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Cubans urged on May Day to work hard, resist critics

HAVANA (Reuters) - A sea of red-clad Cubans paraded through Havana’s Revolution Square on Saturday in a politically charged May Day celebration that urged rejection of international criticism of the island’s human rights policies and harder work to bolster socialism.

Hundreds of thousands of people, most in red shirts and many waving red flags, filed through the vast plaza where President Raul Castro and a podium full of dignitaries looked on from beneath a giant statue of national hero Jose Marti.

Absent for the fourth consecutive year was former leader Fidel Castro, who ruled Cuba for 49 years but has not been seen in public since undergoing intestinal surgery in July 2006.

Cuba billed the annual parade as a show of solidarity against condemnation from the United States and Europe for the February death of dissident hunger striker Orlando Zapata Tamayo, and the rough treatment of opposition group “Ladies in White” in recent protests.

It has portrayed U.S. and European reaction as part of a long campaign to discredit the communist-led government, whose leaders have been hammering that message home in state-run media and speeches to stir nationalist sentiment.

President Castro, wearing a straw hat and white guayabera shirt, did not speak to the gathered masses, but Communist Party official Salvador Valdes Mesa told them they were a bulwark against Cuba’s enemies.

Their attendance “reaffirmed their irreversible decision to defend and build socialism, as the most energetic and firm response to those who, from the centers of power of the United States and the European Union, backed by small groups of internal mercenaries, try to discredit us,” Valdes said.

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Echoing the main theme of Raul Castro’s presidency, he said the best way to fend off their enemies was to work harder and be more productive to help Cuba’s fragile economy.

“The economic battle -- we workers know that, as never before, it is vital work for preserving our social system. And to achieve it with success means everyone has to do his part,” said Valdes

The day’s core messages were underscored on television and on signs carried by parade participants and posted around the square.

“Those who stand up for Cuba stand up for all time against the lies, against the calumnies of the empire (United States) and the European Union,” said an announcer on the national broadcast of the parade.

“Unity, Strength and Victory” read one sign in the parade, while another said “Spend less and produce more.”

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If they were not subtle, marchers told Reuters they accurately reflected their pro-Cuba sentiment.

“They are defaming Cuba, and my duty was to come support the revolution,” said 44-year-old food worker Maritza Perez.

“The campaign against Cuba has radicalized us more and shown the weakness and impotence of yankee imperialism,” said Facundo Vergara, 72.

Cuba’s relations with the United States and Europe had warmed, especially after President Barack Obama took office last year, but have in recent months turned rocky again, mostly over the issue of human rights.

Also, Cuba’s detention since December of a U.S. contractor for alleged espionage activities has put the brakes on Obama’s attempts to recast U.S.-Cuban relations. Washington has said the contractor, Alan Gross, was in Cuba setting up Internet services for Jewish groups.

Additional reporting by Rosa Tania Valdes; editing by Todd Eastham