Basic History of Santiago de Cuba

Founded by the Spaniards in 1514, Santiago was the capital of Cuba from 1524 to 1549.

Cuba’s first cathedral was built there as early as 1528, and Santiago de Cuba actually served as the island’s capital until 1589.

At the centre of the new Spanish colony in the 16th and early 17th centuries, Santiago de Cuba was the capital of Cuba until it was usurped by Havana in 1607.

Because of its deep natural harbour and Caribbean coast, it was also the centre of the island’s prosperous slave trade in the 1700s and 1800s.

In 1898, the surrender of Spain to the United States took place in Santiago, but the city then gradually slipped to second-class status after the government moved to Havana.

The city began its multicultural boom with the influx of slaves from West Africa, bringing their own cultural practices and slowly blending them with those of the Spanish over the decades.

The sense that Santiago is a melting pot of cultures only increased in the late 1700s, with an influx of British and French immigrants seeking refuge in other Caribbean islands.

Cultural influences came mainly from Haiti, Jamaica, Barbados and Africa.

Today, Santiago is the only official “Hero City” on the island, revered as a bastion of Cuban nationalism and the cradle of the Revolution.

It was here, on July 26, 1953, that the Revolution began with the failed assault by Castro and his rebels on the garrison of the Moncada, then Cuba’s second largest military post.

“It was also here that Castro accepted the surrender of Batista’s army in 1959.

This is also where Castro’s ashes were finally buried after his death in 2016.

The town’s motto is “Rebelde Ayer, Hospitalaria Hoy, Heroico Siempre” – Rebellious yesterday, hospitable today, heroic forever.

The city was badly damaged by Hurricane Sandy in 2012, losing most of its trees as well as many buildings, but subsequent repairs and a facelift to celebrate its 500th anniversary in 2015 mean that the centre is now attractive again.

The slower pace of development that followed has undeniable advantages.

Travelling some 20 kilometres along the coast in both directions from the provincial capital, you find yourself on another planet of rugged coves, breaking waves, historic coffee plantations and emerald hills where endemism is rampant.

Cuba’s true cultural capital?

This is a point that Havana would dispute, yet when you go to Santiago de Cuba, you might argue that the city is the true capital of Cuban culture.

There are things that are considered to be typically Cuban that actually began in Santiago de Cuba.

Some people say that the sound (which was the precursor of salsa) started in the Sierra Escambray mountains on the other side of the country, and others suggest that the music that gave birth to salsa really took off in Santiago de Cuba, popularized by African influences that were more present in the city than in other parts of the country.

Whatever story you choose to believe, there is no denying that your trip to Santiago de Cuba will be marked by a memorable soundtrack.

Music abounds during the city’s annual carnival (which sends the city into a frenzy in the second half of July – avoid it if you’re in the mood for rest and relaxation).

There are also an impressive number of concerts in different places in the city.

Don’t miss the Casa de la Trova to listen to exceptional music that showcases the different styles for which the city is famous.

Music in Santiago de Cuba

The passion of the people of Santiago for music dates back to the very foundation of the city.

From the first centuries of colonization, music from Spain and that of African slaves were linked: drums and rattles were added to vihuelas and guitars to create new sounds and rhythms, typical of cultural crossbreeding.

Although the verified existence of the Sound begins in the twilight of the nineteenth century, many claim that the Sound of the Ma’Teodora was played in Santiago de Cuba at the end of the sixteenth century and was the starting point of a long musical evolution in the rural areas of eastern Cuba.

Later, this rhythm would spread throughout the country and become the musical genre that best represents Cuban idiosyncrasy and culture.

The Sound

The trovador takes his guitar and sings to the woman, to the country, to love.

The lyrics of the traditional trova songs have a literary intention that generally takes on more importance than the melody itself, although they are inseparable.

Artists of the stature of Pepe Sánchez and Sindo Garay are among the most talented and expressive authors and performers.

The trova does not escape the cultural crossbreeding, it is above all the fruit of it.

UNESO World Heritage Sites

Santiago de Cuba has the distinction of being the only province in Cuba that has three of the ten properties recognized by UNESCO as World Heritage to date.

These are the Castle of San Pedro de la Roca and the Archaeological Landscape of the First Coffee Plantations of South-East Cuba, both declared in the category of cultural property in 1997 and 2000 respectively, and the Tumba Francesa, “La Caridad de Oriente”, classified as intangible property in 2003.

La Tumba Francesa

The Tumba francesa “La Charité d’Orient” was declared World Heritage by UNESCO in the category of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2003.

It arrived in Cuba with Haitian slaves, who were transferred to the eastern part of the country after the revolts that shook Haiti in 1790.

It is an authentic tradition that continues today, born of the fusion of the rhythms and songs of Dahomeyan Africa (Niger, Congo and Benin) with the French dances of the Caribbean, part of the best heritage of their slave ancestors and slave owners who bear witness to one of the most significant historical events of colonial America: the Haitian Revolution.

The Tumba Francesa originated in the eighteenth century, when French masters allowed their slave endowments to have fun at the time of the French Revolution.

