines group, said, “We’ll do it 100 times again if necessary. In fact, we should have shot them down in January when those gusanos [worms] from Florida flew over Havana to drop their poisonous counterrevolutionary leaflets on the people.”
One especially popular float was carried by members of the Federation of University Students contingent: a cardboard casket, complete with body, that said, “Helms-Burton” on the side.
Also at the demonstration were hundreds of international guests, including delegations from the United States, Canada, Germany, Ecuador, Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, Costa Rica, South Africa, and Colombia. Many of these guests had been attending the 17th Congress of the CTC.
Throughout the march, contingents of union members carried signs showing progress they have made in their workplaces in increasing production over the last year and helping to put their country on the road to economic recovery. “We’ve surpassed our production target by 25 percent,” said Carlos Rodríguez, who works at Frioclima, a plant making air conditioning units. “This is happening in many factories. So while relations with the United States have become more tense, our people are confident and calm.”
Some 20,000 bicycle riders and hundreds of peasants on horseback closed the demonstration. Just ahead of them, a contingent of 500 Cuban athletes, who will take part in the Olympic games in Atlanta this summer, marched in uniform. “You know, those workers in Chicago started the struggle last century that came to be symbolized by May Day,” said weight lifter Barbaro López, referring to the Haymarket martyrs. “We have simply picked up the banner on the front lines of the international working class.”