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Labour Day in a changing Cuba

This year's Labour Day parade was dedicated to "Cuba's friend" Hugo Chavez, as workers march in Revolution Square.
Last modified: 2 May 2013 00:02

It happens every year, the Labour Day parade in Havana. Hundreds of thousands of people, marching in Revolution Square and claiming that the Cuban revolution gave workers dignity and a place in society.

"Without the revolution there is no life," Teresa told me.

"I am here to defend the revolution. Wee had nothing before. Look at my skin, I am black. I am something today because of the revolution." 

For at least an hour and a half, I watched people march in front of the statue of Cuba's independence hero, Jose Marti. They carried pictures of Fidel and Raul Castro, Che Guevara and, this year, Hugo Chavez. Labour day was dedicated to Chavez because, as people told me, he was Cuba's best friend.

Under the watch of Raul Castro and the historical old guard (all of those who have been part of the 60-year-long process) the parade was smaller than those that took place when Fidel Castro was in power.

Some say that the government is trying to cut unnecessary spending. I was told by a government source that in the past the government would bring people from all over the country to participate in the parade and Raul Castro's "rationalisation process" has put an end to that.

Raul Castro came to power in 2008 and since 2010 he has implemented a series political and economic reforms to adapt Cuba to current times and reduce the presence of the state in the economy.

Cuba is changing slowly. There are private businesses, private property and other reforms that would have seemed unthinkable 10 years ago.

The government is sponsoring private enterprise, but to do so it is also cutting back on state employees that represent the majority of the workforce here.

Jose Francisco De Paula worked for the state for 45 years, but in 2010 he was forced to retire. Now he receives a pension of 340 pesos ($14) a month.

He told me that he gave his life for this country and that now he has to struggle to survive.

"I never thought this would happen to me. With what the government gives me I can buy six packs of milk and that’s it. I'm 65 years old and it is not easy for people like me. Now with my family I have to sell cakes, drive a cab and do anything I can to make more money."

De Paula is not alone, as most people here say they are struggling to make ends meet - even Cubans who have social benefits like healthcare and education covered.

People say that the price of goods continues to go up and the salaries of those who depend on the state remain the same.

Economists here say the two-currency system is partly to blame. It was necessary when it was imposed but now it is making prices go out of control.

There are two currencies in the country. One is the Cuban peso that is earned by those who depend on the state, and the other is the convertible currency that is tied to the US dollar.

Those who earn in the convertible currency are mostly those who work in the tourism industry or those who receive help from their relatives abroad.

Economists say that in the past few years some radical measures had been taken but that much more needs to be done.

"There is a need to increase foreign investment to increase production. There are not enough savings in Cuba to fuel the economy," one economist told me. "What the government has done until now is to get rid of prohibitions, but now they need to make the economy grow."

But in spite of the changes that have taken place in the past years, the government’s message on Wednesday was that socialism is stronger than ever in Cuba and that it will continue to be the guiding force of the revolution.