By Vanessa Arrington | The Associated Press
Havana may hold Cuba’s political power but Santiago de Cuba has a grip on the island’s soul.
Although it lost its role as the island’s capital early in the 17th century, much that defines Cuba springs from this southeastern coastal city: Caribbean warmth and expressiveness, patriotism and fierce pride, a rich Afro-Cuban culture and soul-stroking music.
The de-facto capital of the island’s eastern half - “the other Cuba” - cannot be ignored by Communist Party leaders working to assert their ideological influence from Havana, 535 miles to the west.
Nationalism and loyalty to socialist ideals in the city, the site of some of the most pivotal events in Cuba’s history, will be crucial as Havana strives to keep Fidel Castro’s system alive after the ailing 80-year-old leader is gone.
Like their compatriots in the capital, the people of Santiago say they are short on cash and food, and their daily struggles with housing, transportation and employment are daunting. But they are known for an ability to see the positive, to find refuge in the arts, to just shrug and laugh.
“A lot of people need a lot of things here,” said Kirenia Maldonado, a 24-year-old single mother of two youngsters, listing everything from clothes to homes. “But we’re tough. We’ve been through a lot, and we’ll make it through more.”
A rich history
Founded as Cuba’s capital by Spanish conquistador Diego Velazquez in 1515, Santiago has survived pirate attacks, earthquakes and hurricanes. Yet its importance faded as attention moved westward and Havana became capital in 1607.
Nevertheless, Santiago continued making history as the site of major land and naval battles in fights for independence from Spain, producing some of the island’s most revered leaders, including independence hero Antonio Maceo.
Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders fought the Battle of San Juan Hill on the outskirts of Santiago during the U.S. intervention in 1898 against Spanish forces.
A half century later, the city was the scene of the 1953 attack on the Moncada army barracks by a ragtag group of rebels led by Castro. The attack was a disaster for the rebels, leading to Castro’s arrest, but it was the spark for the revolution that culminated in the ouster of Fulgencio Batista’s government and Castro’s rise to power in 1959.
The city is “heroic and rebellious. Also friendly and humble,” said Manuel Rodriguez, 68, who has lived here 45 years. “Santiago is Cuba’s second-largest city, but it has the idiosyncrasies of a small town.”
The main thoroughfares are wide, but there is a coziness to the city, tucked between a bay and the lush, soaring mountains of the Sierra Maestra. Parks and plazas fill the center, where the pace is slow and temperatures are boiling.
Famed for their hospitality, residents offer their homes, and hours of conversation, to visiting strangers. They seem more open, less self-conscious, than people in Havana.
Approached by a foreigner, the retired Rodriguez quotes from poems he’s written for his beloved city. In one, he calls Santiago the world’s “eighth wonder” for its musical vitality, its iconic lighthouse, its beautiful women. Another is devoted to street vendors, including an elderly man who flirts with his female customers.
City of passion and art
Words are gold in Santiago, where those in the arts find joy in the pure act of expression.
“Am I romantic? Even while sleeping,” said Sevyi Vaillant, a singer of boleros, or sentimental ballads.
Vaillant lives in Havana but hails from Guantanamo at the eastern end of Cuba and frequently visits relatives in Santiago. This night, he has stopped by the Casa de las Tradiciones, wearing white silk pants and a straw hat.
“Santiago is the mecca for ‘son,’” said the 67-year-old Vaillant, referring to the traditional Cuban music revived in the 1990s by the Buena Vista Social Club. “This is the land of Compay Segundo.”
Segundo and other vintage performers from the original Buena Vista group like Ibrahim Ferrer, also a Santiago native, have died in recent years. But many of today’s best musicians performing in Havana still come from eastern Cuba, Vaillant said.
“Because it’s the capital, it’s where you have to go. But the soul of the music, it’s from here,” he said.
Tradition peppers the cultural scene in Santiago, which has Cuba’s highest percentage of blacks and where Afro-Cuban roots are kept alive by folkloric dance and music groups.
African drumbeats and timeless lyrics drift out of a balconied building off the central Parque Cespedes, where the internationally known Cutumba dance troupe practices. Its 52 members sweat for hours as they weave together the threads of centuries of French, Haitian and other Caribbean influences.
Caribbean flair is more evident in Santiago than Havana, given the eastern city’s proximity to Jamaica, Haiti and the Caribbean Sea. Havana has more of a Spanish feel.
“Every region has its influences, its way of being. Even in the dancing - here there are a lot of shoulder movements; in Havana it’s more torso,” said Idalberto Bandera, Cutumba’s artistic and general director.
Roots in dance
The French influence in Santiago dates back to the arrival of French settlers who fled Haiti as a half million rebellious slaves chased out their white owners from 1791 to 1804.
In Cuba, slaves from the era mocked the ballroom-style dancing of their French owners, putting it to percussion and creating one of the region’s distinctive dances, the Tumba Francesa, or French Drum.
The tradition, recognized by the United Nations as cultural patrimony, remains alive thanks to people like Andrea Quiala Benet, the great-great-granddaughter of a slave just outside Santiago and leader of a group still performing the dance.
“It’s important to maintain because of the sacrifice made by our ancestors,” said Quiala Benet, who learned the dance when she was 4 and is now teaching her toddler grandson to play the drums.
This rich and multilayered tradition is as much a part of Santiago as the day-to-day scarcities still common in cities far from Havana, the seat of political and economic power.
Santiago residents say the severe economic hardship of the 1990s following the Soviet Union’s collapse began to ease in recent years, but they still scrape for enough food and money.
Former professors drive taxis, and men beyond retirement age hover in the city center hoping to pick up change for guarding parked cars.