La Cuba del Espiritu Cubano
Educational Program

Santiago de Cuba

click to enlargeSantiago de Cuba, also known as the City of Heroes or City of Giants, is an overwhelming city for exploring and learning about the culture & history.  It rises to the forefront of Cuban history several times:  It was Cuba's capitol from 1516 to 1607.  In 1898, the U.S. attacked a weakened Spanish army and navy here.  Along the coast, near Uvreo there is a ship wreck from one battle.  North of the center of Santiago is statue, monument, and plague festooned San Juan Hill, made famous by Under-Secretary's of the Navy Teddy Roosevelt's Roughriders' uphill charge against the Spanish.  In the center of town are the Moncada Barracks click to enlarge where Fidel and 125 militants made an ill fated attacked on December 26, 1953.  Few of the attackers survived. Fidel was captured, stood trial and was sentenced to 15 years in prison, though he was granted amnesty in 1955.  He left for Mexico, only to return to Eastern Cuba a little over a year later, and the rest is history.

While there is no great admiration on the part of the Cuban revolution, for the American victory over the Spanish in 1898, they don't seem to be trying to rewrite history.  A case in point is San Juan Hill, which is decorated with a half dozen monuments, most erected by US organization, that honor the U.S. forces that fought there. They are well maintained and have not been vandalized.  Had it not been for the Cuba joining in to help the Americans the outcome and course of the islands history might have been different.

Our lodging in Santiago was in as austere soviet designed, cement slab, 17 story apartment block -- probably more accurately a condominium.  What the exterior lacked in character the vertical society in the buildings made up for and was particularly interesting.  

Stories about bizarre situations in Cuban housing are endless.  Because there is no real estate market as such and there is a housing shortage in all urban areas there are stories of small families living in large mansions, large families crammed into a few rooms, divorced couples still sharing the same room, each with a new spouse because no one can find any alternatives.  Ironically, an effort to create a more equal distribution of wealth has created some pronounced inequalities -- though probably no where near as extreme as they would be had there been no revolution.

The building we stayed in was no exception to this rule of diversity.  There were units that were immaculate and very middle class, with TVs, stereos, microwaves, telephones and various other modern conveniences.  Other units were bare bones.  Some units seem to always have people spilling out the front door and other units were empty enough that they could get a license and rent rooms to guest.  None of the common areas seemed to be very well kept or lighted.  These areas and the stair wells also served as playgrounds for kids.  And, the elevators only stopped at every other floor.

The interaction between adults, including complete strangers, was always open, friendly and seemingly flirtatious. For various reason, I seemed to spend an inordinate amount of my short stay here going up and down stairs or elevators with our male Cuban hosts, who were also visitors to Santiago.  Rarely did they pass anyone or ride the elevator without a greeting or a conversation, if there was time, especially if they were female.  One of the aspects of the interactions, which would have been considered "hitting on" someone in the U.S., was the women were "hitting" back and cruising the guys bodies with their eyes just as hard.  And this is Cuba -- if anyone got bent out of shape over it it was never apparent.  Everyone seemed to keep getting a big laugh out of it.

Santiago is a very walkable city.  The narrow streets give it a lot of charm and the are a lot of cultural and historic way points to add to the interest: Parque de Cespedes, central cathedral, Casa de Diego Velaquez (oldest house), museums, plazas, etc.

click to enlargeDowntown Santiago seems to have more advertising signs, more commercialism, more affluence and more elegance than downtown Havana.  This was explained to us in terms of its distance from Havana, which separated it some from the heart, furry, passion and oversight of the Revolution and, a fierce independent streak.  Santiago has been able to maintain more of its pre-revolution values, ways and culture.

click to enlargeAn example of this is the Bacardi's.  The Bacardi's, of Bacardi Rum fame are from Santiago.  Before the revolution they had the reputation of being fair employers and generous benefactors to the city.  One of the main museums in town was built by a member of the family and bears the family name.  Not immediately, but a few years after the revolution, the government appropriated the rum factory and most of the family's property and the Bacardi family moves off the island.  There is still animosity between the family and the government, but the family is still held in high regard by the people of Santiago.

