Cuba: May Day in the Year of the Pandemic

Photo: Bill Hackwell, Havana, Plaza of the Revolution

This photograph depicts how the Plaza of the Revolution in Havana usually looks on May 1, International Workers Day (IWD). Every year since 1959 when a revolution, whose backbone was made up of workers and peasants, was victorious against a brutal US-backed dictatorship, millions of Cubans and international friends fill Paseo from the Malecon to the Plaza to celebrate this day that honors all workers around the world. The march has also come to honor Cuba for holding out and even advancing against US Imperialism being symbolized in this moment by the heroic efforts Cuba’s doctors are contributing against the global pandemic.

The power that one feels when they participate in this march, that starts punctually at 8am before the sun is too high, defies description. It is a streaming current of optimism with a vision of a better world without oppression, hunger and poverty. It is an uplifting expression of the common masses that make and produce everything good in this world and more and more it is a march for Socialism. Cuba is the host of this event every year (with the exception of 1994-95 when it was suspended for the special period) and they share it broadly. Every year the march, organized by the Federation of Cuban Workers (CTC), has a different feature, last year it gave tribute to Cuba’s medical brigades who were represented at the front of the march representing the 400,000 Cuban medical professionals who have gone to 164 countries since the early 1960’s  when Fidel Castro started offering them to the world. As he explained this is something we can offer, “The world’s technologies is important but more important are human beings”.

It is important to remind ourselves that it was in Chicago in 1886 when the IWD was founded in the struggle for the 8-hour day. From that point on as the rest of the world celebrated it the ruling rich of the US, as a class, has done everything in its power to disparage it or hide its obvious appeal to the vast majority like some skeleton in the closet. In 1958 the Eisenhower administration tried to erase it from sight and mind by proclaiming May 1 Law Day, whatever that might mean.

This year the Plaza of the Revolution will not look like this due to an abundance of caution and the importance of physical distancing in the struggle to stop the spread of the Covid-19 virus. While the Cuban government has cancelled the march in the Plaza and mass public demonstrations in all the municipalities on the island,  that does not mean International Workers Day will not be celebrated on the island. Cuban flags will be hung in all the houses and buildings and at 8am, to coincide when the march would normally begin, the Cuban people will come out on their balconies or stand in the street and collectively sing the Cuban National Anthem. Simultaneously it will take place on all the radio and TV programs along with social media. “At 8am we will all come together to sing the National Anthem and also give the applause that all workers deserve, in their posts, in their homes or in the world, working tirelessly to defeat the pandemic”, wrote Cuban President Miguel Diaz Canel.

While creative expressions of working class consciousness will be taking place all over the world it is a time to realize that May 1 has never been quite so significant. The widening cracks in the hegemony of neo-liberal capitalism and its inability to meet even the basic needs of society are an opportunity for a new world to take its place. Long Live International Workers Day!

Bill Hackwell is an organizer with the International Committee for Peace Justice and Dignity and an editor for the English edition of Resumen Latinoamericano. Read other articles by Bill.