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 rights.
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 in Duty.”
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.
Wearing a straw hat and white dress shirt, President Raul Castro grinned and waved from a high wooden podium as marchers streamed past.
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.