The Decline of the Havana Carnivals

Vicente Morín Aguado

Havana carnival.
Havana carnival.

HAVANA TIMES — Below is a modest collection of the kinds of comments regarding Havana’s carnival that Cubans have been repeating since the festivities kicked off on August 9th:

“The floats look like carts loaded with sugarcane, pulled by bare, undecorated tractors.”

“There aren’t enough colors, lights or musical numbers. It’s a bunch of people meeting someplace to get away from the boredom of the house.”

“Popular festivities are over. We’re being charged as though we were tourists.”

“Not much to it. They cordoned off some neighborhoods and took what little they had to the Malecon. Too many people in too little space.”

“Far too many inspectors, doing nothing.”

“A sad scene. Too many cops, very few public bathrooms and no beer dispensers. You can’t do much with that, and no one does much, really.”

“Before, we had real carnivals, popular festivities. That’s over. If you didn’t get to see it then, you’ll die without having seen it.”

I could go on, but I think the point is taken (and I don’t like to kick ‘em when they’re down). I am merely trying to piece together a picture of what I saw and offer my preliminary impressions on the carnival. I should add that capturing Cuba’s essence is a task for literary geniuses.

I walked towards the Malecón seawall down Belascoain (“Padre Varela”, officially), one of those well-known streets you’re bound to run into when you tour Havana. The street took me to Maceo Park, located in front of the 25-story building of the Hermanos Amejeiras Hospital. I turned left, west, that is, towards one of the police check-points you have to go through to enter the carnival area.

I went through without any problems. Some people do, however, get stopped by the police, who search them for sharp objects, including any glass container. Already on the carnival grounds, I am somewhat surprised by how small the area is, bearing in mind that, counting the visitors from other provinces, there are nearly three million people in Havana. I walked for an hour, down about ten blocks, until I reached the Maine monument, the end of the area devoted to the festivities.

Havana carnival.
Havana carnival.

The carnival area has been reduced considerably because half of the broad ocean drive has been blocked off and fitted with grand stands, where, for a price, you can watch the floats, masquerades or any other artistic attraction, enjoying the show away from the boisterous crowds that populate Cuba’s carnivals.

Along the way, I saw many improvised public bathrooms. Since the space is limited and so many people attend the carnival, the facilities destined to this basic human need aren’t enough. This is why you see so many law and order officials around the bathrooms.

Most people, familiar with our propensity for violence after we’ve had one too many, welcome the police presence. The contrast between the high number of police officers and the limited facilities stems, again, from the absurdly restricted grounds of the carnivals. Could it have been conceived this way to facilitate the control of the population?

On my way back, I got hungry and thirsty and began considering making a dent on my pocket money. Fried chicken, roasted pork, roast-pork sandwiches, hamburgers and similar junk food are the things commonly sold at carnivals. The prices are the ones regularly charged in Havana in Cuban pesos, lower than those in hard currency (which continue to be cheap for tourists).

If you’ve got the patience, you can probably find less expensive (and, of course, lower quality) offers. These are ideal for those with very little money who are just too bored to go back home early.

Sometimes, someone will go in search of a State inspector when they feel they are being ripped off. These public officials are easy to spot: they wear FBI-styled vests with a big sign on their backs which announces their all-important social duty.

I didn’t see any brawls. I did, however, leave early, before midnight, after seeing the first floats and masquerades go by.

The comments I shared are very true, an expression of popular wisdom. What I saw were drab floats lacking in color, put together shoddily, pale things in comparison to what we would see years ago. The awful contrast crated by the tractors, which were completely devoid of any decoration, is by the far the worst aspect of the parade.

Few positive things can be said about the masquerades. They didn’t even have enough space to move as they should, in keeping with Cuba’s dance traditions, which have always been enlivened by popular percussion bands.

I took off at a time any Cuban would consider early during the carnival season. As most know, if you’re going anywhere far from the seawall, your legs will be the only means of transportation available after midnight. You’ll get home as tired and hungry as you were in the afternoon, unless you’ve put away some food and drinks to make your return journey a bit more pleasant.

Many of the establishments in the neighborhoods near the seawall close up shop and destine their supplies to kiosks in the carnival area. All I can say is that there’s going to be one hell of a “hangover”, that is, one hell of a morning after, after the amounts spent on the party sink in.

Traditionally, the Cuban carnival was a popular festivity that brought people together, people of different incomes, origins and skin colors. Carnivals were a place where people who hadn’t seen each other for long, or those who saw each other only occasionally, at planned meetings or at work, could meet again.

If we can’t throw a party for the people, if we can’t put together proper floats and enticing masquerades for the people to enjoy, without fearing having to spend a fortune, if we can’t light up the streets from the Capitolio to the Chorrera restaurant on the seawall, then, tis best to forget about the carnival and to stay home.

Vicente Morín Aguado: [email protected]

2 thoughts on “The Decline of the Havana Carnivals

  • Stop whingeing and get organised, there is enough colour and talent in Cuba, Tenerife in the Canaries can do it, Rio de Janeiro can do it, even London with its Notting Hill carnival can do it, lets face it with the ingenuity of the Cuban people nothing is impossible. Lets go for it and let all of your tourists know of the time and dates, by doing this a year ahead many more may holiday during the CARNIVAL.
    Perhaps Moses may attend.

  • Hmmm! It seems like the provincial carnivals are a bit more lively. Some years back as a passenger on the ViAzul from Habana to Bayamo the way was blocked at Buenaventura, betwixt Victoria and Holguin, by the local carnival. The bus pulled to the side of the Caratera Central, we got out and, for the next hour-or-so we enjoyed the carnival. Many of the floats which passed by were elaborately decorated with twinkling multi-colored lights, lively–and loud–music, and scantily clad girls gyrating atop the floats. I had a great time! We arrived in Bayamo in the middle of the night, several hours late, but our improvised stop in Buenaventura was worth it!

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