The Havana Carnival

Yenisel Rodriguez Perez

Float in this year's Havana carnival.

“Listen, all that dancing in the streets during Havana’s carnival, with everybody “streaming” along in processions, that’s something that comes from eastern Cuba. It’s not a capital tradition!

That’s what an older co-worker commented to me about the way people dance in Havana carnivals. The comment brought to my mind a noon news report on Cuban state-run TV. In it they made the point that Havana carnivals are events “for watching,” implying that dancing along with the processions is not a characteristic of our town.

In many parts of the country where they have carnivals, people are accustomed to dancing behind floats that parade through squares and streets carrying “live music” and beautiful dancers. This peculiar form of trailing behind floats is known in Cuba as “arroyar” (streaming).

It’s a form of direct participation that defines the identity of the Cuban carnival. That’s why it’s very difficult to talk about carnival in Cuba without mentioning people moving along dancing behind the floats.

It’s also true that in Havana, like in a few other places in the country, the custom of dancing in processions is not as ingrained as in the carnivals in Sancti Spiritus and Santiago de Cuba, as examples, but this doesn’t mean that people in Havana carnivals don’t “stream.”

It’s said that years back one could see people hoping to see their favorite procession present their routine before the carnival jury and afterwards rush in throngs streaming behind them down Malecon Avenue.

Maybe my old co-worker forgot that detail due to his being under the influence of that un-premeditated regionalism that’s been seeping into Cuban society for more than a hundred years.

That would also explain the news flash concerning how carnivals are “for watching”? Let me try to explain.

In Havana, social violence — partly the result of socio-economic problems that affect the country — has reached relatively high and intense levels. As one might expect, popular and festive activities attract much of this violence.

Therefore the government, being neither slow nor lazy, has adopted procedures for the elimination or toning down of these activities. The only festivities allowed are those where limited attendance can be assured, a policy that has succeeded creating extremely expensive events that few can afford.

This has also reduced the range of cultural settings to a few at moderate prices where your body remains imprisoned between your chair’s seat and its back. These places tend to be in theaters, where it’s hard to let loose.

What I mean is that enjoying a dance band in a theater is like suffering a form of sophisticated torture if you should happen to get the feeling to dance. Staying seated while your toe-tapping feet “detach” from your body is nothing but torture.

This is how the government seeks to curb incidents of violence in the capital; this is to say, they attack the effects but not the things that have a direct impact on the generation of violent behavior at the larger social scale.

That’s why in Havana it’s the police who organize the carnivals. They are the creators of the slogan “Carnivals in Havana Are to Watch.” The news report was a police warning directed at those who like for their bodies to get soaked with sweat during carnival.

It’s a sad story. The artistic directors have to present their routines to the police authorities, where these officials are the ones who ultimately decide what will or will not be performed. Anything that smells of authentic carnivalesque spirit ends up being censored.

So how are the carnivals in Havana? I’ll explain.

The carnival consists of two simultaneous activities: one dedicated essentially to eating and drinking, and the other reserved for the presentation of processions and floats.

The activity dedicated to food and drinks doesn’t differ from any other popular celebration that might take place on any given day of the year, that’s why one can’t say that this area embodies the carnival spirit.

In the activity dedicated to the processions and floats, the question becomes rather morbid. Here, yes, it does indeed embody that carnival spirit, but that becomes immediately diluted.

Firstly, they set up bleachers at a good distance from the route where those in the comparsas (processions) will march. This is so the spectators who paid to “watch” the carnival can’t interact directly with the dancers.

Then, to deal with those who don’t obtain or don’t want a seat in the bleachers, at ground level along the route they erect metal railing, known as talanqueras. These, in turn, are lined with police officers to prevent anyone from running out and streaming behind the floats.

In short, it’s all become one big “carnival-icide.”

Yenisel Rodriguez

Yenisel Rodriguez Perez: I have lived in Cuba my entire life, except for several months in 2013 when I was in Miami with my father. Despite the 90 miles that separate Havana and Miami, I find profound reasons in both for political and community activism. My encounter with socio-cultural anthropology eight years ago prepared me for a commitment of love for cultural diversity.

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