Santiago, the last stop on Pope Francis’s Cuban tour, is known for its revolutionary history, its rum and the troubadours who have infused the Caribbean island’s music with their tropical beats.
The city is where Fidel Castro and his brother Raul launched an attack on the Moncada army barracks on July 26, 1953 — the beginning of the Cuban Revolution, which would eventually topple dictator Fulgencio Batista and pave the way for more than half a century of unbroken rule by the Castros.
That first attack ended in disaster for Castro, who was jailed and then exiled to Mexico. But he was back in Santiago declaring the revolution’s victory less than six years later, on January 1, 1959.
The southeastern port city is also the birthplace of Cuban rum, a favorite with fans of the island’s signature mojito cocktails.
For American connoisseurs, Cuban rum retains an allure almost as tempting as that of Cuban cigars — both forbidden fruit under the full embargo the US has maintained on the island since 1962.
Santiago is also the cradle of the musical style known as trova, one of the most important movements in Cuba’s world-famous music scene.
Trova gets its name from the “trovadores,” or troubadours, who founded it — bohemian singer-songwriters who would roam from plaza to plaza to perform in the late 19th century, their guitars slung over their shoulders.
It remains a strong presence in Cuban music, embraced by well-known musicians like Compay Segundo of “Buena Vista Social Club” fame.
– Mixed-race Mary –
Santiago de Cuba — its full name — is the second-largest city in the country, with some 430,000 people.
Pope John Paul II also visited in 1998, during the historic first papal visit to the island, and Benedict XVI followed in his footsteps in 2012.
Francis will meet with local families at the Santiago cathedral, then bless the city, which was devastated when Hurricane Sandy hit it three years ago.
He will also deliver mass in the nearby sanctuary to Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre, the patron saint of Cuba.
The shrine was constructed in honor of a wooden statue of the Virgin Mary that legend has it was found floating off the Cuban coast by three locals in the early 1600s.
Cubans say the statue represents a mixed-race Mary, a symbol of the island’s intertwined Spanish and African roots.
The independence fighters who waged war against colonial Spain in the 19th century wore medallions of the virgin, as did Castro when he fought his own revolution the following century.
The pope arrives in Santiago Monday afternoon and leaves Tuesday afternoon for Washington.