It is called “tumba” because it has a rhythmic base given by the African drums, and “French” because the slave, owned by the French colonists, appropriated the dances, song lyrics and elements of the masters’ clothing, with a great sense of refinement.

Among its peculiarities is the harmonious combination of the elegance of the French dance, the liturgy of African religious beliefs, the lyricism of the songs and the sound of the drum beats or the tombs, instruments carefully made according to the indigenous techniques of the communities that cultivate the French tumba and that have been handed down from father to son for centuries.

History of Santiago de Cuba’s Carnival

Santiago’s cultural complexity makes the July carnival one of the largest and most authentic in the Caribbean, with a kaleidoscope of costumes, numerous food stalls and enough music and noise to summon the dead.

Unlike most Latin American carnivals, the annual feast of Santiago de Cuba has not developed around a Lenten celebration of deep religious significance.

Rather, it was an amalgam of several days of entertainment and diversion called mamarrachos, which fell around the time of the feasts of St. John on June 24th or St. Anne’s Day on July 26th (but had no other religious significance)These festivities allowed the workers to stop after the sugarcane harvest period from January to May.

At one time they were even called “festivales de las clases bajas” (festivities of the lower classes).

The Spanish authorities tolerated these festivities as a means of distracting the poor from other, more serious forms of rebellion, and the carnival soon became synonymous with debauchery and scandal.

With a delicious touch of modern irony, Carnival now culminates in the Día de la Rebeldía Nacional (26 July), which honours Cuba’s most famous (though abortive) rebellion: the assault on the Moncada barracks.

Santiago de Cuba’s carnivals flourished at the end of the nineteenth century, although the people of the time only knew them as mamarrachos: a synonym for festivities where anything goes.

History of Basilica del Cobre

The history of Santiago de Cuba would be incomplete without going back to the emergence and foundation of the city of Santiago del Prado, today El Cobre, a place where the exploitation of copper deposits has a tradition of more than 480 years.

It was here that the cult of the Virgin of Charity was born among black slaves and Indians.

After seeing her in the waters of the Bay of Nipe, she followed a long path to the mining town, whose highest point is home to the Basilica and Sanctuary, where today the most important image of the Patron Saint of Cuba is venerated.

The virgin dates from the early 1600s, when three men in a boat first saw her floating on the water during a storm.

Tradition has it that the Virgin saved one of the men from certain drownings.

Records show that the statue was most likely brought from Spain by order of the governor of Cuba at the time,Millions of followers believe she has miraculous powers…

Her image has also been mixed with that of Ochún, the orisha, or goddess of love in the religion of Santería.

El Cobre is also a symbol of the cimarronaje and the fights for freedom, because by real map from the beginning of 1800, the slaves of this region were considered free.

Every year in September, pilgrims come here, sometimes crawling or kneeling on the feast of the Virgin (8 September) to pay homage to their image housed in a glass case above the main altar.

Its shrine is filled with gifts from the faithful, including one from Ernest Hemingway in 1954, who gave his Nobel Prize medal, won in large part for his novel The Old Man and the Sea.

The Nobel Medal was stolen in 1986 but recovered.

It is no longer on display, except on special occasions.

A staircase at the back of the cathedral leads to the chapel containing the wooden image of the Virgin.

In front of the cathedral, there is a plaque commemorating the visit of Paul II here during his trip to Cuba in 1998.

The Cuartel Moncada

The attack took place on July 26, 1953.

It was carnival time in Santiago; the streets were full of revellers and Castro had hoped that security would be relaxed.

Unfortunately, his hopes were dashed and the rebels were either killed or captured.

Castro, who fled to the mountains, was eventually captured, tried and imprisoned on Isla la Juventud, off the southern coast of western Cuba.

Although unsuccessful, this attack symbolizes the beginnings of Castro’s revolution.

He wrote his famous speech “La historia me absolverá” (“History will absolve me”), which was smuggled out of prison, printed and distributed throughout the island.

Although luck was not on his side in 1953, it was certainly on his side in 1955, when Batista granted freedom to many political prisoners.

Castro left for the United States, where he began to solicit support for his 26th July Movement (named after the unfortunate attack on the barracks) to rid Cuba of Batista’s regime.

From there, he took his cause to Mexico.

In 1956, barely a year after his release from prison, Castro made his historic voyage from Mexico to Cuba aboard the Granma.

The barracks were converted into a school called Ciudad Escolar 26 de Julio, and in 1967 a museum was set up near Gate 3, where the main attack took place.

As Batista’s soldiers had cemented the original bullet holes from the attack, Castro’s government rebuilt them (this time unarmed) years later as a poignant reminder.

The museum (one of the best in Cuba) contains a model of the barracks, as well as interesting and sometimes macabre artifacts, diagrams and models of the attack, its planning and consequences.

Perhaps the most moving, perhaps, are the photographs of the 61 people who fell at the end of the attack.

The first barracks on this site was built by the Spanish in 1859, and is actually named after Guillermón Moncada, a fighter in the War of Independence who was held prisoner here in 1874.

El Castillo del Morro

The fort was designed in 1587 by the famous Italian military engineer Juan Bautista Antonelli (who also designed forts La Punta and El Morro in Havana and San Juan, Puerto Rico) to protect Santiago from the pirates who had managed to plunder the city in 1554.

