By Ray Sanchez | South Florida Sun Sentinel
May Day festivities were over in a crisp two hours Friday - less time than former leader Fidel Castro used for his anti-American rants at such events in the past.
Raul Castro, in a straw hat and traditional long-sleeved guayabera, did not address the crowds and left the viewing stand before the final rows of banner-waving marchers had moved across sprawling Revolution Plaza.
Still, ailing brother Fidel, who has not appeared at a public event in more than two years, didn’t miss a chance to bash the United States. In a May Day column he criticized Obama administration steps to ease restrictions on travel and money transfers to the island and said Washington “should not have any illusion that Cuba will give up.”
Castro complained that the United States was “ready to forgive us if we resign ourselves to returning to the fold of slaves who, after tasting liberty, again accept the whip and the yoke.”
For many among the hundreds of thousands of Cubans who marched at Friday’s festivities, what resonated most was the call by Cuba’s top labor leader for them to be more productive and efficient despite state salaries of only $20 per month.
“How do we rebuild the half a million homes destroyed by the hurricanes without sacrifice?” asked Juan Diego Nusa, who took his 10-year-old stepson to the march. “That sacrifice falls on the workers. Many people expect things to fall from the sky. They’re used to the state resolving all their problems.”
Salvador Valdes Mesa, head of the Cuban Workers Confederation, said three devastating hurricanes last season and the global financial crisis had battered the island’s economy. Valdes urged workers to raise “production and productivity, for the reduction of costs and expenditures, to increase exports and [reduce] imports.” These goals require Cubans to “work with more discipline, with more quality.”
Giselle, a tourism employee who did not attend the march because she worked a double shift, said Cuban workers couldn’t make more concessions. “We’ve made enough sacrifices,” said Giselle, who is her 40s and asked that her full name not be used. “Coming to work and not getting paid enough is already a huge sacrifice.”
It was Raul Castro’s second May Day appearance as president. He was surrounded by his closest aides but notably absent were two leaders who always stood nearby at events such as this: former Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque and Vice President Carlos Lage, who were recently stripped of their posts.
Many Cubans sang and danced as they marched. Some waved Cuban flags, and pictures of the Castro brothers and revolutionary icon Ernesto “Che” Guevara. Others carried cardboard signs with familiar slogans such as “Socialism or Death.”
Nusa said it was his stepson’s first May Day march. After the event, he took the boy to a neighborhood park.
“You want him to grow up with this,” he said. “You don’t have to agree with everything about Cuba, but people recognize most of what the revolution has done for them.”