Posted on Saturday, 05.01.10
Hundreds of thousands march to mark Cuba's May Day
By WILL WEISSERT
Associated Press Writer
HAVANA — Hundreds of thousands of Cubans marched through the sprawling,
concrete expanses of Revolution Plaza on Saturday in annual May Day
celebrations that the government said prove the island supports its
communist system even amid mounting international criticism over human
The turnout has long been massive for International Workers' Day, but
this year officials assigned the event special meaning, saying it was
Cuba's response to Washington, the European Union and international
journalists who have conspired to tarnish its reputation after the
February death of a jailed dissident hunger striker and a protest by
another opposition activist who has refused food for weeks.
Pro-government crowds dispatched in well-organized shifts also blocked a
small, weekly march by a women's group supporting political prisoners
for three weeks running in Havana.
But there was no sign of discontent among the islanders who thronged the
plaza, with lead demonstrators carrying a giant banner reading "Unified
It was "the most energetic and firm response to those who, from the
centers of power in the United States and the European Union, backed by
tiny mercenary groups, try to discredit us with false slanders," said
Salvador Valdes Mesa, secretary-general of the nearly 3 million-strong
Cuban Workers Confederation.
Some marchers sang, others waved cardboard signs declaring "We are the
people of Fidel and Raul" or decrying the United States. A few screamed
"Long Live Fidel!" until they lost their voices.
His older brother Fidel has not been seen in public since undergoing
emergency intestinal surgery nearly four years ago and it was no
surprise he didn't show, though organizers used loudspeakers to blast
past recordings of his voice. He also failed to issue a written
statement in the pre-dawn hours before this year's march, as he had done
the three previous May Days.
Officials at government schools, offices and factories that employ that
vast majority of Cuban workers strongly urge everyone to attend the
yearly rallies and organize transportation.
The march was over in barely two hours, far less time than it used to
take Fidel Castro to get through one of his May Day speeches of years past.
This time only Valdes spoke, urging Cubans to be more productive despite
average state salaries worth only about $20 per month. He struck a
somber tone, warning that Cuba would have to "confront realities"
economically that could make life even tougher for many who are already
The government dismisses the island's small political opposition
community as paid mercenaries of Washington, and Valdes denunciation
likely referenced the Damas de Blanco, or Women in White, wives and
mothers of 75 community organizers, independent journalists and
political activists who were imprisoned during a sweeping government
crackdown on dissent in March 2003. Fifty-three remain behind bars.
Nearly every Sunday for seven years, the women dressed in white and
marched – usually without incident – along leafy Fifth Avenue in
Havana's swank Miramar district, far from the Revolution Plaza area.
But counter-protesters and international media appeared in March, when
the group held a week of demonstrations in other parts of the city.
Officials and counter-demonstrators have blocked their last three
Special attention has been focused on human rights in Cuba since the
Feb. 23 death of Orlando Zapata Tamayo, the first island opposition
figure to die after a hunger strike in nearly 40 years, sparking outcry
in the U.S. and Europe.
Another dissident, Guillermo Farinas is not in prison but says he will
keep refusing food and water until he dies – though he has received
nutrients intravenously at a hospital near his home in the central city
of Santa Clara.