The Cuban Artists Who Turned Havana’s May Day Parade Into a Protest

This year, Cuba will not celebrate May Day with a parade in Havana’s Plaza of the Revolution. It is only the second time since 1959 that the event has been canceled, this time due to fuel shortages. The mass mobilization in the Plaza is a carefully choreographed demonstration of support for the Cuban revolution that, once upon a time, culminated in lengthy speeches by Fidel Castro, delivered from the monument to José Martí, who fought for Cuba’s independence from Spain in the late 1800s. Over the years, millions of workers, soldiers, students, and fellow travelers have marched for hours under the blazing sun, performing a political ritual of submission to the leadership. Newsreels from the 1960s depict invariably enthusiastic crowds, masking the reality that failure to participate would have raised suspicion of being a counterrevolutionary. In contemporary Cuba, where people contend with skyrocketing inflation and crippling food and energy shortages, participants in such celebrations now attend in exchange for free sandwiches and t-shirts.

Although any public event in the Plaza of the Revolution is subject to intense surveillance due to the proximity of multiple ministries and the presence of state television cameras, a few artists have attempted to disrupt the ceremony of mass consent. The strategy of these interventions is chameleon-like, in that they succeed in camouflaging themselves as integral to the official culture despite their ironic intent. More overtly oppositional gestures would be quickly suppressed, as was the case of Tania Bruguera’s attempt to set up an open mic in the Plaza in December 2014, which led to her detention before she could reach her destination. In 2017, Cuban dissident Daniel Llorente charged in front of the May Day parade draped in an American flag and shouted, “Freedom for the Cuban people!” He was immediately taken into custody and was committed to a psychiatric hospital for two years, after which he was expelled to Guyana.

Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, For a Prosperous and Sustainable Socialism (2013)

In 2013, artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, sentenced to five years in prison on “contempt, defamation, and public disorder” charges in 2022, staged one of his first performative interventions, entitled “For a Prosperous and Sustainable Socialism.” Together with another performer, he inserted himself into the May Day march wearing enormous and cartoonish paper maché depictions of Fidel Castro and former Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez that he had created. He managed to pass off his satirical representations of state power as vernacular expressions. Cuban art historian Yanelys Nuñez Leyva noted in a 2022 article that Otero Alcántara’s “big heads of distorted shapes were inserted in the grotesque and absurd circus that is May Day in Cuba.” 

She added: “Among congas, banners, early risers and inaudible pleadings, the march paid for by the government has always been mired in the obligatory nature of ‘volunteering,’ of the list, of the disease of hypocrisy and ignorance … People took pictures with them, because there was no one who at the time was suspicious of the actions of Otero Alcántara, who with his work has challenged the Cuban regime on countless occasions.” 

In 2007, artist Raychel Carrión carried out a performance during the May Day Parade in Havana entitled “Flawed Origin.” In the video, we see Carrión slipping into the march in a brown t-shirt that made him stand out among the myriad marchers dressed in red. He proceeds to move extremely slowly, as if sleepwalking to dramatize a failure to conform with the dynamic of the crowd. Some people just pass him by while others stare at him and laugh or shove him as they pass.

At one point, having fallen behind a large concentration of marchers, he positions himself in front of a large banner that says “The revolution is a fight for our dreams of justice” and continues to creep along while others look at him quizzically. Exposed now to the vigilance of security agents, Carrión is approached by plainclothes officers and guided away from the march for questioning. We hear someone off camera ask, “Why do you think that this could be seen negatively?” to which a security agent answers paternalistically as if talking to a child, “How can I explain? Here there are people who are … that have such a strong revolutionary fervor that they see this as a strong provocation, as counterrevolutionary, shouting orders against the system, you know?” The agent goes on to explain that fervent revolutionaries could take offense and become aggressive. He assures Carrión that he is not accused of anything and won’t be arrested but warns him that he will be stopped if he reaches the plaza.

Both Carrión and Otero Alcántara managed to use state-orchestrated political theater as a backdrop against which to articulate their respective critiques of institutional power and mindless consent. Their performances are signals from the counter-cultural spirit of a generation that grew up in the post-Communist era of political skepticism and scarcity. Sadly, the strategies deployed by these artists have been deemed too dangerous to be tolerated. Otero Alcántara is still in prison for insulting the flag in a performance, and Carrión relocated to Spain after graduating from the University of the Arts.

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