Cuba’s Cockfighters Resist Police Ban

From Mayari, Holguin

By Osmel Ramirez Alvarez   (Photos: Reynaldo La O)

HAVANA TIMES — We ordinary Cubans have very few entertainment options left, in spite of the fact that statistics show the national market being second after Canada at Cuban tourist facilities. Tourism and the few other options that exist, remain exclusively for the elite. For thousands of people in Mayari, just like across the nation, cockfighting is one of the few forms of entertainment that exist here; but it has been illegal since the Revolution’s early years.

The ban had and still has to do with betting money. The Cuban system began with the idea (which is only kept in theory) that games, bets, raffles and the lottery were harmful because they created expectations of uncertain, random improvements, relating to luck and far-removed from personal efforts. However, they could never eliminate the cockfighting or lottery traditions here completely.

Ever since I was a child, when social control used to be three times more efficient than now, every once in a while we used to hear about the police chasing after breeders of fighting cocks and taking them to trial. Two or three year prison sentences were the norm.

Today, nobody is locked up for cockfighting or breeding them or secretly grooming them; but it’s still banned. People have even dared to build rustic pens in labyrinth-like ranches. These are almost always located on riverbeds or the edge of streams so they can sidestep their responsibility in these activities before the authorities, because legally-speaking, the landowner has no jurisdiction over the 10 meters from the shore. The amount of people who march along deer trails and narrow paths, on foot, motorbikes or small carts is incredible. All kinds of people, including professionals, teachers, doctors, engineers, etc. Cockfighting isn’t a marginal bad habit; it’s a kind of sport and tradition.

Relatively close-by to my home, for some years now, there is a pen for fighting cocks and during fight season, there are tournaments every Saturday. We’re in the middle of one right now. Normally, the police turn a blind eye so as not to put people out too much, as they have enough stress with Cuban socialism and its permanent crisis.

However, they do scare them from time to time, so that they don’t forget that it’s a banned activity. On Friday March 10th, a group of policemen went to the pen and burned it down, leaving messages in the area, mentioning “that no more illegal activities will be allowed here.”

They didn’t dare to do this on a Saturday so as to avoid greater confrontation. However, when everybody expected people to get frightened off, the complete opposite happened. Nobody was impressed by the police’s display of force. Just like always, hundreds of people put the pen back together with rustic materials that they had lying around or whatever was left from the fire. Motorbikes and small carts also offered their dangerous transportation services.

“I don’t know why the State has to get involved in this silliness, which doesn’t hurt them in any way. It’s the only fun we have on the weekend and they want to take it away from us, they might as well give us a rope to hang ourselves with,” a fighting cock breeder told me who was walking along with two others, his cock in his arms, in a special bag designed to carry them.

The other said, “Raul’s always liked cocks and cockfighting, why do they ban us from doing it? This isn’t fair. He has pens and his cocks are famous breeds; here people have to pay a lot of money for the cocks that come here from Biran, from Raul’s breed. Whenever he comes to visit, he even attends the fights, everybody knows it.”

I asked them if they were afraid that the police would come back and they told me: “If we become afraid of them, then they definitely will take this away from us. That’s why, if they break the pen, we’ll build it again, this is the only entertainment we have and we can’t lose it. Plus we aren’t hurting anybody, we’re only having a bit of fun to try and forget our own problems.”

It’s also worth noting that, in addition to betting, a kind of fair also forms around the pen: food sellers, soft drinks, sweets, sandwich and beer sellers also benefit; as well as the aforementioned transport drivers. It’s quite an event!

While it’s true that because this is an illegal activity and there aren’t any police around, fights sometimes break out; but it isn’t the main thing going on here, and it isn’t any worse than what happens at other fairs that do have police present.

Cockfighting seems especially awful to me and I hate to see how these animals get cruelly hurt, and sometimes the outcome is lethal. However, I am the exception here in my town, the majority of people love it and it’s a very deeply-rooted tradition. That’s why I respect it and, going beyond my own disapproval of the “sport”, I have also seen and denounced government’s injustice and hypocrisy.

Luck has come back, this time in the shape of a tournament, nearly the only way we have of understanding how a better life in Cuba came about or could come about: making a plan is useless, much less a logical plan, based on personal efforts.

What difference is there between lotteries and, for example, betting everything on emigrating and reaching the US alive by dodging sharks and mafias? Or trusting a foreign partner which “you fought for,” praying he isn’t a human trafficker or organ seller. Or putting all your hopes on a family member leaving Cuba and that they won’t forget you, so you can get remittances. Or the hope you get chose at work to go on a mission abroad and while you’ll still be doing semi-slave work, earn a little more than you would here in Cuba. Or being lucky and your company becomes a joint venture company which pays a bonus, and other things like this, which are almost always related with “foreigners”.

Within this context, it’s very hypocritical to criminalize a tradition by referring to the harmfulness of chance and much less certain moral values which were lost by the Cuban system’s politics a long time ago (they have never argued against the cockfights because of empathy towards animals).

Still worse, it’s a practice which we all know is to our president’s liking and who engages in it in his free time. That’s why breeders of fighting cocks have taken a stand and fights continued every Saturday under the shadow of the promised police intervention hanging in the air.

  • Eden Wong

    I absolutely desist the dog fights that are so popular in Cuba and I do everything I can to make their life miserable. It’s disgusting.

    Cockfighting though… I have to admit… they’re only chickens and if they die (which is very rare these days) we eat them afterwards. And it’s one hell of a great party.

    Maybe that makes me a bad guy. Oh well…

  • Trish Hyatt

    Cock fighting is barbaric; saying it’s your only form of entertainment is a pathetic excuse for engaging in an activity that sees animals hurt, maimed or killed. My opinion.

    • Eden Wong

      Dear Trish,

      I hear you, but there’s two sides to (almost) every story.

      In terms of animal cruelty a cockfight doesn’t even make the top 1,000 truly horrible lives that animals lead in Cuba and in almost all developing countries all over the planet.

      One example of many… the countless Santeria sacrifices that happen every single day far outweigh the cockfight deaths by an incalculable number, making the cockfights statistically irrelevant, but I don’t see foreigners from developed countries screaming about them. No, you’re lined up for tours going to Santeria ceremonies to see the so-called “real” Cuba.

      In the US billions and billions and billions of chickens are raised commercially every year for slaughter that suffer lives that are much more horrible and cruel for every single day of their pathetic existence than what any cock in Cuba faces for its entire lifetime.

      I’m NOT saying cockfighting is fine. I’m only saying that your righteous indignation has to be tempered by perspective, that’s all.