Cubans mark May Day, await details of change

Hundreds of thousands of Cubans marched through Havana and other cities on Sunday to mark May Day in a demonstration touted as a vast show of support for economic changes recently approved by the Communist Party — even though the people holding placards and shouting slogans haven't seen the details yet.

Nearly two weeks after the party endorsed President Raul Castro's bet to fix the island's broken economy through limited free-market reforms, the government has not released specifics of the 311-point guidelines, or said when it will do so.

The parade, always a big event on the communist-run island, has nevertheless been touted by the official party newspaper, Granma, as "the best chance for Cuban workers to ratify ... their backing for the accords."

Castro led a march in eastern Santiago de Cuba, the island's second largest city, while the Havana parade was led by Jose Ramon Machado Ventura, the 80-year-old recently named second secretary of the party, the country's second most powerful position.

Salvador Valdes Mesa, the head of Cuba's only government-approved labor union, was the only dignitary to address the crowd.

"We are doing this (marching) because we support the agreements made at the Party Congress," Valdes Mesa said in his speech, as workers held up signs with photos of Raul and Fidel Castro and slogans like "Socialism is and will be our hope." Many wore the colors of Cuba's red, white and blue flag.

Still, many in Havana said they were impatient to see the actual details of the changes.

"I would like to know what the guidelines have that's new, because so far it seems to be a lot of noise and nothing concrete," said Manuel Pedrosi, 56, who was just a small boy when Fidel and Raul Castro's revolution succeeded in 1959. "But if we've waited 50 years, we can wait a little longer."

The economic measures approved unanimously and en bloc at a party summit April 19 include potential blockbusters that would open a door in the island's tightly controlled economic system, such as legalizing the buying and selling of private property and providing bank credit to finance small businesses.

Officials released a broad outline of the proposals last year, but the document was extensively revised and discussed at the congress. While Cuban TV showed highlights of delegates debating the finer points of the document, including the wording of obscure paragraphs, viewers had no reference to guide them or explain what they were seeing.

Those who study Cuba's economy say that without details it is impossible to gauge the impact of the measures.

"This is not a small issue. The details are the change," said Rafael Romeu, president of the Association for the Study of the Cuban Economy, a nonpolitical association that promotes research on Cuba. "There is no change without a concrete ability to spell out what you're going to do, how it will be achieved, by what date it will be implemented, what are the measurable results that can be delivered."

Cuban officials did not respond to requests for comment on why the guidelines have not been released, or say when they might be. State media, often used to convey government announcements, has also been silent.

While Cubans have generally welcomed the economic overhaul, some expressed impatience with the lack of clarity. Some say they are anxious to go into business for themselves or buy a home big enough to accommodate their family, but are waiting to see the ground rules.

Others are nervous about plans — shelved for the time being — to lay off hundreds of thousands of state workers, and to gradually phase out the ration book, which provides Cubans with a basic basket of food at greatly subsidized prices.

"This can't wait. Everyone is going to benefit in one way or another because there will be a little more freedom to do as you like with what's yours," said Yordanka Rodriguez, a 45-year-old Havana resident. "We just have to see what the terms are like. Until that happens, it's hard to judge accurately."


Associated Press writer Paul Haven contributed to this report.