If anything distinguishes May Day from other days, it is the silence that falls on Havana after the parade is over. Schools, workplaces, government offices and even bus stops are empty. It has been like this for decades. But this year, something broke the tedium of workers' day. Many private businesses opened their doors despite the holiday, to peddle their pizzas, ice cream and milkshakes. While some marched and chanted revolutionary slogans, they sold their products, fishing in the plentiful stream left to them by state establishments, which were all closed.
By the end of the year, some 600,000 Cubans are expected to have licenses to work in the private sector. They will include many of those who will be left unemployed by the state staff cuts throughout the country. In the next few months more than 170,000 jobs will be left vacant in different areas belonging to the state, with these people being transferred to other jobs, or fired. Euphemism is reaching new heights when it comes to this unpopular process. The cutbacks have been called "labor reordering," and the people fired labeled "available." As if these rhetorical peculiarities were not enough, the only union permitted in the country has supported the state's decision to "deflate staff for the sake of efficiency." The Workers' Union of Cuba (CTC) has made it clear that it is with the employer rather than the worker - a stance that has surprised no one among its three million members, accustomed to loyally paying their dues, but aware that the union represents the interests of power against the workers, not the other way around.
This same obedient union has absorbed more than 80 percent of the 370,000 self-employed people, and representatives from this sector paraded on May Day. They have not joined it in search of representation or support, but just to avoid problems. They feel - rightly - that if they didn't join they might be termed "apathetic" or "bourgeois," and, in the worst case, "counter-revolutionary." All, no doubt, would prefer an association that defended them from high taxes, organized protests over the lack of a wholesale market, or called for bank loans with which they could sustain their businesses. If they could choose, they would not even have voted for Salvador Valdés Mesa, present secretary-general of the CTC, whose previous post was in the adversarial Labor Ministry. Ours is a union in the hands of the boss. A union that has endorsed the suppression of half-a-million jobs between now and 2015, and has called for greater commitment to Raúl Castro's government. One negative legacy of this complicit attitude will be the refusal of many to join it, or any other proletarian organization. In Cuba the word "union" will have to shed its present connotations of inaction, before it resumes the irreverent, autonomous role it once had.
For the moment, on the reviewing stand in the May Day demonstration, instead of worker demands, we saw calls for discipline and control. Protest from workers has no place in a plaza full of triumphant slogans in praise of the system. Not one single bloc represents the unemployed, not one fist is raised in a sign of protest, not one placard attacks the authorities. Many of those present there have attended for the same reason they joined the CTC, so as not to be marked as disaffected over a political process in which they hardly believe. When the show is over they go home, or wander into the neighboring streets in search of something to eat or drink. They end by buying something from a self-employed shopkeeper who never joined the union, and has kept his business open. The next morning, the front page of the official newspaper Granma proclaimed that: "This has been the best-organized and fastest parade in our history." And for once it was right.