Customs and Traditions The Dance of Millions or The Fat Cow Era
By: Inés María Martiatu / Illustration by Francisco Pedro Blanco Hernández
There used to be a very popular saying in Cuba: "without sugar there is no country". This was a very apt maxim as, for many years, the history of Cuba was marked by the development and ups and downs of this industry that was based on the slave trade even before the huge sugar mills were built.
The very importance of slaves to the sugar economy fostered a "fear of the black slave", especially as the black and mixed race population exceeded the white one, increasing the fear that the repeated uprisings could destroy the Cuban sacarocracia or sugar aristocracy. The word sacarocracia was coined by historian Manuel Moreno Fraginals.
When the echoes of the French Revolution and rebellion of the slaves of Santo Domingo achieved the defeat of Napoleon's army, Cuba's sugar production turned it into one of the richest colonies of the new world.
Many years later, during the First World War, the European sugar beet industry suffered a major blow. The prices of sugarcane sugar went through the roof and the island was swept by an unprecedented prosperity that seemed never-ending. There was also great speculation; between 1918 and 1920 banks lent great amounts of money to colonists and landowners, even founding 24 banks.
Large extensions of forest became sugarcane fields and there was insufficient labour for the expanded sugarcane cut, with workers brought in from Haiti and Jamaica to help in the cutting. One popular tune went: "I don't cut down cane I leave it for the wind/Let Lola do it/ with her moves".
The newly rich built palaces in the Vedado area of Havana with gardens adorned with statues. This period of prosperity was reflected in the press, in the humour that ridiculed the new rich, in several songs and tunes, and even in theatre. The people referred to this era as "The Dance of Millions" or the "Fat Cow period."
As the saying goes, "joy in a poor man's house is short-lived," and as Cuba was at the mercy of the volatile sugar prices on the world market, the boom ended several years later, returning skinny cows to the island under the government of President Alfredo Zayas. But then, as we all know, poor families' cows were never really fat.