HAVANA (Reuters) - For a second consecutive year Communist-run Cuba canceled its emblematic May Day march though Havana's Plaza de la Revolution Square on Saturday as it battles a surge in COVID-19 cases and a scarcity of basic goods.
Across the island, small groups of dignitaries gathered at abandoned squares that would usually be filled by crowds of banner-waving citizens marking International Workers Day, the country's most important holiday after Jan. 1, victory day of former leader Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution.
"Congratulations workers! It is monumental what has been done to survive the pandemic under a reinforced blockade and still move forward," President Miguel Diaz-Canel, who is also first secretary of the Communist party, wrote on Twitter.
Cuba's economy shrunk 11% last year under the weight of the coronavirus pandemic, harsh U.S. sanctions and its Soviet-style system.
The country has recorded more COVID-19 cases and deaths this year than in all of 2020, though the mortality rate remains among the best in the world and two homegrown vaccines are in final trials.
Ulises Guilarte de Nascimiento, head of the official and only trade union federation, said on state-run television on Friday that workers faced layoffs and inflation and some struggled to "meet their basic needs". He blamed U.S. sanctions and said hard work and greater efficiency would lead to better days.
Speaking on Saturday morning to a small group of national leaders gathered in front of the monument to independence hero Jose Marti in Revolution Square, he was defiant.
"We workers are aware that we are going through a complex and challenging scenario, but we also carry the conviction that Fidel taught us, that only those who fight, resist and do not give up have the right to succeed," he said.
State-run media urged citizens to turn their homes into squares and share their celebrations on social media. Small groups of workers rallied at some workplaces. People hung flags from balconies and played the national anthem.
"Today is a special day, a sad day, because in all this time of the pandemic we have lost valuable workers," Havana resident Enrique Tondique Domínguez said early Saturday at a small rally in front of the Mining and Energy Ministry.
"It is a happy day because it is May Day, but it is also a sad day because many workers are no longer with us," he said.
(Reporting by Marc Frank; Editing by Daniel Wallis)