click to enlarge click to enlarge click to enlargeWe paid an evening visit to a Santaria Priest, viewed his shrine and learned about the Santaria religion, one of Cuba's afro-Cuban religions.  Santaria mixes elements of West African religion and Christianity.  The shrine we visited had statuettes, photos, flowers, candles, Christmas tree lights, bottles, masks, bottles, dolls, jewelry and other symbolic pieces.  The panels on both sides had nine unique pictures, without many common elements.  When asked the priest said that the pictures were inspired, they didn't represent anything in particular, but each had a specific purpose.  As best we could understand the priest works as we might expect a doctor to.  People come to him with their physical, spiritual and emotional illnesses.  With a combination of prayer, counseling, herbs and medicine he attends to their illnesses and woes.  

At the edge of town is Santa Efigenia Cemetery.  Where the remains of the Cuban national heroes Jose Marti and Cespedes remains lie in  mausoleums here.

click to enlargeTwelve miles northwest of Santiago in an emerald mountain valley (so long as you can't see the industrial side of town,) is El Cobre, an old copper mining town, now largely out of the copper business.  The mainstay of the economy now seems to be Satuario el Cobre and the La Virgen de la Caridad (Virgin of Charity), an 18-inch mulatta virgin with the golden robe. 

On some Sunday mornings, girls who are celebrating their quinces, the Latin version of a sweet 16, come here to pay their respects. Wearing makeup, a flowing white dress and flowers in their upswept hair, they could easily be mistaken for young brides.  Cuba may be a communist island but many people grow up believing in the powers of La Virgen de la Caridad.

People from all over Cuba and around the world make pilgrimages here. The Virgin of Charity has been called upon for protection by all types of the island's people, whether revolutionary leaders, guerrilla rebels, atheist or even rafters. The faithful have flocked here bearing and leaving medals, models and diplomas, jewelry and crutches. They come to give thanks, ask for favors or pray for success. There are display cases, tables and walls full of every manner of memento that has been left for the virgin so that their prayers will be answered.

Offerings include a plastic bag full of fingernail clippings left by a grateful engineering student, athletes' medals and an egg-sized kidney stone. Other devotees have left a Florida license plate, pastel-colored baby clothes, braids of hair, ballet slippers, table tennis paddles, handcuffs, photos -- anything to repay the virgin's benevolent intervention. Notes are posted for successful medical operations or good grades on university exams. 

The virgin's popularity is magnified by the fact that practitioners of Santeria also adore her. To them she represents Ochun, the sensual deity identified with rivers and love.

Scholars disagree in the details of her discovery, but legend has it that La Virgen de la Caridad was found floating in the stormy waters of the nearby Bay of Nipe in the 1600's by two brothers and a slave boy. In one arm she carried a mulatto baby Jesus and in the other a jewel-encrusted cross. Her wooden base was inscribed with the words, "Yo soy la Virgen de la Caridad," ("I am the Virgin of Charity"). Some say she had been cast into the ocean some 100 years before her discovery by an Indian chieftain who wanted to protect her from other indigenous chiefs. Versions of the story go on to say the virgin saved the youths from certain death in the churning storm. 

The shrine, of course, has spun a small army of artisans and vendors who hawk small wooden replicas of the virgin and thrust sunflower and rose bouquets at unsuspecting visitors, hoping to make a few dollars in this slow tourist season. But for most a visit to El Cobre is a sacred event born of need and faith and reverence.

Also in El Cobra, but largely over looked, is the powerful Monument el Cimarron (monument to freed slavery), screaming its message at the sky.  It sits on a mountain half dug away by the jaws of a copper mining machine.  The installation includes skulls, anguished people, broken chains and other strong images.

The truth in packaging award goes to Refineria!  It is the name of a town just west of Santiago, that as the name implies, is dominated by a refinery.  It doesn't appear to be using the latest technology in particulate and odor control devices.  I would hate to live in the area but I had to chuckle about their honesty.

click to enlargeAs if this weren't enough, Santiago is also rich in cultural centers and music venues.  Depending upon the day of the week different venues are active and different kinds of traditional Cuban music is available.

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