By Colin Monahan
Etched into stone at Comandante Che Guevara’s Mausoleum reads a farewell letter from the Argentine guerilla to his fraternal comrade, Fidel:
“I would have many things to say to you and to our people, but I feel that they are unnecessary; words cannot express what I would want them to… I embrace you with all my revolutionary fervor”.
Several days prior to our delegation’s excursion to Che’s resting place in Santa Clara, we bore witness to Cuba’s historic May Day celebrations in Havana’s Plaza de Revolución. My colleague and fellow delegate, Sarah, a U.S. schoolteacher in Paris, likened the May Day event to an embrace: “You can almost feel people hugging each other - but it's the idea of each other, the love for the workers, the love of the fact that your government recognizes your humanity. That is something that is foreign to people in the United States''.
Che’s inexpressible passion and spirit of sacrifice is something that I’ve explicitly experienced in demonstrations and protests for social justice. However, the spirit of May Day in Havana was not borne out of protest but rather a celebration of international solidarity and the well-being of the socialist project.
Never have I felt closer to this spirit than while witnessing the May Day celebration, or International Worker’s Day, at the Plaza de Revolucion in Havana. After a two-year hiatus due to the pandemic, nearly six million Cubans from all sectors of the economy poured into the streets across the country celebrating the socialist revolution and all of its successes.
Cuba has by its own means developed an effective vaccine against COVID-19 and inoculated over 90% of the island’s population. All the while, Cubans have produced a surplus supply of over 70 million doses to export to countries in need throughout the Global South. The celebration of Cuba’s medical and biopharmaceutical feat accounted for what stood against them: deadly economic sanctions dealt by the United States government which severely limited the country’s access to raw materials needed to produce vital medicines.
The atmosphere in the plaza was simply electric. Having resiliently battled and controlled the pandemic, 50,000 Cuban scientists, doctors, and medical staff proudly marshaled the May Day parade of over 700,000 laborers. A massive one-hundred-foot banner strung across the vanguard of the parade declared “CUBA VIVE Y TRABAJA” or “CUBA WORKS AND LIVES”, the theme of the week-long celebration.
Amongst the massive crowd’s cheers and ovation, speakers like Ulises Guilarte, the Secretary General of Cuban Workers, recognized the historical moment : “In this historic Revolution Square, witness to so many patriotic events, we now celebrate International Workers Day in Cuba that lives and works on creative resistance”.
Following the rest of the parade an observer could identify every corner of Cuba’s wide breadth of industries and its respective labour syndicates. Workers from all sects of the economy, from commercial airline pilots to garbage collectors, wielded signs illustrative of not only their unionship but also their faithful support of the Cuban Socialist Revolution, its ideals, and its commitment to internationalism: “Long live the public health workers!”, “Always with Fidel and Raul – long live the First of May!”, “Homeland or Death, we will win!”, “Thomas Sankara, present!”.
A rolodex of romantic images of those who struggled and risked everything for the socialist project poured through my head then to be consummated as tears. It must have been obvious that I was shocked in disbelief witnessing socialism incarnate here-and-now. A stranger, la Rosaria, an older Argentinian communist who survived Perón’s Dirty War and Operation Condor in the 70s, glowing with excitement gave me a sibling’s embrace as we watched history unfold in front of us.
Our Witness for Peace delegation of thirteen joined over one thousand international solidarity activists and workers of the world in the media-Luna, the crescent amphitheater reserved for guests and leadership in the plaza de la revolucion. Internationalism filled the air. When I wasn’t shooting photos, I was engaging with other delegates, activists, and journalists from Venezuela, Senegal, Vietnam, Canada, Chile, and across the United States.
If I understood anything of ‘solidarity’ before May Day, then my experience in Havana had deeply revitalized my understanding. Reflecting on the celebrations, my colleague and fellow delegate remarked about the once in a lifetime experience: “it was cool just to see everyone on the delegation truly happy. May Day represents a culmination of years of devotion and commitment. It was powerful to see something in action that we’ve been in isolation from for so long. For the activists and organizers of the world, the long road leads to the media-luna”.
Several delegates celebrated their long journey by lighting up several emblematic Cuban cigars. Others danced. A longtime friend of mine and I were interviewed by Belly of the Beast, a media outlet that I respect and admire. Overwhelmed by the power of the event, I gave a very bad interview.
In a refreshing frenzy, people were enthusiastically exchanging their contacts, radical literature, folk songs, and wisdom in dozens of languages. Never had I met or seen so many socialists and communists in one place – everyone and everything seemed to be in harmony.
Reflecting on my time in Cuba with Witness for Peace Solidarity Collective I’ve realized the importance of greater internationalism and a collective animated revolutionary consciousness in our struggle. Cuba and the Cuban people, as seen on May Day in Havana, serve as a global symbol of hope and resistance against imperialism. Cuba’s revolutionary process and history continues to challenge the status quo, not only through its mere existence under the nose of the United States’ empire, but also through radical societal changes such as the approaching Family Code referendum.
In Cuba there exists a revolutionary consciousness amongst its diverse population. From this consciousness arises an acuity of vision, paramount to any struggle.
I want to acknowledge and thank WFPSC’s talented team that have made these experiences possible. Pambana, I cannot thank you enough for your tireless and spirited organizing. Carmen and Barbara, for patiently welcoming us to your country and treating us as family. Many thanks El Centro Martin Luther King Jr. and all of its incredible staff for the hospitality and the inspiring work your organization facilitates. Evan, for your marathon and masterful translations. Thank you Julia for the many months of steady planning stateside, even when we didn’t think this trip was gonna happen. I am deeply grateful to the scholars, institutions, experts and authorities who took the time to explain their revolutionary processes and exchange ideas with me. Thank you Patricio, for your friendship and camaraderie. My deepest thanks to everyone above and even deeper thanks to anyone I have forgotten.