This article is part of a two-piece spread, Cuba Journey: Reflections from two journalists who joined an international delegation to the island in May. Click here to read “A Society Rooted in Solidarity Feels More human.”
HAVANA—In the half-dark of morning on May 1, the city’s wide boulevards were empty of cars and filled with the sound of footsteps. People were advancing in loosely gathered groups toward the Plaza de la Revolución, the site of mass assemblies and monumental speeches over Cuba’s past 60 years. By sunrise, hundreds of thousands were gathered to celebrate International Workers Day.
The May Day march has been an annual tradition in Cuba for decades but was canceled for the past two years due to COVID-19. This year marked the first time since the pandemic began that Cubans had gathered together in such large numbers. Shockingly and in stark contrast to U.S. events attended by the president, there was little security presence; we were standing very close to President Miguel Diaz-Canel.
Looking out on the crowds of workers of all sectors (who were wearing masks, as required by the Cuban government) as they celebrated Cuba’s victories in education, healthcare and vaccine development was surreal at moments and incredibly moving. Placards bore slogans like “Cuba Vive,” and banners and flags waved against the backdrop of Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos’ faces etched on buildings neighboring the plaza. Some march participants carried children on their shoulders; others danced as they walked, moving forward in masse through the heart of Havana.
The Cuban people have lived under more than six decades of economic sanctions by the United States, the impact of which has become increasingly severe during the pandemic; Cubans have faced severe shortages of food and basic necessities, and limited accessibility to medicine has created widespread challenges. On this day of celebration, however, people celebrated the triumphs of Cuba’s socialism and protections for workers.
“We have problems as Cubans, not as workers,” one woman said.
“I walked in the parade like everyone,” said another man. “I just see it as a festival. It was nice to have it after not having it last year. Some people bring their kids and really enjoy it. Others don’t have as much pride.”
“May Day is a celebration, a party,” numerous Cubans reiterated when I asked them about what the day meant to them. And yet, the day itself was also an affirmation of the living dream of the Cuban revolution, and the struggle inherent to maintaining a socialist society in a capitalist world. The reality of living under U.S. sanctions is exhausting and disruptive to Cuban people’s lives.
During my nine days in Cuba as a delegate with the Witness for Peace Solidarity Collective, I heard Cubans from many walks of life speak about the impact of the U.S. blockade which not only makes normal trade between the U.S. and Cuba impossible but also denies access to the U.S. market to any foreign company that does business with Cuba.
“The blockade shakes my foundations,” said Saulo Serrano, a campesino artist and unionist who paints the Cuban countryside and its scenery through a revolutionary lens, depicting farmers, birds, fish, roosters, in varied colors and styles. The blockade, says Serrano, affects his artistic practice down to where he gets his paper, paints and materials.
Other Cubans even responded with a sense of resignation, as if speaking of white noise, a reality that is sadly synonymous with life. For them, a change in the status quo is urgently needed. The government’s response has been to experiment with a hybrid model, in the vein of other communist countries like Vietnam and China, with initiatives for private businesses and opening up the sale of private property. Increased internet access has inundated young people with U.S. pop culture which can be more enticing for them than nostalgia for the Revolution’s golden era from the 1960s–1980s when it was heavily supported by the Soviet Union.
“Censorship is impossible,” said Elier Ramirez Cañero, director of the Fidel Castro Ruz Center. “So, the challenge is to create critical subjects.”
The Cuban government continues to exhort its people to strive for the common good.
Instead of advertisements, revolutionary slogans decorate the sides of buildings, bridges and billboards.
One moment that continues to stick with me is a walk through a Cuban community clinic. On the wall of her office, Dr. Barbara Romero pointed out a hand drawn map of the neighborhood she’s served for roughly 40 years. The names of people in each household were noted on it; a drawing of Fidel Castro in uniform hung next to the map. In each room, black-and-white photographs of different revolutionary figures decorated the clinic’s bright blue walls. Dr. Romero made a point of saying that she was not told to, but chose to be surrounded by the images that inspire her commitment to her work.
The doctor said that she’s known generations of family members. She herself lives above her office in order to be available to patients outside of typical hours. Touring the clinic moved me to imagine what might be possible in a system where doctors are embedded as part of the community and not captive to a for-profit model of medicine.
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The Cuban project offers an alternative, rooted in radical imagination, of what might be possible in a world without capitalism. Its people deserve to have a chance to exist and carry out their vision for socialism without being under the boot of the world’s most powerful nation.
Nearly every problem on the island can be traced back to the U.S. embargo which was first instituted in 1962 by President Kennedy after the Cuban government nationalized the investments of U.S. corporations such as United Fruit and Texaco. The embargo originally targeted U.S.-Cuba trade relations. In 1996, the embargo went global with the passage of the Helms-Burton Act which punishes foreign companies that do business with both the U.S. and Cuba. In 2017, the Trump administration announced 243 measures to further tighten U.S. sanctions against Cuba. In his parting days, the former president (re)added the country to the State Sponsors of Terrorism list. The island’s economy sustained additional damage three years later when the pandemic devastated its tourism sector.
Cubans refer to the U.S. policy as the bloqueo, “blockade,” because it cuts off the island from much of the global economy as effectively as any direct military blockade could do. This small, broke island 90 miles from Miami poses no military threat to the United States. What it does pose is an ideological challenge. If the blockade were lifted, would Cuba’s people-centered socialist programs flourish? Who else would be inspired to do the same? The U.S. government doesn’t want to find out.
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