I Watched Cuba's Socialist Experiment Play Out on May Day in Havana

It looked as sunny and colorful as you'd imagine, but what's the future for a country where May Day means more than a bank holiday?

by Ibrahim Richmond
May 7 2016, 12:00am

All photos by the author

This article originally appeared on VICE UK

Worker's rights are turning into a bit of a hard sell. The May bank holiday has become more about people hashtagging their "first BBQ of the summer" than pumping fists in the air in solidarity with the proletariat or pulling on a balaclava and gleefully launching bricks through a building. But in Cuba, May Day takes on a celebratory air, with vuvuzelas blaring and salsa bands limbering up in Havana's streets by 7 AM.

I was there this year, watching thousands congregate for the lefty occasion that's taken place worldwide in some form since the late 19th century. Today, delegations from Cuba's uniformed forces and its many state corporations are here: agricultural workers, military cadets, a troop from Parque Zoológico Nacional.

Miguel, a bar worker in his 40s, is telling me he comes down each year to not just show support for his country but because it's a chance to bump into old friends—when the laughter around us stops and I realize I'm the only person speaking. The Cuban national anthem rings out of loudspeakers flanking the route, automatically shushing the crowd. Caught unaware, I remove my baseball cap in a clumsy gesture of respect. "La Bayamesa" finishes, and ahead of us a quick march begins.

Making my way between the two columns of demonstrators stretching down Paseo boulevard in the Vedado neighborhood, it becomes clear that if you were to imagine how a proud, socialist island in the tropical Caribbean would celebrate itself, it'd look like this. There's no North Korean display of feigned emotion and servitude—it's, at the risk of cliche, a fiesta. A police officer in his 50s next to me smokes a cigar as he breaks into a little two-step to a salsa beat. A troop of young recruits whip around two-meter flagpoles like rodeo lassos.

Naturally, all countries like to make themselves presentable and gloss over uncomfortable truths. A man like Miguel working a basic job in Cuba can expect to bring home about $30 a month. Sure, healthcare, education and housing are basically free and many entertainment activities are heavily subsidized, but that's little help when a pair of shoes can cost half your wage packet. Indeed, poverty seeps into some corners of the country, unimpeded by a free press to criticize it.

For more than a year, observers have decided that the thawing relations between Cuba, the US, and the rest of the world will sound the death knell for the island's radical experiment. Fidel Castro doesn't seem to agree. He, his President brother Raul, and the other political grandees of the country have made it clear that what changes do occur will be cautious and will not alter the fabric of society.

This country of 11 million still has more Sunday church-goers than private sector employees (400,000). Reforms have given enterprise more breathing space but for Fidel and friends the revolution is as real as ever. Of course, to see the future of any country, you have to look to what it's young people want. Here, today, it seems like the youth of Cuba aren't desperately bothered by the slow growth of internet access and unaffordable prices of imported foreign goods.

I leave the Plaza de la Revolución after a few hundred teenagers framed by Che Guevara's face finish their display, leading chants of "Viva Fidel, viva la revolución, vive el socialismo." It's 10 AM and the sun is starting to beat out a fierce heat. Along the street, I ask 16-year-old cadet Augustine if I can take his picture of him in his khakis, beret and Aviators. What did he think of the day? "It was fantastic; it makes you feel strong."

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