With music and revolutionary slogans broadcast over loud speakers hundreds of thousands of Havana residents flooded Revolution Square in the country's annual May Day parade.
President Raul Castro was there, wearing a white long sleeved guayabera – Cuba's traditional pleated-front dress shirt of choice - and a typical farmer's straw hat, instead of his more customary general's dress uniform. At his side were other Cuban leaders, including parliament president Ricardo Alarcon and the Minister of Communication, Ramiro Valdes.
The crowd that ranges from senior citizens hobbling along to youngsters perched on their Dad's shoulders was amazingly energetic considering everyone had been in position along the parade route since 6 a.m. a good two hours before the event began. Most people have been up since 4 a.m.
Costumed dancers added color to the noisy gathering and a group went by jumping on pogo sticks, amid signs bearing revolutionary slogans and a smattering of posters with photos of former President and still the top leader of the Revolution, Fidel Castro. And in what would probably horrify animal rights activists, zoo employees marched cuddling two wide-eyed lion cubs.
The majority of the participants, more than 300,000 according to the local media, were from the four municipalities closest to the parade route so that they could get there on foot. The rest of the participants were picked up by buses from the State owned companies for which they work. Farmers and agricultural workers as well as a contingent of 40,000 students closed the parade.
In past years such demonstrations by the revolutionary faithful could go on for hours, not winding down until 1 or 2 p.m. but since Raul Castro stepped in for his ailing older brother Fidel, these events have been limited to a maximum of two hours. The difference represents an enormous savings in time and money. Previously the government paid for hundreds of buses to truck in people from all over the capital and surrounding areas at an enormous cost in fuel and the change seems to reflect President Castro's efforts to increase efficiency and prevent the unnecessary waste of much needed cash and resources. Observers say its also intended to send the message that support for the Revolution does not need to be demonstrated in the streets but rather on the job with increased productivity.
That was the blunt message delivered by labor leader and Communist Party official Salvador Valdes Mesa, the only speaker (as traditional) at this workers day celebration. In view of the world economic crisis, rising prices and damage from three consecutive hurricanes in the 2008 season, workers, he said, need to increase "production and productivity so as to reduce costs and spending and boost exports and [reduce] imports."
Parade organizers say there were 2,000 foreign participants from 80 countries marching. One small but enthusiastic group from Ankara waving Turkish flags were interviewed by Cuban TV before the event kicked off. Some Americans in Havana seeking to sell agricultural or medical products to the government were also in attendance as were representatives of the American left.
Today's event is the sort of public gathering that most countries hoping to avoid the spread of the Influenza A H1N1, as swine flu has been renamed, are cancelling.
But Cuban health authorities say neither confirmed nor suspected cases of the flu have been detected on the island.
Despite today's festivities, the island is taking a wide range of measures to prevent incidence of the flu. In fact, despite World Health Organization statements that say closing borders will not help and that countries should simply try for containment of the new variant of swine flu, Cuba is maintaining its suspension of flights from Mexico.
The island's military-run Civil Defense is on alert and special steps are being taken in airports, marinas and sea ports to prevent the flu from entering the country.
The midday news Thursday showed health personnel wearing face masks greeting all passengers arriving on international flights with a health card to be filled out with information on countries visited prior to Cuba and whether they have exhibited cold symptoms in the last 10 days.
Cuban airport workers are also interviewing flight crews upon arrival as to whether they observed passengers exhibiting possible flu symptoms on the plane. Should a passenger be singled out, medical workers would board the plane, according to the TV report, and immediately remove them to Havana's Tropical Medicine Institute.
And instead of the regular cleaning staff entering planes during their stopovers, specialized gloved and masked crews are boarding the planes to pick up trash, which is then immediately burned.
The ports are the only place where face masks are being regularly used.
Community health clinics and hospitals are on alert. Their staffs have been thoroughly briefed on swine flu, according to doctors speaking on behalf of the Ministry of Public Health. The director of the Salvador Allende hospital in Havana says the facility is prepared to be the main treatment center should cases of swine flu appear among the Cuban population. That hospital was also the main hub for treatment during last year's outbreak of dengue fever, a disease transmitted by mosquitoes. Now the hospital has set aside a 50-bed intensive care unit to be used if the epidemic reaches the island.
Cuban television, radio and newspapers are headlining swine flu news and describing the symptoms to watch out for and urging people to frequently wash their hands and to cover their mouths and noses when coughing or sneezing.
Apart from its regular share of tourists, Havana this week has been hosting a meeting of the 118-member Non-Aligned Movement Foreign Ministers, a meeting also attended by United Nations officials. That meeting wound up Thursday evening and many of its participants were at today's parade marking International Workers' Day. Seen embracing President Castro as the event kicked off was the president of the UN General Assembly Miguel D'Escoto. Also present are numerous foreign ministers including Nicolas Maduro from Cuba's close ally Venezuela and representatives of the diplomatic corps posted in Havana.
Fidel Castro, notably absent from the podium where he presided for decades, posted an on-line column late Thursday in which he says it's too soon to know if relations between the United States and Cuba can be mended.
Referring indirectly to the U.S. call for Cuba to take steps — such as releasing political prisoners — to show its willing to change in response to President Obama's lifting of restrictions on family travel to the island, Castro writes, "Today they are willing to forgive us if we resign ourselves to return to the fold, as slaves who after experiencing freedom once again accept the whip and the yoke."
He goes on to say, "Today the planet is torn between economic crises, pandemics, climate changes, dangers of war and other concurrent problems. The political task becomes more complicated, and there are still some who believe that peoples can be manipulated like puppets."
The iconic revolutionary who at 82 has survived a severe intestinal aliment and numerous resulting operations, writes that it's still too early to say what "the future evolution of the present US administration" will be. "We are carefully watching and studying its every step. We are not trouble makers as some would imagine, but neither are we fools who can be easily duped by those who think that the only thing important in the world are the laws of the market and the capitalist system of production," writes Castro.
Now that the parade and political sloganeering has wound down, most people are heading home for a nap and to enjoy a long weekend. However, for those working in essential services such as health care, food services and tourism, it's back to work as usual.
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