In Cuba, animal welfare, the first victory for civil society

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Abandoned animals abound in the streets of Havana, when they are not sacrificed for the santeria or released in arenas for fights to the death. But, a sign of changes in Cuba, under the pressure of an emerging middle class, respect for animal welfare will soon be established.

Surprisingly, this was the first independent, non-political protest ever authorized by the Cuban state: on April 7, 2019, some 500 people marched through Havana to demand a law to protect animals.

A year and a half later, in November, the Communist government, determined to regain the initiative on a movement that could spill oil, will adopt its first legislation bringing welfare to animals … with a few customs.

An important step for the civil society which for the first time sees its demands translated into law and the beginning of a change of culture in this island of contradictions between modernity and tradition.

23 cats, 38 dogs

In Cuba, the streets are full of abandoned dogs and cats, often for economic reasons, and in bad shape – there are thousands in Havana.

The lucky ones are taken in by individuals and associations who sacrifice their own food to feed them.

In the popular district of San Miguel del Padron, the house of Noris Perez, a 49-year-old housewife, is organized around its hairy inhabitants: 23 cats and 38 dented dogs, the first recovered eight years ago on a sidewalk where he suffered from seizures.

On the mesh roof, the large dogs and their kennels. In the kitchen, small dogs and cats. At mealtime, in a concert of meowing and barking, Noris somehow manages to give everyone his bowl.

“All this, I do it alone”, she explains, with the help of her husband, her daughter and sometimes “neighbors”. The most difficult is “the question of food” when the average salary is 40 dollars and shortages are recurrent.

In the Nuevo Vedado district, Grettel Montes de Oca, 48, cohabits with 55 cats and four dogs who roam everywhere except in the living room.

“I have a friend who says he’s the ugliest dog in the world!” she laughs, stroking Yoki, an old black dog with damaged teeth and a body damaged by the blows received in the past

Professional dancer, she had never owned an animal before taking in a little black cat in 2007. “When you start saving some, you can’t stop.”

From his personal commitment, Grettel founded an association, Ceda (Cubans in defense of animals), tolerated by the authorities but not legally recognized.

The adoption of a decree-law on animal welfare, “it is the dream of all defenders of animals, especially in Cuba where we have been fighting for 33 years”, since the first projects of law presented in vain by associations.

In this area, “we are unfortunately among the most backward countries in Latin America and the Caribbean”, deplores Grettel. “Animals in Cuba, it’s like they don’t exist.”

What has changed? The awakening of a more active civil society, since the arrival at the end of 2018 of the 3G internet on mobile phones, which has enabled part of the population to mobilize via social networks, particularly around homosexual rights or the fight against macho violence.

And the emergence of a middle class thanks to the development of the private sector since 2010, a few years after the opening of Cuba to tourism

It can now be bought a washing machine or a car. And spend money to offer beauty to your pets: there are now about ten canine grooming salons in Havana, frequented by customers concerned with animal welfare.

Like the governments of Latin America faced in recent years with a new middle class more demanding of them, the Cuban state is trying on its own to satisfy some of its demands.

Educational process

At the Ministry of Agriculture, the legal text is entering its home stretch.

“The decree-law will be approved in November (…) by the Council of State and will be ratified by the National Assembly” then, explains Yisell Socorro, lawyer of the ministry.

Its principle? “Guarantee the physical and mental integrity of animals”: “respect for animals, the need to avoid mistreatment, abuse, acts of cruelty and above all the awareness that animals are sensitive beings who feel pain and pleasure. “

The National Animal Welfare Committee focuses above all on “an educational process”: “we would like to not have to sanction anyone for cruel acts or denigration of animals”, confides its president, Dr. Maria Gloria Vidal.

Fines, even prison sentences, will be provided, but the idea is first of all to change mentalities.

It is also a question of confronting the reality of the island, in particular the sacrifices of animals by the santeria, a syncretic religion originating in Nigeria and brought to Cuba by the slaves.

“It would be practically impossible to prohibit in Cuba the realization of animal sacrifices because they are part of the rituals of this religion”, recognizes Mrs. Vidal.

“But we can work to ensure the welfare of the animals that are raised and used in these rituals” and that they “are performed in the fastest and least stressful way possible for the animals.”

Religious sacrifices and fights

It is not uncommon to come across in the streets of Havana the corpses of chickens or pigeons beheaded by followers of this religion, the most popular on the island.

“Goats, billy goats, chickens, doves, rodents, dogs …”: according to the divinity invoked, whether it is a question of claiming good health or a child, all these animals can be sacrificed, cats too, during rituals still secret, lists Yank Benavente, 38, babalawo (priest) for three years.

Owner of around thirty doves and two dogs, he assures us that for nothing in the world he would not sacrifice his own animals and that he takes great care of those he buys for the rituals.

But there is no question of renouncing the sacrifices linked to Cuba’s African heritage: “It’s part of the culture, of the religion, I don’t see how the law can influence that.”

Even more controversial, the question of dog and rooster fights.

Often organized under cover, outside the cities, they see two specially trained animals confront each other in death and blood, whose injuries are sometimes so serious that even the winner succumbs.

“Dog fights are totally prohibited,” assures Ms. Vidal. Those of roosters, a tradition deeply rooted in Cuba since even Fidel Castro’s family property had an arena dedicated to this activity, will remain authorized “in very specific cases of associations or organizations, for a competition or an event”.

A distinction approved by this amateur of cockfighting, who testifies on condition of anonymity: “In cockfighting, there are rules, a count as in boxing, (…) which means that this sport does not ‘has nothing to do with a dog fight’.

Even a regular dog fighting, also anonymous, admits that “to see two dogs fighting is not good”. But he admits to enjoying this show, on which several thousand dollars are often bet, even a house.

“No one can stop this, the dog fights will continue,” he said defiantly.


In the Don Silver living room in the Santa Fe neighborhood, Docky, a placid cocker spaniel, yawns while his claws are filed, before he is shampooed to remove the ticks that itch. On the table next to it, Luna the chihuahua jumps when the blow of the hair dryer runs through her hair.

It is one of the first canine grooming salons opened in Cuba in 2012 by Loretta Rivero, 50 years old.

Behind the announcement of the decree-law, it sees the effort of “many people who put pressure”. “We fight, like people who want progress, changes, against others who are more clinging to tradition, (…) things that are a bit of the third world”.

Enough to arouse the hope of civil society on other themes that are dear to it: same-sex marriage, for example, which should be submitted to a referendum from 2021.

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