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Workers hit streets on May Day in Cuba

By David Ariosto, CNN
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Thousands mark May Day in Havana
  • Thousands of Cuban demonstrators, trade unionists gather from around world
  • "I am marching for Cuba and for the Cuban revolution," one Cuban marcher says
  • Cuba had billed march as rebuke to international criticism over human rights

Havana, Cuba (CNN) -- Thousands packed Havana's Revolution Square on Saturday for International Workers' Day, drawing hordes of Cuban demonstrators, spectators, and trade unionists from around the world -- including the United States and the United Kingdom.

"I've never seen anything like it," said Brian Hattsberger, a British labor unionist in attendance, wiping the sweat from his brow with his red labor hat. "It's just amazing."

For years, since Cuba's bearded revolutionaries toppled dictator Fulgencio Batista over half a century ago, residents have gathered in Havana on May 1 to listen to hours-long speeches from their former president, Fidel Castro.

The elder Castro made his last showing in 2006 before stepping down because of illness, at first temporarily and then permanently, leaving the reins to his younger brother, Raul.

Since then, neither Castro has made a major speech on May Day. This year was no different.

In a carefully choreographed show of force, thousands took to the streets, carrying placards with the faces of Che Guevara, Fidel Castro and Raul Castro, and waving Cuban flags as they sang and sweated beneath the hot Caribbean sun.

"I am marching for Cuba and for the Cuban revolution," said one Cuban marcher as she passed through the square.

Cuba had billed this year's march as a rebuke to international criticism from Europe and Washington over human rights issues recently bubbling up in the Communist nation.

In February, dissident Orlando Zapata Tamayo, who was jailed in 2003 during a crackdown on political opposition, died after a hunger strike that lasted for more than 80 days. He began the strike to demand better prison conditions.

In an unprecedented government statement, Raul Castro said he "lamented the death of Cuban prisoner Orlando Zapata Tamayo, who died after leading a hunger strike."

He blamed the United States for the death, but did not explain why.

"Tortured people do not exist," Castro added.

Recently, an opposition group that calls itself the "Ladies in White" -- made up of relatives of dissidents jailed in the 2003 crackdown -- has met recurring resistance from large groups of pro-government demonstrators, who surround the women and drown out their chants of "Freedom" with such phrases as "This street belongs to Fidel."

The women on occasion are detained briefly by police before being driven back to their homes.

Saturday marked the second International Workers' Day since U.S. President Obama took office. At the time of his election, Obama elicited a sense among many Cubans that they might finally see an end to the economic trade embargo that has been in place since the administration of President John F. Kennedy.

While Obama eased restrictions on small-ticket items such as family travel and telecommunications, and sent high-ranking envoys to Havana to foster fresh migration talks, broader discussions now appear at a standstill following a storm of criticism over Zapata's death and increasingly routine counter-demonstrations in support of the government that overpower the handful of weekly protests.

Saturday's May Day march began around 8 a.m. and lasted roughly two hours without incident.