It was the smell of farm animals and shit that assured me I had arrived at the right place. Dirty-faced men with shirts pulled up over their shoulders hung from a makeshift cage that bent around “the arena.” Young working girls in tight dresses and flashy high heels marched slowly through the soft island dirt, keen eyed for the biggest spenders. I pulled out five Cuban pesos and bet on my first cock.
“Cinco para verde!” my friend Marty yelled out into the crowd. Another dirty-faced man in his mid-20s reached out and touched fingers with Marty. The bet was made.
My host Marty offered to show me the fights because I was willing to front a bet for us. He was born and raised in Havana around cockfights. He was slender with a boney build. The day he took me to the arena, he wore baby blue capris with a highlighter yellow shirt and had his hair gelled to the back. It looked like he had tried his best to follow the latest European fashions, which isn't an easy task for a 20-something dude who works part-time at a bodega.
We found our seats inside the rusted steal poles that wrapped around the arena. Then we sat back hoping to cash in as two cocks, referred to in Cuba as “gallos,” ferociously clawed each other to death. If we won, we’d earn roughly 20 cents—a decent day’s wage in a country with an average salary of just 12 to 20 US dollars a month (£7-£12).
Cockfighting is one of the oldest traditions in Cuba’s farming communities, referred to by locals as “the campos.” The game is both entertainment for the spectators and a status symbol for the elite cockfighters—the men and women who breed the fighting birds. The catch is it’s not entirely against the law. Betting on the fighting birds is illegal, but the actual fights are lawful in the eyes of the Cuban government. According to an article in the Havana Times, the Cuban media—meaning the Cuban government—even promotes the violent spectacle, mainly because the country's elites invoke the sport as part of "Cuban identity."
To my surprise, I didn’t have to go far from the taste of sugary mojitos and sexy salsa dancers to bet on my first cock. The arena was just 30 to 40 minutes away from the drunken tourists and overpriced liquor of Old Havana City.
The complex was no bigger than half a football field, fenced off and covered by mossy green shrub. The battle cry of the cocks could be heard from the entrance, as nervous trainers poked and agitated the animals. I noticed one trainer picked up a cock and blew air into its butthole.
“That really pisses them off," said Marty. "We should bet on him.” I laughed and agreed.
Men circled around two other tables outside the main arena. One was for dominos, a popular game that helps pass the time. The other was for a game of dice, which had the crowd all riled up. Marty told me not to bother with either—both were scams, which was disappointing because I play a mean game of domino.
Then there was a bed sheet spread out across the dirt floor with an old man sitting at the sheets edge, attending to the random display of products. This was Cuba’s black market. But he wasn't selling organs or bootlegged DVDs or fake Rolex watches—he was selling mouth wash, detergent, and potato chips. It was all average stuff that could be found easily at convenient stores in America. The fact that the sale of these seemingly innocuous items is extremely illegal in Cuba separates the country from its Latin American neighbors. In Mexico, young gang members risk their lives and jail time to sell guns and drugs on the black market. In Cuba, people risk the same to help each other get the basic necessities of modern living.
Since the Cuban Revolution culminated in 1959, the people of Cuba have been living in one big social experiment. Part of former President Fidel Castro’s socialist reform was to give the state the responsibility of feeding, housing, and supplying all the necessary goods for the Cuban people. The only problem was that Cuba is a Caribbean island nation that doesn’t produce much. As one journalist put it to me, they depend on a “sugar daddy,” aka Venezuela and Russia. (I think Russia would be jealous if they knew how much Cubans talked about Venezuela.) Even though Cuba doesn’t produce enough food or products to supply their people, they still prohibit them from buying goods from anywhere else. Which is why old men sell mouthwash that’s been smuggled in from Miami and Latin American countries at high prices on blankets outside of cockfights.
Before the fight started, trainers tied small concaved blades to the legs of their prized cocks. One was tied with green, the other with red, so spectators and bet placers could differentiate.
A small green box divided into two parts sat on top of the two battle-ready cocks. The box was then tied to a rope which sat in a levy on the tin roof. An old man with a timer swung the box into the air and freed the two contenders.
Both cocks lunged towards each other, wings spread and blades first. Their savagery was a reassurance that fighting was all they'd been breed for. About 100 Cubans, the vast majority men, yelled out in local slang as the two cocks ripped out each other’s feathers. One right after another, almost waiting their turn to attack. It was violent and bloody.
About 10 minutes in and the gallo Marty and I placed our bet on stopped fighting and began running in circles as the other one gave chase.
“He’s trying to tire him out,” said Marty. “It’s a sign of a good trainer.”
At that point, I was feeling pretty pleased with my choice. He was smart and had chosen a peaceful strategy for his match. If the other cock became too tired to fight, my bird would be declared the winner…
Well that didn't happen. The other one caught him and in the next five minutes brought him within an inch of his life. My cock was on the floor, twitching in pain, unable to fight. The match was called. We lost.
The trainer rushed in and grabbed the bloody bird off the floor, running him to safety. The other trainer picked up his victorious cock as the men surrounding him began to argue. All bets were made by word of mouth, so the men quickly rushed in to collect. Some people bet higher than £61. We paid our paltry debt and left because Marty suspected that with such steep bets, things were going to get violent.
Marty walked away with his head down because he just lost beer money. I walked away with my head down because I just bet on what I consider to be animal cruelty, and didn’t even win.
**Marty is a fake name for a real person whose identity we are trying to conceal because in Cuba it's dangerous to get caught fraternizing with the American press.**
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