Cuba: Santeria, scarcity and survival
Catholic New Times, Feb 13, 2005 by Mario Degiglio-Bellemare
The rural solidarity program was over. All participants except for myself had gone back home. I had planned to stay on a little longer in order to visit a few important popular religious devotional sites.
Here I was in Cuba, going in the direction of Santiago de Las Vegas, about 30 minutes south of Havana.
I had come to Cuba as part of a diverse U.S.-based delegation of church folk, activists and small farmers attempting to forge links with Cuban agricultural cooperatives, small farms, and small organic growers. In my work as vice-chair of the World Student Christian Federation (WSCF) from 1999 to 2004, I came into contact with "Agricultural Missions" and was invited to participate in the Cuba rural justice tour.
For me, being in Cuba was a journey in bringing my knowledge of geo-politics, my interest in liberation theologies and my personal memories of nonno's garden into a comprehensible road map. As I walked through the finely crafted organic farms of Cuba, these seemingly distinct pieces began to fit together like a puzzle.
In isolation, and made vulnerable by Cold War U.S. foreign policies, Cuba has had a hard time sustaining socialist principles while trying to develop alternate economic models. Cubans had to diversify and return to organic farming in order to maintain basic food supplies. But like the slew of vintage cars on the streets of Havana testify, Cuba is a land of recycling.
We travelled to El Ricon, to the sanctuary of the famous San Lazaro shrine, one of the most important popular religious sites in Cuba. I was with my South African companero, Moa. The previous day, I took him to a divination session with a Santeria babalawo (priest), and a famous black virgin, Nuestra Senora de Regla (who mixes with the Santeria orisha, Yemaya--the patroness of the waters).
The Catholic devotion to San Lazaro has been associated with many healing miracles. Devotees come from across Cuba seeking his soothing comfort and assistance. Our translator in the solidarity program told us that when he had suffered depression, he found himself before San Lazaro one day seeking the saint's blessed support. He told us how that day his life was changed forever and his faith strengthened. He is now active member of the Baptist church and a progressive Christian working for justice in Cuba.
In the rich and complex imagination of Cuban popular religion, San Lazaro mixes with the Santeria orisha Babalu Oye, whose name means, "Father of the World." Although disfigured by disease, Babalu Oye is associated with a healing power that preferentially opts for the excluded of society, especially the sick. He is an important orisha in Cuba and his devotees can be seen sporting his trademark blue and black colored plastic beads around their necks or wrists. An orisha is basically a divine being, who like the Catholic saint, petitions on behalf of humanity, and whose origins stem from the cosmic religious worldview of the Yoruba peoples from present-day Nigeria and Benin.
Santeria is to Cuba what Voodoo is to Haiti: a hybrid religion cobbled together on slave ships and plantations, in-between the African, indigenous, and pre-Tridentine Catholic traditions of the Americas. And like Voodoo, Santeria has been an important system of identity formation, cultural survival, and anti-colonial resistance for slaves and their descendants in Cuba. Ask how widespread Santeria is on the island, and (as with Voodoo) many will tell you 90 to 99 per cent! A domestically-based religious system, Santeria is understood to permeate all aspects of Cuban society (not only the 'Afro-Cuban' reality), including popular Catholicism.
When Fidel Castro met Brazilian priest and liberation theologian, Frei Betto, in 1985, his eyes were opened to a revolutionary way of being Christian--and especially of being Catholic--in Latin America. Castro knew only the Catholic church of pre-revolution Cuba, a church that supported elite interests. Inspired by the early writings of liberation theologians, the bishops at the Medellin (Colombia) Conference in 1968 devised a radical re-thinking of Latin American Catholicism. Inspired in part by the success of the Cuban revolution, the Latin American Catholic bishops basically switched sides to be in solidarity with the landless poor instead of the elite landlords. But in Cuba, the Catholic hierarchy felt betrayed by the revolution and distrustful of its atheist Marxist ideology.
However, the leadership of some Protestant churches in Cuba attempted to foster a theology that was in critical support of the basic goals of the revolution. After his encounter with Betto, Castro met with religious leaders and opened Cuba to religious tolerance, hence an amendment to the constitution, which removed the word "atheist" from the definition of the post-revolutionary Cuban state and replaced it with the word "secular."
As I read through the Castro/Betto conversations, I am struck by the presence of the WSCF at these meetings. A group of Christian students open a session between Castro and Betto with a Bible study on Luke 4: 16-19, where they describe Jesus as a liberator who identified his ministry with the Jubilee tradition of the Hebrew Bible--15 years before the debt cancellation Jubilee campaign.
These WSCF students, mostly Protestants, were participating in the re-making of Cuba by re-engaging with the prophetic traditions of the Bible. This, I thought, has always been the strength of the WSCF, from its critique of fascism in Europe during WWII, to the anti-colonial struggles in the 'South' throughout the 1960s, to its contemporary focus on feminist theologies and religious pluralism. Prophetic Bible study programs have been the heart and soul of the WSCF and they continue to be.
Absence of prophetic Catholicism
Where was the prophetic Catholicism we have come to know from Latin American liberation theologies? Certainly not at the level of the so-called 'official' Catholicism of the clerics. When asked by a young woman named Regla (who professed Santeria) what faith I adhered to, I told her I was Catholic. Regla told me that the height and base of Catholicism in Cuba tend to exist semi-autonomously. In my academic work I tend to avoid easy dichotomies, but here in Cuba, this split is very strong.
The ways in which Catholicism and Santeria have been brought together is one example of the way in which popular religion is in itself a distinct wisdom of the people. It is what Chilean Catholic sociologist of religion, Christian Parker, calls Latin America's otra logica. Parker means that the religious wisdom of the people, especially its hybrid character, is 'an/ other' kind of rationality, a different way of understanding the divine and the world.
The 'official' theologies of Catholicism are much too invested in the framework of Western modernity to understand popular religion on its own terms. This is not only true in Cuba, but everywhere in Latin American, where in the expression "I'm Catholic," writes theologian Diego Irarrazaval, "for many Latin American people implicitly mean that they take part in the feast days of the people."
The healing miracles of San Lazaro/Babalu Oye are not simply the folk stories of old. Devotion is still alive and well. On San Lazaro's feast day (Dec. 17), some devotees travel great distances to fulfill contractual obligations with their transcendent ally. In the popular religious imagination of Latin America, milagros or miracles, are everyday occurrences to be expected. Studies on popular religion in Cuba have shown a long history of curanderismo, the practice of healing, which finds its roots as a survival strategy to the shock and trauma of conquest and slavery.
The U.S. blockade has crushed the hopes of many Cubans seeking a transformed future. What kind of future do Cubans want? I venture to say a future that engages the basic goals of the revolution, but differently; a future that can heal and reconcile the deep divisions that have plagued families and communities.
San Lazaro and Babalu Oye will surely be part of this different future somehow.
Mario Degiglio-Bellemare is a theology doctoral student at the University of Toronto.
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