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Santería And The Spiritual Soul Of Socialist Cuba

An Afro-Caribbean religion dating back to the days of slavery, Santería has adapted to both Catholicism and Socialism and is a major contributor to Cuba's particular cultural identity.

A priest performs a Santeria ceremony
A priest performs a Santeria ceremony
Hector Lemieux

HAVANA — The sound of drums invades a devastated street in Centro Habana, the Havana neighborhood most affected by Hurricane Irma, which unleashed her fury on the old, patched-up Spanish palaces. The buildings are collapsing one after the other. "This is surreal," says one tourist, a first timer in Cuba. "It's like Beirut." Put another way, it seems that Yemaya — the Santería goddess of the sea and protector of seafarers — has made light of humans.

For many, Santería — the "worship of saints' and a spiritual companion, for centuries, to African slaves — is the last resort to save what's left after "el ciclón" hurled itself at the neighborhood's homes and apartments. In the living/dining/sleeping room of a crumbling shack in the Neptuno street, incantations accompany the drums. A man goes into a trance. He falls to the ground. The scene could just as well have taken place in the neighborhoods of Regla or Guanabacoa, where Santería reigns supreme over the spirits of men.

This particular Santería, or rule of Ocha, is the religion of Yoruba slaves from Nigeria. To a lesser extent, Cubans also practice other Afro-Cuban variations such as the rule of Palo Monte, or they prefer Abakua rites, secret, male-only societies. "Santería in Cuba is, above all else, the expression of the cultural survival of a people slaughtered by the fiascos of Western history," wrote Cuban journalist C. Romero Bateman in his 1998 book La Santería en Cuba.

The rule of Ocha has its own deities, such as Chango, the god of war and fire, or Obatala, the god of creation, as well as its own priests, the babalawos. The Yoruba rites associate Catholic saints to African deities, the orishas, another example of how socialist Cuba is an island of mixed religions.

"I pray to my own saints'

The religious syncretism date's back the Cuba's colonial origins. After the Spanish colonists meticulously slaughtered tens of thousands of Cuban natives in the 16th century, they needed workers, and had to turn to the "sons of ebony" — African slaves.

"The Spaniards were quick to bring these African slaves, who brought Santería with them," says Lisbeth, a Havana bookseller. "The colonists were Catholic and the Church took a dim view of this religious competitor, especially given how some Spaniards, seduced by African women, were becoming interested in Santería. So the slaves held on to their religion, but they practiced it in secret, associating their own deities to Catholic saints. Yemaya in Santería is the equivalent of Our Lady of Regla for the Catholics. They both protect sailors."

Salvator, a Santero (follower of Santería) from Havana's Guanabacoa district, goes to a Catholic church. "But I pray to my own saints," he says. He prays to Chango like his ancestors did, looking at the statues of the Catholic Saint Barbara. This fool's game has been going on for centuries. The rule of Ochoa has always had a penchant for secrecy, probably out of fear that the gods of the regime might descend upon them.

A model of discrete militant Afro-identity, even though some worshippers are white, Santería has outlived all political systems. The Cubans accommodate themselves very well to the mix of genres between Catholic and Afro-Cuban religions, and they take what's best in each of them. Santería appropriates the divine representations, the words and the wisdom of rival cults. Rumor has it that even Fidel Castro, raised by the Jesuits of Santiago de Cuba, was close to Santería.

Most Cubans practice Afro-Cuban cults — more or less loosely — even if they publicly deny it. Marisbel, who works as a model in hotels for tourists, is one such example. Before pouring herself a small glass of rum, she scatters a few drops of the precious liquid at the corner of an old worm-eaten door. "It's for the ancestors," she admits, a little embarrassed. But she insists she doesn't practice Santería. "It's only witchcraft," Marisbel says. "I'm Catholic."

