May Day in Cuba: No Longer a Celebration of Change

A Holiday for all Cubans to listen to Castro's political agenda

Figure 1: Regional map of Cuba and the caribbean from the Library of Congress at



The national holiday of May Day in Cuba is celebrated by large gatherings highlighted by dancing, flag waving and famous speakers like Fidel Castro. Current May Day celebrations are used to commemorate the nation's revolutionary and socialist past. May Day, however, is far from its roots of demonstrations and protests for workers rights that often turned violent. Instead May Day is used as a tool of the government to invoke national pride through attempts at revitalizing the revolutionary spirit of Cubans to distract them from their nation's dismal situation in the politically repressive and poverty stricken nation.



Figure 2: Fidel Castro taken from taken from

Figure 3: May Day 2002 rally taken from


May Day or International Labor day is a celebration of the working class and is observed all over the world, however in Cuba the state sponsored holiday comes with mixed emotions from the people. A socialist state since 1959, the Cuban government now uses the celebration of international working class solidarity as a means to promote the communist party's agenda to the masses and this forced approach to the holiday decreases the emotional value of the celebrations to the Cuban participants.


Context of Cuba

Cuba (Fig. 1) is an island nation about 90 miles south of the Key West , Florida and is located between the North Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea (World Fact book 2004). Cuba was colonized by Spain after Christopher Columbus was the first European to discover the island. The indigenous population barely survived the first century of Spanish colonization and numerous African Slaves were brought to the island for their labor in the booming sugar market that was enabled because of their tropical climate(Skidmore 2004: 259). After independence from Spain in 1902 and the following dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, in 1956 Fidel Castro (Fig. 2) led a revolutionary invasion and was eventually able to create a socialist state which he still leads today.

The mixture of Caribbean , African and European Culture along with Communist thinking creates today's cultural blend. More often than not the Communist Party dictates which aspects of each particular culture are allowed to surface. This can be seen in the various celebrations in Cuba . Even with increased tolerance of religious practices the largest celebrations in the island are state sponsored such as May Day. Current May Day celebrations are highlighted by lengthy speeches by Castro in the Plaza of the Revolution with thousands of Cubans waving the Flags of their nation (Kinder 2004) . (Fig. 3)


Origins of May Day

The international workers holiday arose out of the original May Day in the United States on May 1, 1886 . This first May Day included nearly a half a million workers from all over the United States who stopped work to and began to march for an eight hour work day. During a speech following the Initial Strike in Chicago a bomb exploded killing one Police officer trying to break up the event and as a result the remaining police opened fire on the crowd (Foner 1986 30). Cubans, along with most of the working class worldwide, began their May Day marches in 1890. The initial May Day march in Cuba took place in 1890 and was called for by the Circulo de Tabajadore s which was the Cuban workers club (Foner 1986 53). The original Cuban May day consisted of speeches by labor leaders calling for a working day of eight hours, equal rights and solidarity of all workers(Foner 1986 54). In the Aftermath, the peaceful protest of the Cuban workers led to the arrest of the leaders and speakers of the march.



Today's Cuban National Holiday of May Day consists of rallies and performances in the provincial capital cities. The largest of these rallies occur in the in Havana 's revolution Square and this year the rally included 1 million of Cuba 's 11 million inhabitants. (Schweimler 2002) The festivities of May Day gatherings include “ salsa to classical music, folkloric dance and ballet, poetry, a political satire with life-sized puppets” (Hillson 2002) along with the main event of a headline speaker which is Fidel Castro at the Havana rally. During Castro's speech highlights of Cuban social progress are reported and critiques of the United States and other Capitalist nations are given while the mass of Cuban workers listens and wave Cuban flags(Fig. 4) instead of applauding which creates the sound of a “sound of an immense flock of birds in flight” (Hillson 2002). At the rallies the music and dance are combined to show stories of the Cuban revolutionary struggle and the Cuban flags serve the purpose of encouraging group unity under the National Flag.



Cuban Flags are handed out to all at May Day Rallies (taken from




Prognosis for May Day in Cuba

The Future of May Day (like all aspects of life in Cuba ) is not predictable at this point because of Castro's advanced age and deteriorating health. With no definite successor to Castro or definite plans for the future of the Nation, May Day could relevance could change drastically if socialism was to be abandoned after Castro's death. However, if Cuba remains a socialist state May Day will likely play its current role as a revitalization effort forced on the citizens of Cuba .



The Current condition of the national holiday of May Day in Cuba is far from the original international workers day of protest that demanded social change but is now instead a weak, forced attempt by Castro and his government to use unknowingly the anthropological ideas of a revitalization movement and communitas to their join Cubans together to remember the past days of the revolution. The current version of May Day lacks individual appeal to those who are coerced to attend the holiday's rallies and because of this the popularity of the holiday is decreasing even though attendance is increasing.


Internet References Cited


Peer-Reviewed References Cited

    Aguirre, Benigno E.

    2002 “Social Control in Cuba ” Latin American Politics &  Society. Vol. 44, Issue 2

    Foner, Philip Sheldon

    1986 May Day: a short history of the international workers' holiday, 1886-1986 . International Publishers, New York

    Kinder, Colleen

    2004 “ Same Old” New Republic . Vol. 231, Issue 5

    Skidmore, Thomas   

    2001 Modern Latin America . New York . Oxford University Press.

    Tuner, Victor and Edith Turner

    1982 “Religious Celebrations” In Celebration: Studies in Festivity and Ritual.  Victor Turner, ed, pp. 201-219.  Smithsonian Institute Press, Washington.

    Wallace, Anthony F.C.

    1956 “Revitalization Movements” American Anthropologist . Vol. 58, No. 2 (April 1956)




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