Cuba was officially atheist from the early 1960s until 1992 (it has since officially been a secular state). Nonetheless, a recent government survey found that more than half of all Cubans are creyentes, believers of one sort or another.
Cubans have always been relatively lukewarm about Christianity. In colonial times, there were few churches in rural districts, where it was usual for a traveling priest to call only once a year to perform baptisms and marriages. Moreover, the Catholic Church sided with the Spanish against the patriots during the colonial era and was seen by criollos as representing authoritarianism hand-in-hand with the Spanish Crown.
Later, the Catholic Church had a quid pro quo with the corrupt Machado, Grau, and Batista regimes. When the Revolution triumphed, many of the clergy left for Miami along with the rich to whom they had ministered. The Catholic Church grew concerned as the Revolution moved left; when Fidel nationalized the church’s lands, it became a focus of opposition. In August 1960, the Catholic bishops issued a pastoral letter formally denouncing the Castro government. Many priests were expelled. Practicing Catholics were banned from the Communist Party. Practitioners were harassed. Religious education was eliminated from the school curriculum, and a scientific understanding of the world was promoted.
In 1986 Fidel Castro performed an about face: Religion was no longer the opiate of the masses. In 1991, the Communist Party opened its doors to believers, and security agents disappeared from churches. It was a timely move, co-opting the shifting mood. The collapse of the Soviet Union and onset of the Special Period left a spiritual vacuum that fed church attendance. Castro attempted to go with the rising tide.
In November 1996, Castro met with Pope John Paul II in Rome. The pontiff’s emotionally charged visit to Cuba in January 1998 was an extraordinary event that boosted the influence of the Catholic Church in Cuba and reignited an expression of faith among the Cuban people. (The pope’s visit prompted a flood of Protestant missionaries, who seem more fearful of the spread of “papism” than of Communism. Castro has preferred the Protestant church. Protestants are estimated to number about 300,000, with about 23 distinct churches represented.)
The Catholic Church hierarchy has continued to be highly critical of the Castro government. Despite increased tolerance of the church, harassment continues. In December 1999 the pope, disappointed with the meager progress since his visit, urged Castro to respect human rights and display “a more generous opening.”
A huge percentage of Cubans remain atheistic, or at least agnostic. A far larger percentage, however, are superstitious and believe to lesser or greater degree in santería, to hedge their bets.
Santería, or saint worship, has been deeply entrenched in Cuban culture for 300 years. The cult is a fusion of Catholicism with the Lucumí religion of the African Yoruba tribes of modern-day Nigeria and Benin. Since slave masters had banned African religious practice, the slaves cloaked their gods in Catholic garb and continued to pray to them in disguise. Thus, in santería, Catholic figures are avatars of the Yoruban orishas (divine beings, or guardian spirits, of African animism). Metaphorically orishas change their identity—even their gender—at midnight. By day, adherents may pray in front of a figure of Santa Barbara and at night worship the same figure as Changó. There are about 400 guardian spirits in the pantheon, but only about 20 are honored in daily life.
It is thought that the orishas control an individual’s life, performing miracles on a person’s behalf. They are thus consulted and besought. A string of bad luck will be blamed on an orisha, who must be placated. They’re too supreme for mere mortals to communicate with directly: Santeros or babalawos (priests) act as go-betweens to interpret their commands (for a fee). Babalawos use divination to interpret the obi and ifá (oracles) and solve everyday problems, using pieces of dried coconut shells and seashells.
Many a home has a statue of an orisha to appease the spirits of the dead. Even Fidel Castro, a highly superstitious person, is said to be a believer. He had triumphed on January 1, a holy day for the orishas. The red and black flag of the revolutionaries was that of Elegguá, god of destiny. Then, on January 8, 1959, as Fidel delivered his victory speech before the nation, two doves flew over the audience and circled the brightly lit podium; miraculously, one of the doves alighted on Fidel’s shoulder, touching off an explosion from the ecstatic onlookers: “Fee-del! Fee-del! Fee-del!” In santería, doves are symbols of Obatalá, the son of God. To Cubans—and perhaps Fidel himself—the event was a supreme symbol that the gods had chosen Fidel to guide Cuba. It was “one of those rare, magical moments when cynics are transformed into romantics and romantics into fanatics,” wrote photojournalist Lee Lockwood.
Nonetheless, following the Revolution, the government stigmatized santería as brujería (witchcraft) and tried to convert it into a folkloric movement. In the late 1980s, santería bounced back. In 1990 the Castro government began to co-opt support for the faith. Reportedly, many babalawos have been recruited as agents by MININT, for they above all know people’s secrets.
Throughout Cuba, you’ll see believers clad all in white, having just gone through their initiation rites as santeros or santeras. A follower of santería may choose at any stage in life to undertake an elaborate initiation that will tear the follower away from his or her old life and set their feet on la regla de ocha—the way of the orishas. During this time, the iyawó will be possessed by, and under the care of, a specific orisha who will guide the initiate to a deeper, richer life. Initiations are highly secret and involve animal sacrifice (usually pigeons and roosters). The rites are complex. They include having to dress solely in white and stay indoors at night for a year, though exceptions are made for employment. And an iyawó may not touch anyone or permit him- or herself to be touched, except by the most intimate family members or, this being Cuba, by lovers.
Santería is a sensuous religion—the orishas let adherents have a good time. The gods themselves are fallible and hedonistic philanderers, such as the much feared and respected Changó (or Santa Barbara), whose many mistresses include Oyá (or Santa Teresa, patron saint of the ill and dead, and guardian of cemeteries) and Ochún (the Virgen de la Caridad), the sensuous black goddess of love.
Each saint has specific attributes. Changó, for example, dresses in red and white and carries a scepter with a double-headed axe. Followers of Changó wear collars decorated with red and white plastic beads. Ochún wears yellows; thus her followers wear yellow and white beads. Obatalá (the Virgen de la Merced), goddess of peace and creation, dresses in white. Yemayá (the Virgen de Regla), goddess of the sea and of motherhood, wears blue and white. Each saint also has as an “altar” where offerings (fruits, rum-soaked cakes, pastries, and coins) are placed. Devout santeros even keep a collection of vases in their bedrooms in which one’s personal orisha, plus Obatalá, Yemayá, Ochún, and Changó live, in that hierarchical order.
African Cult Religions
Other spiritualist cults exist in Cuba. The most important is the all-male Abakuá secret mutual protection society that originated in Nigeria, appearing in Cuba in the early 19th century. It still functions among the most marginalized black communities, where it is known as ñañiguismo. The first duty of an adherent is to protect a fellow member. Membership is restricted to “brave, virile, dignified, moral men” who contribute to their communities. It involves worship of ancestral devil figures, called diablitos or iremes, where dancers dress from head to toe in hooded hessian costumes.
Palo Monte (known also as reglas congas) also derives from west-central Africa and is a spirit religion that harnesses the power of the deceased to control supernatural forces. Adherents (called paleros) use ritual sticks and plants to perform magic. Initiates receive small incisions in their body into which magical substances are inserted.
© Christopher P. Baker from Moon Cuba, 5th Edition