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Posted July 24, 2003 by publisher in Cuban Culture

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SANTIAGO, Cuba (AP)—Fireworks and beer. Parades and beer. Dancing in the streets with beer—and rum. This is a whole different kind of communist party.

Cuba’s second city has been dancing through carnival for centuries, under colonialism, capitalism and—for most of the past 44 years—socialism.
Cuba owes a part of its world-famed music and some of its political history to the yearly celebrations.

Carnival has always been celebrated around July 25 for the Feast of Saint James—Santiago, in Spanish. This year, carnival extends to Sunday, July 27, in part due to the 50th anniversary celebration of Fidel Castro’s July 26th attack on the city’s Moncada Barracks on Saturday night.

Castro’s assault failed, but it launched the revolution that brought him to power in 1959. Castro hoped catch the fortress guards hung over from carnival binges—one of many times Cuban political movements have taken advantage of the event.

During Cuba’s 19th century independence struggles, rebels sometimes used the masks and chaos of the street celebrations to exchange messages beneath the noses of the Spanish colonial authorities, according to the city’s carnival Museum.

This year, hundreds of thousands of people throng the streets of Cuba’s oldest city to buy sandwiches carved from whole roast pigs, watch raucous nightly parades and dance to music blaring from bands and loudspeakers all over town.

And to drink beer, of course.

Bring your own cup, or buy one from the many vendors on the street, and a palm-roof beer stall will fill it from a large metal tank for about 12 cents.

Soviet-built tanker trucks of the sort used for hauling gasoline occasionally force their way through the crowd, park before the beer stalls and top up the tanks through a green plastic hose.

On Saturday, when festivities began, fireworks exploded in the air over the parade. It was unusually exciting because inadequate charges let the rockets burst low in the sky. Many fell, still burning, in the streets and yards of houses, where they were chased down by excited 12-year-old boys.

The usual socialist limits on private business are relaxed during carnival, so the streets are lined with people selling the traditional pork, as well as cookies, popcorn, corn-on-the-cob, fritters, fried chicken, cheap plastic toys, even electrical outlets.

Noisy, temporary nightclubs with thatched roofs, live singers and bouncers at the door spring up in the middle of residential streets.

For centuries, the Feast of Saint James was the only official day of rest for Santiago’s African slaves, who formed societies known as cabildos that marched through the streets in masks or costumes while dancing to African-style drumming that was often repressed at other times of the year.

The whole thing sometimes got out of hand, in the eyes of local officials.

As early as 1669, local authorities banned festivities, according to exhibits at the carnival Museum.

In 1743 the city paid some of the “mamarrachos’’ who paraded in masks, often as large papier-mache caricatures. But in 1815 it banned them.

“In addition to moral and physical damage caused by the mixing of classes (races), they take the liberty of insulting anybody with indecent songs and offensive sayings,’’ according to decree that year.

Slaves sometimes took advantage of the celebration to escape for the mountains.

Some of the current cabildos trace their histories at least back into the mid-19th century, such as the Isuama, whose members dress in colonial style clothing to mimic royalty and slaves, while performing old French dances to African drumming.

In the old days, companies or politicians often financed marchers and their costumes sometimes promoted rum or political parties. Since the revolution, the government has supplied cloth. Marchers sometimes have carried signs celebrating agrarian reform or the Moncada attack.

The rattles, maracas and drums of carnival helped nurture Afro-Cuban music that grew into son and salsa—though this year’s carnival seemed to include as much rap and Mexican pop—even a bit of Britney Spears—as traditional Cuban music.

“It’s what’s today for the youth,’’ said Jorge Rodriguez, as a Cuban rap song boomed from a nearby speaker.

Mariano Hernandez, who stood with friends clutching plastic beer mugs and watching the impromptu dancing in another street, offered another explanation:

“During carnival, when you’ve had the beer, you’ll dance to anything.’’

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