The sound of the Havana conga rhythms, with the beating of cowbells and frying pans, is heard. Leading the percussion is a lean man with stubble and red eyes, as he hasn’t slept for a day and a half.
It’s now eight in the morning. But in the darkness at 5:30 a.m., with just a few people in the area in front of the capital’s Plaza de la Revolución, we walked along the edge of the barriers, looking for a way to get to 23rd Street and Paseo Avenue, recalling our childhood memories of this day, as people looked out from their windows onto the crowds below, there was music and one saw gigantic things. We were seeking to relive that. We wanted to see the parade from beyond the press platform where we have seen it before. But the roads were closed off to cars, and on foot, the hubbub of people made it impossible to walk much farther.
We remained where we were, amidst the crowds already gathered in the second bloc of the parade, between the pedagogy students and the group that recently represented Cuba at the 8th Summit of the Americas, in Peru.
It dawned at seven. Four Red Cross stretchers ran past us along the sidewalk with someone who had fainted. They took him to one of the ambulances, which were parked behind the seating on one side of the Plaza, in front of the image of Camilo and a huge screen. Many of those gathered passed by us four, five times. The young people in the second row started counting them. Some swarmed around and took photos with popular singer Adrián Berazaín, sporting the T-shirt which read #NoAlBloqueo (No to the blockade), worn by those who went to Peru.
Under the still faint yellow sunlight, the Plaza was beautiful: a path of flags leading up to the statue of Martí; a giant flag hanging from the Interior Ministry building, next to the iconic image of Che Guevara; on the National Library, a sepia banner with images of Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, Fidel after the Moncada trial, and Fidel and Camilo Cienfuegos the day the Caravan of Liberty arrived to Havana. Behind us, a banner on the National Theater read: “Unity, commitment and victory.” And further behind, beyond the bloc of thousands of teachers, the compact parade.
The renowned voice of Silvio Rodríguez rang out from the huge speakers. It had been preceded by a conga and the people danced. Now, some sat resting on the ground.
At 7:30 a.m., we sang the national anthem and the Secretary General of the Cuban Workers’ Federation, Ulises Guilarte, offered the traditional May Day speech. As the crowds began to move, we still had the hope of reaching 23rd Street and Paseo. We walked to Boyeros Avenue and then back along the edge of the barriers, trying to join the parade further back, but surrounded by so many people, we made little progress.
We came across Rakso Fernández, hand in hand with his little daughter. “This is a day of reaffirmation,” he said, “As a child, I used to come with my grandparents, and someday I’ll come with my grandchildren.”
We could hardly stop to talk. People flocked to the Plaza, with huge banners and smaller placards. “With Raúl and Díaz-Canel is the image of Fidel,” read one. “Freedom for Lula,” another.
Farther back, Lázaro Vega, an agricultural cooperative worker, marched alone; among the people, but alone. He wore his traditional Yarey hat, and held a Cuban flag in his left hand. At 60 years old, he recalled the first time he came to the Plaza to celebrate May Day.
“I was just a child, my primary school teachers brought me, with all the little boys and girls in my class. Since then I have come every year,” he told us, and continued on his way. We continued to push back, among the crowds.
A few meters from Zapata Street, we realized we couldn’t advance any farther. We walked over to the sidewalk to try and head back to the Plaza faster, but a security cordon, formed mostly by students, prevented us from leaving the route.
One of them, Law student Isabel Lucía, told us that they had been there since very early, ensuring the organization of the march and preventing any problems. She has been carrying out this task every May Day for the past four years, and noted that, as usual, it was an occasion for celebration.
Then, as it struck eight o’clock, we came across the metallic sound of a frying pan being struck. The conga rhythms weren’t coming from the speakers, but from the trumpet of a boy with braids, a drum played by another dressed in blue and with his cap to the side; and another using two sticks as claves, beating some cans. We danced in formation: with the tip of the foot, passing to the left, moving to the right, one step forward. Those singing addressed those who followed them: “Join my conga line,” they cried, and we went along with them, chanting: “My conga to the Plaza with Fidel.”