Due to financial constraints, construction work did not begin until 1633 (17 years after Antonelli’s death) and continued sporadically for the next 60 years.

In the meantime, British privateer Henry Morgan ransacked and partially destroyed the town in 1662.

It was then and rebuilt between 1690 and 1710.

El Morro has an elaborate labyrinth of drawbridges, moats, passageways, stairs and barracks, all executed with wonderfully precise esquinas and geometric beauty – many people think it is more impressive than the fort in Havana.

Its dark and damp interior cells, with their built-in iron chains, once housed African slaves in transit.

A small chapel still contains a wooden cross carved by a 16th century Spanish artist.
Look for the machine that was used to transport the powerful stone balls from the store to the cannon above.

The enormous batteries, bastions, stores and walls of El Morro have hardly served their true purpose.

With the era of piracy in decline, the fort was converted into a prison in the 1800s and remained so – with the exception of a brief interlude during the Spanish-Cuban-American War of 1898 – until Cuban architect Francisco Prat Puig drew up a restoration plan in the late 1960s.

Today the fort houses the Museo de Piratería, with another room dedicated to the Spanish-American naval battle that took place in the bay in 1898.

The fort, like Havana, holds a daily cañonazo (cannon firing) ceremony at sunset, during which the actors dress up as Mambises.

Declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1997, it is the largest, most complete and best-preserved example of Renaissance military engineering in the Caribbean.

Consisting of a complex of forts, stores, bastions and batteries, it was erected on top of a rocky promontory, making the most of the rugged terrain.

It recreates the different historical periods it witnessed, thus confirming its great historical, architectural and environmental value; for example: the development of the Hispanic fortification system in the Caribbean.

Loma de San Juan

There are several sculptures in the park: one depicts the American soldier, in full uniform and with period weapons, and another depicts the Mambi soldier.

There is also a monument dedicated to the courage and honor of the Spanish soldier.

The future American president Teddy Roosevelt forged his reputation on this small hill where, flanked by immortal rugged cavalrymen, he would have led a fearless cavalry charge against the Spaniards to seal a famous American victory.

In reality, it is doubtful that Roosevelt even rode his horse to Santiago, when the supposedly helpless Spanish garrison – ten times more numerous – managed to hold more than 6,000 American soldiers for 24 hours.

Guns, trenches and numerous American monuments, including a bronze cavalryman, enhance this classroom garden, while the only recognition of a Cuban presence is the rather discreet monument of the unknown soldier Mambí.

Cementerio Santa Ifigenia

The necropolis was inaugurated in February 1868 and was declared a National Monument on May 19, 1979, the date that coincided with the death of the national hero José Martí.

It has an area of about 9.

5 hectares and some 10,000 tombs.

The remains of many patriots and artistic personalities are buried here.

In addition to its spiritual values, the cemetery has the artistic value of funerary constructions with stylistic tendencies marked by the period of construction, showing a wide range of styles that blend into the whole cemetery, which is considered an open-air museum.

The Rebels of the Attack on the Moncada Barracks the graves of Carlos Manuel de Céspedes and the 38 rebels who died in the attack on the Moncada barracks, in a special wall right at the entrance to the cemetery.

The Tomb of José Marti (1853-1895). It is worth waiting for the changing of the guard every half hour, accompanied by martial music.

Many visitors come to pay homage to the quasi-religious mausoleum of the national hero José Martí (1853-95).

Erected in 1951 during the Batista era, the imposing hexagonal structure is positioned in such a way that Martí’s wooden coffin (solemnly draped with a Cuban flag) receives daily rays of sunlight.

This is in response to a remark made by Martí in one of his poems that he would like to die not like a traitor in the dark, but with his face turned towards the sun.

The marble vault bears on the outside the figures of six women bearing the symbols of the Cuban provinces of the time.

In the mausoleum is buried soil from each of the Latin American countries inspired by Martí to help in the struggle for independence.

The guard of the mausoleum, which operates 24 hours a day, is replaced every 30 minutes, with great pomp and ceremony.

The Tomb of Fidel Castro

The remains of the legendary leader were buried there on 5 December 2016 following a procession across the country that retraced the 1959 revolutionaries’ victorious march.

Although the funeral took place early in the morning and was closed to the public, thousands of people gathered outside the cemetery gates and sang the national anthem after a 21-gun salute broke the morning silence.

A huge round rock with Castro’s ashes inside bears a simple black plaque with a single word – “Fidel”.

Other Personalities

The cemetery is also the final resting place of many other famous people, including:

  • Carlos Manuel de Céspedes
  • Emilio Bacardí (1844-1922)
  • Compay Segundo of the Buena Vista Social Club (1907-2003)
  • First President of Cuba
  • Tomás Estrada Palma (1835-1908)
  • Many of the supporters who fought in Angola & Southern Africa
  • María Grajales, widow of independence hero
  • Antonio Maceo
  • Mariana Grajales, Maceo’s mother…
  • 11 of the 31 generals of the independence struggles
  • The father of Cuban independence, Carlos Manuel de Céspedes (1819-74)

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