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The city, plundered by French and British forces in 1553 and 1662, respectively, was appealing to the Spanish metropolis for its gold. Gold exports peaked in the 1520s and 1530s, and in the process of obtaining the much coveted mineral, they exterminated Santiago’s indigenous population, which was replaced by slaves brought mainly from Haiti. These slaves with different backgrounds (Lucumi, Congo, Carabalí, Mandinga, etc.), their descendants and the many immigrants that arrived in Cuba after the Haitian slave revolt of 1791 would end up being an essential part of Cuban culture, ethnic character and nationality.
Santiago de Cuba is also known as la Cuna de la Revolución (the Cradle of the Revolution) for its active role in Cuba’s independence struggles. Back on October 10, 1868, Carlos Manuel de Céspedes (1819-1874), born in Bayamo, a city 120 km (74.5 miles) from Santiago, came to be known as the Padre de la Patria (Father of his Homeland) after having initiated an uprising in his plantation La Demajagua. His declaration of independence started the Ten Years’ War, the first serious attempt to achieve independence from Spain. This war saw the emergence of one of Santiago’s most distinguished sons, Antonio Maceo. Years later, in 1895, when the Independence War was resumed, Santiago de Cuba rose up in arms again and witnessed a number of decisive combats, including the Combat of Loma de San Juan (the first defeat of the Spanish troops during the Spanish-Cuban-American War) and the Naval Battle of Santiago de Cuba. José Martí, Cuba’s National Hero, although born in Havana, died in combat in the province of Granma and is buried in the Santa Efigenia Cemetery in Santiago.
The 1959 Revolution too had the support of the city of Santiago de Cuba. On July 26, 1956 Fidel Castro led an armed attack on the Moncada Barracks. The action was ill-prepared and led to the capture of Fidel Castro and many other revolutionary rebels. Shortly after this unfortunate event, Frank País, a native of Santiago, forged what would come to be a large-scale urban resistance movement. Four months later on November 30, the city witnessed what is known as the Levantamiento de Santiago de Cuba, when the rebels wearing July-26 armbands marched down the streets to provide cover for the expeditionary force coming from Mexico aboard the Granma yacht. During this action, revolutionary heroes Pepito Tey, Otto Parellada and Tony Alomá lost their lives. Due to bad weather conditions, the journey took longer than expected and Fidel and the rest of the rebels arrived the coasts of Cuba on December 2 instead of November 30. In 1957, two years after his organization merged with the July 26 Movement, Frank País was betrayed and shot shortly after his capture.
In 1958, rebel troops led by Fidel Castro and Juan Almeida Bosque sieged the city of Santiago de Cuba. By December 31, the Ejército Rebelde (Rebel Army) was ready to take the city with the support of the urban resistance movement. Finally, on January 1, 1959 Fidel Castro proclaimed the definitive victory of the Cuban Revolution from a balcony of the City Hall, across from Parque Céspedes.
Santiago de Cuba has been home to a number of Cuban heroes and personalities, such as Antonio Maceo, also known as the Titán de Bronce (Bronze Titan) for his wartime heroics, whose military tactics are still studied today; Frank País, who formed the urban resistance cells against the Batista regime; Compay Segundo, the most famous exponent of traditional trova music; Frank Fernández, pianist, teacher and composer, acclaimed worldwide for his stunning technique; and Electo Silva, the main promoter of choral music in the city and director of the Orfeón de Santiago.
July 2014 This article formed part of the july 2014 issue of What’s On Havana The definitive monthly travel & culture guide to Havana Download our current issue of What’s On Havana, your definitive travel, culture and entertainment guide for all things happening in Havana, Cuba’s bustling and enigmatic capital city. We include features from around Cuba written by the best international travel writers covering Cuba. Our monthly online digital magazine is also available in Spanish and French.
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