Cuba: a Neo-Taino Chiefdom

I remember with pain how many times I sang that song by Ray Fernández: Lucha tu yucca, Taíno’. (Archive)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yunior García Aguilera, Madrid, 15 March 2022 — These days, social networks in Cuba have harvested the culinary advice of Frei Betto. The Brazilian Dominican friar, liberation theologian, has recommended we eat potato skins, unaware that Solanum tuberosum does not even appear in spiritual centers. Before, the unpopular State TV program Mesa Redonda (Roundtable) had wanted to emulate Master Chef, recommending to us delicious dishes based on guts and decrepit chickens. The Cuban, as always, laughs at his misfortunes and continues his daily struggle, under the hot sun, to bring anything chewable to his table.

I remember with pain how many times I sang that song by Ray Fernández: Lucha tu yucca, Taíno.* Unfortunately, the singer ended up suffering from the same delusions of power and today he only sings at volunteer jobs, ministerial parties and political-recreational activities for cyber-combatants. I guess, in order not to lose all his repertoire, he had to rewrite some of his lyrics. Perhaps today his most popular song is called Lucha tu caney, cacique.**

Five hundred and thirty years after Columbus set foot on the most “beautiful land that human eyes had ever seen,” our Cuba is still a yucayeque (village). And the reader should not believe that I am referring to the romantic idea that our primary school teachers sold us about happy iguana-eating Taínos. The primitive community we live in today is probably more backward, in some respects, than the one where Guarina and Habaguanex breathed.

The neo-Taíno cacicazgo (chiefdom) resides today in Siboney, in large caneyes (cabins) while the bohíos (huts) of the rest of the village are in danger of landslides. The privileged caste is made up of militant nitaínos (subchiefs), with those very white loincloths that look like guayaberas. And the naboría (servant) crowds stand in eternal lines to acquire their regulated ration of cassava. From time to time the behiques (shamans) appear on the news worshiping a huge and sacred stone where the great Cemí (ancestral spirit) rests.

In the batey (plaza) the areíto is still danced, although there are some prohibitions. Painting things on the abdomen is no longer looked well on, especially in tanned and well defined abdomens. The cacique imposed a decree that establishes who can sing and who cannot, although his musical taste is not shared by the people of the area.

The most skilled batos players have gone to other Caribbean teams. In the village they try to prevent the mass exodus of prospects by spreading stories about sports cannibalism. But the truth is that more and more souls are leaving for other lands, even if it is in search of volcanoes.

Historians say that in Taíno weddings the manicato was practiced. The bride was to have sex first with the groom’s friends. She was locked up with all of them in a room and at the end, she had to leave it with a raised fist shouting manicato, which means brave, strong. Maybe it wasn’t a good idea to be very sociable in the yucayeque. Today Facebook lets you have up to 5,000 friends, fortunately some ancient practices have been lost. In the batey of the Revolution, still millions of Tainos, with their fists raised, continue to shout manicato, when they demand sacrifices.

Not everyone in the village agrees with the cacique’s dictatorship, but mistrust is so great that few dare to confess what they think even to their hammock. Others wait for caravels to appear on the horizon and the white man arrives to free them from the yoke. There are those who dream of a Hatuey rebel who dies at the stake to demonstrate his true leadership. Some prefer to lock themselves in a cave and paint memes against the cacique on the walls, but only incognito. Those who can put their bohío up for sale to buy a cayuco (canoe/kayak) ticket. Most remain silent and continue making holes in the cayuco to survive.

I have in my DNA hints of Taíno. Although my grandfather was black, my friends call me “Chinese,” and although my identity card says that I am white, there are traces of Guamá on my face. And it is true that the Tainos are so peaceful that sometimes we run the risk of becoming extinct. But from time to time they make you want to grab a spear, a bow and an arrow and hold ‘the Guatao Festival’***. Our future does not have to depend on the arrival of La Niña, La Pinta and Santa María. But we have to stop shooting spears at the one next to us and concentrate all our arrows against the cacique. Five hundred and thirty years after Columbus arrived thinking that Cuba was Cipango (Japan), it is time to change the yucayeque.

Translator’s notes:
*Roughly: “Fight for your food.” The Taino were the indigenous people of Cuba.
**“Fight for your hut, Chief”
*** The Guatao festival is one of the urban myths that has toured the provinces of Cuba . For more than a hundred years, a phrase that has become famous has been repeated in that country: “It ended as the Guatao festival.” The curious thing is that it is not really known what party that was, although from the meaning given to the expression it is known that it did not have a happy ending. When in Cuba it is said that an event ended “like the Guatao party” no one doubts that it was something that started well and ended badly. (Source: Translated from:


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