While cockfighting is banned or restricted in many countries, it is thriving throughout the Caribbean and growing in popularity in Cuba.
But there was a time when Cuba is among those countries that took a solid stance against cockfighting.
After the 1959 revolution, Cuba cracked down on cockfighting as part of a ban on gambling. But over the years that stance has softened. Official arenas have opened and hidden arenas are tolerated as long as there are no brawls.
Last year, the largest and first official cockfighting arena in Cuba opened in Ciego de Avila. It has 1,000 seats.
Foreigners pay up to US$60 for a front row seat there. At concealed arenas, mainly a local affair, seats are US$2 to US$8, a princely sum in a country where the average monthly state salary is US$25.
“People say: if the government is allowed to hold cockfights, why can’t we?” said Nora Garcia Perez, head of Cuban animal welfare association Aniplant.
Enthusiasts argue that cockfighting is a centuries-old tradition. Critics say it is cruel, and they blame its popularity on lack of entertainment options, poor education on animal welfare and its money-making potential.
In Ciego de Avila, there is a different clandestine arena for every day of the week, some hidden among marabu brush or in sugarcane fields, down dirt tracks with no signs.
Arenas made of wood and palm fronds operate like fairgrounds. Music blasts from loudspeakers, roasted pork and rum are sold and tables are set up with dice and card games.
“You’ll see how fun this is,” said Yaidelin Rodriguez, 32, a regular with her husband, writing in a notebook the bets she has placed on her cock.
Gambling is outlawed in Cuba but wads of cash exchange hands in most arenas. Enthusiasts wear baseball caps that read “Cocks win me money, women take it away.”
Cuba also exports cockerels, breeders say, adding that cocks with proven fighting prowess could sell for up to US$1000. Some Cubans are dreaming of making more money in countries where betting is legal.
“I’d like to go somewhere with big competitions and bets like Puerto Rico,” one farmer said. “I’d like to show someone how much money I could make for them breeding cocks.”