Isbel Diaz Torres
HAVANA TIMES, Dic 5 — The always interesting television program Como me lo contaron (The way I heard It), discussed the hot topic of cockfighting last week. Although this lucrative business is promoted by the Cuban state — which exports about 700 fighting birds annually — government involvement in this abusive practice was not the focus of the program.
In my view, this was another attempt to legitimize the violent practice.
Reviewing additional coverage in the Cuban press, I found several articles that defend this “sport” tooth and nail.
As almost always happens, their search for legitimacy requires finding a link between the glorious history of the island and whatever the theme in question. They managed to find several with cock fighting.
Historian Ciro Bianchi, who is interviewed each week on Como me lo contaron, reported that in 1956, Cuba had 500 cock fighting rings.
In addition, Bianchi recalled that the emblem of the Liberal Party carried the image of a “regal rooster” on a plow, and political figures such as Jose Miguel Gomez and Carlos Mendieta (both were presidents) were cock breeders and fighters (it seems he forgot to mention that the tyrant Fulgencio Batista was one as well).
Bianchi displayed his admiration for President Mendieta when he described how the former president once climbed on a stool in cock fighting ring while holding up his “killer bird” and shouting “Viva Cuba Libre! Viva Cuba Libre!”
For the journalist Lisanka Gonzalez of Granma International, “Cockfighting is one of the few activities that some peoples continue to practice from time immemorial as bastions of traditional culture,” according to an article from 2004.
“[Our nation’s] declaration of freedom and independence was delivered in a cock fighting ring on February 24, 1895 in the city of Bayamo, in the eastern part of the island, to a group of Cuban patriots who in this way initiated the War of Independence,” proudly illustrated Ramon R. Corona in the Pinar del Rio newspaper El Guerrillero.
I’m always suspicious when they start to invoke the “homeland,” “Cuban identity,” “bastions of traditional culture” and “declarations of independence.” There’s usually some manipulation behind all that, some reactionary idea they want to impose.
Historically, the issue of cockfighting has been used with subtlety and hypocrisy by politicians in office who either approved or prohibited the activity depending on the popular support it held at any given time.
On the television program, Bianchi explained how at the end of the War of Independence in 1898, a group of patriots (including Maximo Gomez, Manuel Sanguily and other political and culture figures) asked the US governor of the island to prohibit bullfighting and cockfighting.
Dominican-born Maximo Gomez believed, “This bloody spectacle was alien to modern culture.” Yet to Bianchi, for “a man who had seen so much war and so much blood, to display that reaction…” this was somewhat difficult to understand. Apparently the manhood of the Mambi leader should have distanced him from any show of feelings or a sense of decency.
It was the government of Jose Miguel Gomez that approved the law in support of cock fighting. The single dissenting vote was cast by Manuel Sanguily, who regarded such practices as contrary to the moral health of the people.
However, with the support of the corrupt politicians of the day, this business thrived. With the “advent of the free and independent republic,” as it was referred to in El Guerrillero (though I was always taught that these were puppet governments), some people were enriched by the heavy gambling involved, while many other families went broke.
The revolution closes the ring
The 1968 advance of the “revolutionary offensive” closed down all small private businesses, including cock fighting. Given its immorality, far from any sense of respect for animals, “revolutionary” banning was imposed against that “bastion of traditional culture,” according to the Granma article.
“Fighting birds were on the verge of disappearing, however the foresight of an authority, Guillermo Garcia Frias, plus the support of Celia Sanchez, stopped the threat that loomed over them,” according to Lisanka Gonzalez’s explanation of the return of the abusive practice.
Commander Guillermo Garcia Frias established the first state-run gamecock hatchery and in the mid-80’s the government decriminalized the fights. Strict regulations allowed the continuation of cock fighting under the control of the “Flora and Fauna Agency” (Spanish: Empresa de Flora y Fauna), though gambling was prohibited.
In other words, one can now kill roosters for human enjoyment freely and legally, but of course under the strict government control. Independent fight organizers and participants are usually fined between 1,500 and 3,000 pesos if they are caught at independent rings, with or without betting.
However, a good bird is valued at between 2,000 and 4,000 pesos in the informal national market.
The Finca Alcona, in the Havana municipality of Arroyo Naranjo, is the largest breeder of fighting cocks in Cuba. Here they are prepared, trained and selected before being exported.
That center belongs to the “Flora and Fauna Agency,” which — instead of protecting the fowl — exports them at prices that can reach the shocking figure of $1,000 for a prize roosters and $150 for a common rooster. Some of the exported birds are ones seized in raids of illegal rings.
In justification of all of this, the El Guerrillero newspaper argued, “The cock is an animal that is essentially insensitive and very primitive. Its temperature is above 40º C, which minimizes its ability to experience pain. That threshold is much higher than that of humans, and therefore wounds are easily tolerated. Let’s say they can handle them much better than humans can.”
“They are aggressive by nature, since they fight each other in the wild and even in domestic conditions. This is their reason for being. Therefore humans, far from exploiting the situation, are merely channeling this energy to balance it and to humanize it through a variety measures and regulations. Fighting would inevitably occur in one place or another as an imperative of nature.”
Is it possible to write anything more cynical? Almost all animals fight (humans more than any other), but most simply do this to demonstrate their strength in a kind of “performance attack.”
Many do it to mark their territory, to obtain a mate, to defend prey or in a mode of training to defend themselves against predators. Rarely do these experiences result in the death of an opponent of the same species.
Only twisted minds like those of some humans are able to gloat and enjoy the pain, forcing the birds to fight to the death. Many times they even put spikes or steel spurs on the birds’ legs to make the show bloodier.
In the El Guerrillero article, the author calls those people “extremists” who hold critical views against these cruel practices.
Granma, in turn, sought to legitimize cockfighting through science. It cited a group of researchers from the province of Pinar del Rio who were also “amateur cock fighters.”
These “scientists” concluded that such practices have constituted “a tradition of the Cuban people imposed by our collective will for centuries, one that has not changed its internal motion despite social-historical changes that have taken place over several centuries.”
I’m from Pinar del Rio and I know my people’s passion for cock fighting – and for the money it produces. The practice of torturing animals is of course present in our culture. But why must we promote it and even profit from it? Wouldn’t it be better to educate people to have respect for other living beings that are sharing our stay on this planet?
I’m not even a vegetarian. I approve the consumption of animal for foods as a part of our culture and for the natural recycling of elements. But this doesn’t justify killing for the pleasure of witnessing it or to relieve our boredom.
According to Article 27 of the Cuban Constitution, “The state protects the environment and the natural resources of the country.” But what can be done if leaders, businesspeople, military personnel and others who make up the Cuban political-bourgeoisie are regular participants in both government and illegally-run cock fights?