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HAVANA (Reuters) - A red-tinged sea of Cubans marched through Havana's Revolution Square on Tuesday in a May Day parade that affirmed the government's intention of assuring a communist future for the Caribbean island.
With President Raul Castro looking on from beneath a giant statue of Cuban independence hero Jose Marti, hundreds of thousands of workers wearing red shirts and waving red flags filed through the vast plaza where Cuba holds its biggest political rallies.
The theme for this year's parade was signaled early when the first row of marchers carried a sign that said "Preserve and Perfect Socialism," which has become the mantra of Cuba's aging leaders.
Raul Castro, 80, has launched a series of reforms encouraging more private initiative and reducing state dominance of the fragile Soviet-style economy put in place after Cuba's 1959 revolution.
He has said his goal is not to replace communism but to take steps to strengthen it for the future.
Lest the message was not clear, the national television broadcast of the parade focused on a sign that read "To Capitalism We Will Never Return."
In the heavily orchestrated event, workers carried pictures of former Cuban leader Fidel Castro, his revolutionary comrade Ernesto "Che" Guevara and Marxist heroes such as Vladimir Lenin and Frederick Engels.
The words "Unity and Victory" and "Long Live the Socialist Revolution" were flashed across the television screen.
Fidel Castro, who is 85 and led the country for 49 years before stepping down in 2008, did not attend the parade for the sixth straight year. The president's older brother has said he cannot endure long periods under the tropical island's intense sun.
President Castro, who wore a straw hat against the sun, waved and smiled at the marchers but did not speak, leaving that to Communist Party official and labor leader Salvador Valdes Mesa.
He talked of the need for greater productivity from Cuban workers and the importance of the economic reforms to communism's future.
"The revolution and socialism are fused," Valdes said. "Unity will be the key to preserve and consolidate the nation and the economic and social conquests (of the revolution)."
The reforms include plans to slash a million jobs from the government's bloated payrolls and, in a break from the past, to encourage people to start their own small businesses.
The country of 11 million people now has more than 371,000 people working for themselves, according to government figures.
As they did last year, some of the self-employed, or "cuenta propistas" as they are known in Cuba, marched in Monday's parade alongside the state workers who make up most of the island's labor force.
Cuba's May Day celebration always brings in labor leaders from around the world, including 1,800 from more than 100 countries this year, the master of ceremonies for the parade said.
One of them, Leonardo Lagarde of Uruguay, explained the attraction.
"This is the Mecca. We dream of coming on May 1 to celebrate with the Cubans, who are the light in the road for the rest of Latin America," he said before joining the parading masses.
A Cuban doctor, Angel Felipe, agreed.
"To be here today is an honor. It's a pride and a commitment that we should all have," he said.
Additional reporting by Rosa Tania Valdes; Editing by Tom Brown and Bill Trott