by Evie Browne
In the annual International Worker’s Day (Primero de Mayo) march past the Jose Martí statue in the centre of Havana’s Plaza de la Revolucion, the traditional signs and slogans of the Cuban Revolution were present, with added acknowledgements and recognition of Fidel.
I took part in this year’s march as I am currently in Cuba to learn about Cuba’s approach to gay people and queer life. I was marching with the Centro Nacional de Educacion Sexual (CENESEX), the government institution providing expertise on sexual issues for policy makers, universities and support networks. These functions are rolled into one organisation, where in other places they might be provided by civil society more broadly. CENESEX is run by the high-profile and well-respected public figure Mariela Castro Espín, who is Raúl Castro’s daughter. Unfortunately, she wasn’t at the march. Primero de Mayo is technically a celebration (or protest) for workers and workers’ rights but in the CENESEX section, it felt more akin to gay Pride.
My friend picked me up from home at 4.30am to make our way down to Paseo, the wide street that runs from the sea to the Plaza de la Revolucion. He came in from the suburbs on the special buses that start running at 2am to bring marchers into town. I’ve seen the march on TV and newspapers plenty of times before, but it had escaped me that it starts at 7.30 in the morning. Cuba is swelteringly hot in May and to avoid people fainting and collapsing, the march takes place before the sun gets too high. As we approached Paseo, we could begin to hear people and drums and although it was still dark, it was already beginning to get hot.
The march is organized in blocs of people: the education sector starts at the front, then comes the health sector, construction, technology, tourism sectors and so on following. Each bloc usually wears a designated colour, for example health is white. Smaller groups of people marching together might wear matching t-shirts or hats. The newspaper carries the information about the starting point for each bloc, and anyone can join in if they get there early enough. My friend and I arrived in the health section by 5am, and took our time walking through looking for CENESEX. A few people were drinking rum already, but most were catching up on sleep or greeting friends. There was an atmosphere similar to a UK music festival, but more subdued as it was still the middle of the night.
CENESEX were waiting on the right-hand side of the street, the side that marches closest to the Jose Martí statue. This focal point of Havana celebrates Cuba’s first independence hero, the poet Jose Marti, who died trying to free Cuba from Spain in their first War of Independence. There was a small group of CENESEX workers, but the largest presence was the Red de Transcuba (Transcuba network), a group of about 15 trans people. The network holds awareness-raising activities and advocates for equal rights and treatment. Transexuales have a unique place in Latin America culture, somewhat accepted as a third gender in many countries, but still experiencing discrimination and often finding it difficult to get a job. Gender reassignment surgery has been free in Cuba since 2008, as a result of CENESEX’s activism on this issue.
Our group was all dressed in white, many people wearing the official network t-shirt and waving large rainbow flags. The flag is a recent adoption in Cuba, but it seems to be serving the purpose of gay, trans and queer pride here much as it does in the rest of the world. Gay people are already considered equal under the law and the socialist system in Cuba, and so I felt that the flag was more about representation, recognition and pride than rights.
At 7.30am exactly, just as it was getting light, the speaker system burst into life with a fanfare and the national anthem. Most people sang along. A newsreader from the TV made some introductions and the main speech was given by Ulises Guilarte, the head of the trade unions. The speech was rousing Cuban nationalism, traditional socialism, and well-known Cuban slogans. ‘¡Viva la Revolucion!,’ ‘¡Viva Fidel,’ ‘¡Viva Cuba Libre!’ The biggest response came with the final shout of Ché Guevara’s famous words: ‘¡Hasta la Victoria!’ and we all responded ‘¡Siempre!’ I was mildly surprised when the official state-supported PA system dropped a fat beat behind the sloganeering and we all danced along while cheering Fidel. However, you only need the slightest hint of music and two Cubans for it to turn into a party.
We processed forward, past the Jose Martí statue and the crowd of dignitaries, international solidarity representatives and press cameras. There was military music from a youth orchestra and the speaker announced which groups were currently passing the podium. In the crowd, there was some samba and salsa dancing, as well as a lot of noise coming from people cheering and blowing home-made plastic trumpets. At one point, the trans group moved forward through a battalion of soldiers and started a synchronised dance routine as we progressed right through the middle. The soldiers cheered raucously as we shimmied past. Amongst the country flags declaring solidarity with workers of the world, I spotted Venezuela, Turkey and a Welsh flag, and wished I had brought a Union Jack along.
In the UK, I have marched to protest when I am angry, never to celebrate. Although Cuba has its problems, the strong sense of national identity and direction feels positive. The march was not to demand better rights or conditions for workers, but to celebrate workers’ contributions to the country. Lots of people were wearing Ché t-shirts with genuine respect and love for a figure who helped change their history, unlike the pop culture dynamic sometimes seen in Europe. The respect and solidarity shown to Fidel was also evident. Particularly in this first Primero de Mayo after his death, there was a sense of reaffirming his vision and pledging commitment to the socialist system.
Evie Browne is doing a PhD in International Development at the University of Sussex funded by the IASSCS Emerging Scholars International Research Fellowship.