- The Washington Times - Monday, September 4, 2006

SANTIAGO DE CUBA, Cuba

Havana may hold Cuba’s political power, but this southeastern coastal city 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 Santiago de Cuba: Caribbean warmth and expressiveness, patriotism and fierce pride, a rich Afro-Cuban culture and soul-stirring 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, about 540 miles to the west.

Nationalism and loyalty to socialist ideals in the city, 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 Havana, 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 and to just shrug and laugh.

“A lot of people need a lot of things here,” said Kirenia Maldonado, 24, a single mother of two, listing everything from clothes to homes. “But we’re tough. We’ve been through a lot, and we’ll make it through more.”

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 the island’s capital in 1607.

Nevertheless, Santiago continued making history as the site of major land and naval battles during conflicts for independence from Spain, producing some of the island’s most revered leaders, including independence hero Antonio Maceo.

Rich history

Theodore Roosevelt and his Rough Riders fought the Battle of San Juan Hill on the outskirts of Santiago during the 1898 U.S. intervention against Spanish forces.

The city also was the scene of the 1953 attack on the Moncada army barracks by a ragtag group of rebels led by Mr. Castro. The attack was a disaster for the rebels, leading to Mr. Castro’s arrest, but it was the spark for the revolution that culminated in the ouster of Fulgencio Batista’s government and Mr. 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.

Approached by a foreigner, the retired Mr. Rodriguez quotes from poems he has written for his beloved city. In one, he calls Santiago the world’s “eighth wonder” for its musical vitality, famous lighthouse and beautiful women. Another is devoted to street vendors, including an elderly man who flirts with his female customers.

Words are gold in Santiago, where those in the arts find joy in the act of expression.

“Am I romantic? Even while sleeping,” said Sevyi Vaillant, 67, a singer of sentimental ballads called boleros.

Mr. Vaillant lives in Havana but comes from Guantanamo at the eastern end of Cuba and frequently visits relatives in Santiago. On his most recent visit, he stopped by the Casa de las Tradiciones.

“Santiago is the Mecca for ‘son,’” said Mr. Vaillant, referring to the revival of traditional Cuban music in the 1990s by the Buena Vista Social Club. “This is the land of Compay Segundo.”

Mr. Segundo, a songwriter and performer well-known by fans of Cuban music, and other musicians from the original Buena Vista group such as 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, Mr. Vaillant said.

“Because [Havana’s] the capital, it’s where you have to go. But the soul of the music, it’s from here,” he said.

African, French roots

Tradition peppers the cultural scene in Santiago, which has Cuba’s highest percentage of blacks and where Afro-Cuban roots are kept alive by folk 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 because of the 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.

The French influence in Santiago dates to the arrival from 1791 to 1804 of French settlers who fled Haiti as a half-million rebellious slaves chased out their white owners.

In Cuba, slaves accompanying their fleeing French owners mocked their masters’ ballroom-style dancing, putting it to percussion and creating one of the region’s distinctive dances — the Tumba Francesa, or French Drum.

This dance, recognized by the United Nations as a cultural patrimony, remains alive thanks to people like Andrea Quiala Benet, the great-great-granddaughter of a slave who lives just outside Santiago and leader of a group that performs the Tumba Francesa.

“It’s important to maintain because of the sacrifice made by our ancestors,” said Mrs. Quiala Benet, who learned the dance when she was 4 and is 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 after 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. Houses damaged by hurricanes over the years haven’t been repaired, and Santiago residents jam onto the backs of big trucks to get around the city.

Daisy Gonzalez daydreams about life in Havana. She has several relatives there but says she has never had enough money to make the 12-hour drive by car — an even longer trip by bus or train.

“They live better there than in Santiago,” the unemployed 59-year-old said. “They have more things to do, more food.”

But others, including Mr. Rodriguez, the poet, say they will never leave.

“I am from Holguin,” he said, referring to another city in eastern Cuba. “But Santiago, it has won me over completely.”

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