Santería has its own rites. New insiders must be dressed entirely in white for a year. The worshippers have no churches, and though believers sometimes pray in Catholic churches to their own saints, the ceremonies also take place inside the homes of the babalawos, who have determined, for each believer, the orisha that will lead their lives. The worshippers regularly go and see their counselors (padrinos), who intervene for advice and healings, in exchange for hard cash. "It's a very flexible religion that can be practiced in many ways," Marisbel says.

Unlike other cults, the rule of Ochoa has no political goals. And yet, it has unknowingly served the political ambitions of the regime. By tolerating and supporting it in the 1970s and 1980s, the Castro government is said to have weakened Catholicism.

Coexisting with Catholicism

Santería is an integral part of Cuban identity, thanks to its immense contribution to the country's painting and literature. But it is not immune to criticism from Cubans. "It's just a way to make money, to take advantage of the naivety of poor people," says Rolando, a Jehovah's Witness. "Sessions with the padrinos and purchasing objects of worship in the shops bring a lot of fullas (dollars in Cuban slang)."

Santeros always arouse a little jealousy from those who don't follow the cult. In Havana, shops that sell religious goods are thriving. They sell amulets, plaster statues of saints, ointments, necklaces, and clothes.

In Cuba, you can find all the religions you'd find in other countries, from Protestants to Jehovah's Witnesses. Though the number of Muslim, Jewish and Orthodox worshippers barely reaches a few thousand, evangelical temples flourish across the country. "Evangelists give food, distribute clothes," says Oleidys, a volunteer at a Catholic church in Centro Habana. "We are not as good as far as charity goes."

Before the Revolution, 70% of Cubans defined themselves as Catholics. Today, depending on the source, the percentage of Catholics varies from 25% to 60%. At any rate, they're no doubt outnumbered by Santeros. After decades of state atheism prior to the 4th Congress of the Cuban Communist Party in 1991, when CCP members were able to declare their faith, there are just 357 priests left for 11 million Cubans.

Relations between the Socialist regime and religions have long been tense, although according to the 1976 Cuban Constitution, "the State recognizes, respects and guarantees religious freedom." Today, the latter is almost guaranteed, although Catholicism is still in the government's crosshairs. "Before the Revolution, the Church was very close to the bourgeoisie and the power," a Havana-based diplomat says. But culturally it was always disconnected somehow. Of the 655 priests the island had in 1955, only 125 were Cuban. The others were, for the most part, Spanish.

From the beginning of the Revolution, the Catholic Church took part in political actions against the regime. Some Cuban priests from Florida are believed to have taken part in the Bay of Pigs invasion. Fidel Castro then expelled between 400 and 600 priests — not to mention those who were sent to re-education camps in the mid-1960s, the infamous Military Units to Aid Production.

Subsequently, rather than attacking the Church directly, the regime cut off all its sources of funding. Dozens of places of worship are now in ruins. For three decades, the religious freedom of Catholics was reduced to nothing. The visit of Pope John Paul II in 1998 was a major turning point. Some explain that socialism was getting old and that is supposedly why Fidel tolerated Catholicism.

The joke is not entirely unfounded, given how the Castro brothers always used opponents to better control people. When, after a short period of political neutrality, the Church resumed its criticism of the regime, as early as 2010, it publicly expressed support for the dissidents who had been imprisoned since the "Black Spring" of 2003. The government then offered the Cuban Church to act as a mediator between Havana and the opposition. A formidable trap, since dissidents then criticized the episcopacy for acting as the sole intermediary of the Communist authorities.

Today, the Church's game remains very hard to read. While the Vatican played an important role in the rapprochement between Cuba and the United States, the visits by Pope Benedict XVI in 2012 and Francis in 2015 did not win any more worshippers.

Santería is too much rooted in the Cuban soul, and Cubans enjoy variety too much to be content with a single religion. As the Brazilian Dominican priest Frei Betto — author of Fidel & Religion: Conversations with Frei Betto on Marxism & Liberation Theology — once wrote: "Socialism still exists in Cuba because there is also salsa and Santería." But perhaps only Orula, the deity who predicts the future, knows how long this will last.

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