Latin America & Caribbean

Hard-up Cuba celebrates scaled-down May Day

A sign reading 'Socialism or Death' at Havana's May Day march
Image caption Demonstrators held up a sign saying "socialism or death", but the old Communist system in Cuba is slowly changing

Tens of thousands of workers marched through Revolution Square in Havana in Cuba's traditional May Day celebration.

As they surged past shouting "Long live Fidel and Raul!" and "Down with imperialism!", a dancing choir sang songs from the revolution and President Raul Castro smiled and waved in greeting.

A huge poster on the wall of the National Library vowed that Cuba would never return to capitalism; workers carried banners proclaiming "Socialism or death!" or waved images of Lenin and Che Guevara.

They were familiar scenes on this Communist-run island, a highly organised annual show of support.

But Cuba is in the midst of major changes - cutting state employment and subsidies - making this an uncertain time for workers.

'Preserve socialism'

In a bid to ensure the system here survives, the government is attempting an urgent overhaul of the struggling, centrally-planned economy.

As a banner across Revolution Square put it, it is a drive to "preserve and perfect socialism".

The plan is to reduce the bloated state payroll by around 20%, or a million workers, and cut costs.

So far, a limited amount of private business has been permitted to absorb them.

More than 370,000 licences have been issued for everything from watch repairers to privately-run restaurants as workers abandon state salaries of around $20 a month, and strike out in business alone.

But earlier this month, a senior official indicated that bigger change was afoot.

"Within four or five years, between 40% and 45% of GDP will result from non-state production," Esteban Lazo told the Havana city government.

Today, the figure is around 5%.

The next stages might include an expansion of the co-operative system beyond agriculture to light industry. Highly educated - but low-paid - young Cubans hope the categories for self-employment will expand, to include professions like law or architecture.

Cunning advertising

For the moment it's the private restaurant sector that's most popular, offering the most potential for profit. But there are difficulties, including restrictions on advertising.

So one new entrepreneur decided to get creative this May Day.

"Whether we're state employees or not, we're still workers and marching on 1 May is a habit here," explained Sergio Alba Marin, owner of Pachanga cafe.

Image caption The La Pachanga restaurant advertised its support for May Day, circumventing a ban on TV advertising

So the businessman handed staff bright red T-shirts and caps emblazoned with his logo, and they all joined the workers' parade.

Banner held high, they marched alongside a giant fake cigar representing the state firm Cohiba and a cage full of live hens, brought by workers at a state research institute.

"Of course it's an advert. We want people to see we're there, that we're present," Mr Alba said of his own efforts. "There are no TV adverts here, but we do what we can."


Meanwhile, in the still-vast state sector, Cuba is on efficiency drive.

"We must increase productivity at work, discipline and quality," trade union leader Salvador Valdes Mesa instructed workers in his May Day speech.

"We must make clear that making savings is a key source of funds," the unionist added.

In a sign of that policy in practice, this year's May Day parade was a scaled-down affair. There were fewer fixed stands and posters, and fewer workers too - meaning less state spending bringing them to the square.

In fact, the whole event was over in what locals called record time. The last worker had filed out of Revolution Square by 09:15, well under two hours after it all started.

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