Cockfighting in an anti-aircraft bunker
By Desmond Boylan
In Cuba, it is legal to own fighting cocks, it is legal to train them, and it is legal to put them to fight, but one detail – all forms of betting and gambling are strictly forbidden since 1959, when the Cuban Revolution started. And the sole reason to fight cocks is to bet on them. It is an activity so popular among Cubans that stopping it would pose a huge challenge for the authorities and would be counterproductive.
I spoke to a man named Yurien, who said, “President Raul likes cockfighting, our commanders Ramiro and Guillermo also like it, and we like it. Cockfighting is a part of Cuba so we do it with order and discipline. It is unstoppable. There are also a few legal arenas set up by the state, and even in those betting exists, but in a quiet and discreet way.”
The most impressive site used for illegal cockfighting I visited was a military anti-aircraft shelter built into the side of a hill on the outskirts of a Cuban city, reachable after a short trek through thick bush. It struck me as a place in the middle of nowhere. The site was full of people enjoying an afternoon with their favorite pastime, cockfighting. As I arrived a man quickly came over with the entry tickets, in a highly organized manner. The fights were on and the cocks were safe, very safe, in the shade of the underground bunker.
When I was leaving the bunker I met a boy carrying his injured fighting cock through the bush. His bird had lost the fight that day and he was sad. He said, “We will be back to win. I will cure my bird, and he will be back, even if now he only has one eye.”
To reach the fight arena you have to know exactly where you are going, and when the fights are to take place. There are not signs, no announcements. This site and others are always concealed and hidden away down a dirt road lane and in the bush on the outskirts any Cuban city. Curiously, the steep paths or the bits of the lane on which car wheels skid in mud when it rains, are paved, yes, paved with asphalt. Money has been invested to ensure that participants and spectators make it to the site even if it rains.
After the adventure of finding the site, suddenly in the middle of nowhere one finds people milling around and dozens of cars, many of them the typical pre-1959 models that have been restored and look like from their best times, tractors, horse-drawn carts, motorbikes and trucks all parked in a proper parking lot with a guard. There is electricity in the air and excitement everywhere. It is the day.
A checkpoint manned by three or four men marks the entrance, and after paying a fee, you realize it is a serious place for serious business. But the whole thing can be quickly dismantled, loaded on trucks and set up elsewhere, in only a few hours.
The sites are always practical and well built wooden structures covered with a thatched roof or tarpaulins to cater to hundreds of people. Apart from the main fight arena, other thatched structures surround the place as kiosks offering food, drinks, tobacco and other amenities for the spectators. There are cold drinks, roast pork, rice and beans, sandwiches and other snacks being offered. If you need to go to the toilet you just walk into the bush.
There are dozens of these set-ups around Cuba where thousands of dollars are won and lost. A front row position can cost up to $10, or one further back can go for $4. Money flows freely as people go around holding huge wads of notes. There are also always tables to play cards, and bets are placed on the cocks before and during the fights. Each proud owner carries his animal with pride. Some birds can easily sell for $1,000. There are cocks of breeds from India, Mexico, Spain and many other countries. It is a very specialized trade and they enter the country in the form of a fertilized egg to be incubated in Cuba, since importing live animals is prohibited.
Before the fights start, cock owners mill around the weigh-in point, and the birds are officially weighed and assigned a category. Once that’s completed, the different fights are arranged.
The fighting cocks are the real stars of the show. After long months of training they are given pedicures, fitted with a sharp claw, endure sessions of feather-dressing, grooming and extreme clipping. The feathers on their legs and body are clipped, giving them a strange semi-human, semi-chicken look. The birds are treated like kings as they are carried in special boxes, and they are fed special food. To breed fighting cocks is a fine and very specialized occupation done by only a few.
When I watched my first cockfight I realized that the birds use their back claw to kill each other in a very fast movement. All I could see was a ball of feathers swirling around, so during the fights I began to watch other interesting elements at the event – the bird owners and the crowd.
It struck me that for the first time I was observing human beings turning into fighting roosters.
The owners of the cocks are allowed to stand beside their animals like a coach along a boxing ring. They continuously dance around their birds, chuckling like excited cocks, salivating and sweating profusely. They literally enter a into a semi-trance with their eyes rolling. Some of them move their arms and legs as if they are the birds themselves, and don’t stop cooing and chuckling. Between rounds, they pick up their roosters as if they were wounded children, and lovingly lick their wounds. I saw one of them furiously blowing spit on his bird’s behind after chuckling into its ear and kissing and licking its beak. A truly surreal sight.
There is a boiling frenzy as the fight starts, and it continues right to the end, with many people shouting bets furiously at the same time, waving their fat wads of money, moving their arms, legs, heads and whole bodies. The wooden structure bends and moves, and the air is so dense with excitement it is difficult to describe. Everyone knows that it is all an illegal activity, and that makes it even more exciting. A lot money has been placed on the birds; the outcome will leave losers with dead or severely injured birds and winners with more money in their pocket.
Photography is absolutely not allowed, but in Cuba nothing and everything is possible. It all depends on how a photographer approaches the challenge. It is a question of first of all becoming part of the woodwork, which takes some time, and choosing very carefully when and what to shoot. Obviously big professional cameras are not much help in this kind of scene. To do the pictures for this story I used cellphones, a Gopro Hero 2, a Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX3 and the Canon EOS 5D Mark II, depending on the situation.