REUTERS: Cubans told to work harder at May Day celebration
- Cubans told to work harder at May Day celebration
Fri May 1, 2009 3:58pm BST
By Jeff Franks
HAVANA (Reuters) - Hundreds of thousands of Cubans filed through Havana's Revolution Square on Friday in a May Day parade where they were exhorted to work harder to help their country's battered economy.
President Raul Castro, wearing a straw hat and white guayabera shirt, waved from a podium overlooking the vast plaza as the flag-waving masses moved past.
He did not speak, leaving that task to Cuban labour leader and high-ranking Communist Party official Salvador Valdes Mesa.
Fidel Castro, who led Cuba for 49 years before ceding power last year to his younger brother, was not present, missing his third straight May 1 parade.
Now 82, he has not been seen in public since falling ill in July 2006, although he regularly writes influential columns published in Cuba's state-run media.
Valdes spoke about Cuba's economic woes, saying three hurricanes last year and an ongoing global financial crisis had inflicted much damage.
Workers, he said, needed to work to raise "production and productivity, for the reduction of costs and expenditures, to grow exports and (reduce) imports."
Achieving these goals, Valdes said, would require everyone to "work with more discipline, with more quality."
A sign held by the first line of people in the parade underscored the message: "Combative, productive and effective," it read.
On the nationally televised broadcast of the event, the words "United, efficient and productive" were flashed across the screen.
Raul Castro has made minor reforms to the state-run economy but is now facing a liquidity crunch that has depleted foreign reserves and delayed payment to many foreign businesses.
He has said Cuba must raise productivity and reduce handouts to its people, who earn only about $20 a month but receive social benefits such as free health care, food rations and subsidized housing.
Valdes only briefly mentioned the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba, which has been in place since 1962 and is usually blamed for the island's financial woes.
Cuba and the United States have been at odds since Fidel Castro took power in a 1959 revolution, but U.S. President Barack Obama recently extended an olive branch by easing the embargo and saying the United States wanted to "recast" relations.
Raul Castro has responded that Cuba was willing to talk but does not have to make concessions to further rapprochement.
Yusiley Gonzalez, wearing a red shirt like many parade participants, said she supported Cuba's government, but had high hopes for better relations with the United States.
"We're giving our support to the revolution, Fidel and Raul," she said.
But, Gonzalez said, "We hope the position of Obama is positive and there will be a positive result. I believe he'll be able to eliminate the embargo that has caused so much damage to our system."
The parade went on amid worldwide concern about a flu variant that has killed at least 176 people in Mexico, separated from Cuba by the 115-mile (185 km) wide Yucatan Channel.
Officials assured Cubans they would be safe from the contagion because no flu cases have been found on the island.
"Cuban people may celebrate May Day with tranquillity," said a headline in Communist Party newspaper Granma.
Cuban dissidents on the Internet urged Cubans to bang pots and pans on Friday night in a form of protest known in Latin America as a "cacerolada."
They said the protest would be a message to Cuban leaders to let Cubans travel freely.
(Additional reporting by Nelson Acosta; Editing by Jim Loney)
Los Angeles, California
"Cuba - Un Paraíso bajo el bloqueo"