June 27, 2016

Cuba: a happy country

2016 May Day march in Havana - photo: M. Ahmad
Haley Bjornsgaard Shaw

Sometimes I have doubts. Society wears me down. I wonder if my ideologies are simply nice stories I tell myself, ones that I know deep down, no matter how much I argue in YouTube comments, could never be possible. That everyone’s right, human nature is greed and nastiness, that socialism can’t and won’t ever happen.

Recently, I learned about bonobos, a type of ape. The species most similar to humans, they live in peaceful, matriarchal societies in the Congo, where all disagreements are settled with sex. Unlike most matriarchal animals, the females are smaller than the males. How this works is that if a male bonobo starts acting out, all the females band together to kick him from their group.

Reading this restored my faith in feminism. Stupid, I know.

This article is about spending May Day in Cuba. Like bonobos, it gives me hope.


It’s dark and somewhat chilly, with warnings of rain (which doesn’t come). Saying goodbye to the stray puppies sharing the camp, we depart for Havana.

We receive tickets for the event. You can’t get in if you don’t have them. After six, you can’t get in anyway. Too crowded.


They’re raising the flags. The bands are already playing music, under the watchful gaze of a giant light up Che and some Jesus looking guy who I later learned was guerilla fighter Camilo Cienfuegos. People usually come the night before, in order to set up. Dedication.

There’s foreigners, too. People from the rest of Latin America and the Caribbean too, yes, but also from Turkey, Palestine, England, China, France. May Day is a pretty big event in the rest of the world, except for the US (and by default, Canada). We prefer the more capitalist friendly Labour Day.

It took an hour to get in, due to the mass amounts of people as well as security measures, so nobody gets assassinated. I was told there’s been like two hundred attempts, or something like that.

While in line, people chatted, as much as language barriers allowed, and handed out buttons from the Communist Party in their country.


Raul made a speech, all in Spanish. No Fidel. Too old. I understood a few key words (solidaridad!). There was an adorable children’s choir, as well as the military. Allow me to be patronizing for a moment: all the uniforms (military, nurses, airport staff) in Cuba are adorable.

They look like costumes. Fishnet tights seem to be mandatory.

VIVA CUBA! VIVA RAUL! VIVA FIDEL! The parade went for an hour and a half. A constant stream of people (three quarters of a million, apparently), some with carefully made signs, others waving brooms and sugar cane. Chinese dragons made a brief appearance. Everyone waved to each other. Big smiles.

Parades are held in every city, with some rivalling the sheer size of Havana’s. All of this is, of course, completely optional.

Something that really struck me is how kind and joyful the Cuban people are. Obviously, I don’t want to generalize. The Cuban system still has its faults, and I’m sure there are people who are unhappy. I just didn’t meet any.

I was also lucky enough to experience the Cuban health system first hand. It was determined to be the tap water I had been drinking, though other diagnoses were offered (“It could be the air conditioning. She’s not used to it, they don’t have that in Canada”).

The nurse, Eduardo, was exceptionally kind driving me to his own house to pick up medication for me. The doctor had a tattoo of the dragon from Mulan on his neck (when I saw that, I knew I could trust that man). The cleaning lady from the camp accompanied me to the clinic, and held my hair as I vomited into a flowerbed. Even as I got a needle in my bum in front of twenty odd people in the waiting room, I held my head high. We’re all family here.

Cuba is a beautiful country. I don’t want to overly romanticize or attempt to portray it as perfection, but it’s true. I have never seen pride in one's country, history, or leaders to this extent before. There really is something special here, something which gives me hope.

One of our tour guides, Aldo, said; “Cuba is not a poor country. Cuba is a humble country. If you want a nice life, with necessities paid for, you will be happy. If you want a mansion and the car of the year, you will not.”

Despite capitalist America’s attempts to quash the Cuban spirit, it flourishes, boasting the longest lived and most educated, and, in my opinion, the happiest people.

The author participated in the 24th Che Guevara Volunteer Work Brigade to Cuba in May of this year. Find out more about the annual solidarity Brigade!

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