Sunday, July 24, 2005

Santeria vs. Catholicism in Cuba (1998)

Afro-Cubans say Catholics have slighted their religions

In Cuba, a clash between religions Afro-Cuban creeds, Catholics at odds

January 12, 1998, in the Miami Herald
Herald Staff Writer

In a clash over Cuba's religious image, leaders of Afro-Cuban creeds are complaining the Roman Catholic Church has launched an offensive against them on the eve of Pope John Paul II's visit.

Catholics have branded them "pseudo religions,'' the Afro-Cuban leaders say, excluded them from meetings with the pope and rejected their offer of a drumming rite of welcome for the pontiff in Havana's cathedral.

Cardinal Jaime Ortega has denied attacking the religions and said he's only criticizing efforts, by the communist government, to promote Afro-Cuban rites as an alternative to Catholicism and a tourism draw.

"It gives me great pain that for propaganda and business reasons . . . there are attempts to split'' Afro-Cuban believers away from Catholicism, Ortega told the church magazine Truth and Hope in a recent interview.

"These brothers know . . . the church has always welcomed them with Christian Love,'' he added. "The offensive, if there is one, is not against those brothers but against those who aim to split them away.''

Such words have not soothed leaders of the religions brought to Cuba by African slaves—Santeria, Palo Monte and Abakua—who complain that Cuba's Catholic hierarchy is out to attack and marginalize them.

"As far back as October, the church has been more publicly verbal in its anti-Santeria positions,'' said Ricardo Guerra, a Havana Santeria babalawo, or priest, who talked to Ortega after a Mass last Tuesday.

Catholics claim to be the largest religion in Cuba, with 4.2 million baptized members. Afro-Cuban rites have a strong following, but one harder to quantify because they lack institutional organization.

"I told Ortega we simply wanted to know why they excluded us'' from the pontiff's Jan. 25 meeting with leaders of Cuba's Protestant, Jewish and Catholic faiths, Guerra said in a phone conversation.

"The cardinal said the meeting is for Christians only, but that he would try to meet us after the pope's trip,'' Guerra said. Told that Jews are not Christians, he seemed surprised. "You see? It's just us.''

Not taken seriously

Afro-Cuban religious leaders also pointed to past comments by Ortega, who has referred to the faiths as "pseudo religions,'' and Havana Msgr. Jaime Gaitan, who has said that Santeria "lowers man to mediocrity.''

"There are academics who believe Santeria is an official religion. It would seem that our culture was African . . . and that this would be the only way to express religiosity,'' Gaitan said in a homily in September.

Behind such comments is the belief by Cuban Catholics that the communist government has long favored Afro-Cuban religions as a political counterweight to Catholicism and a lucrative tourist attraction.

Although President Fidel Castro favored Santeria in his first years in power as the religion of Cuba's black and poor, his government began stifling all religions when it declared itself communist and atheist in 1962.

But in 1978, the government began promoting several Afro-Cuban babalawos, friendly to the regime, as folkloric attractions for foreigners who paid in hard currency, said Havana Santeria expert Natalia Bolivar.

They were the so-called "diplo-babalawos,'' who charged for their services in U.S. dollars, just like the government "diplo-stores'' that sell imported goods to foreign diplomats in dollars.

The government kept most of the dollars, Bolivar said, from the $15,000 that a Spanish TV station once paid to film a half-hour ceremony to the $1,000 that babalawos charged to initiate visiting foreigners into the secrets of their religions.

Those babalawos also put on special "ceremonies'' for foreigners, including some with bare-breasted women dancers who went into "trances,'' and eventually drew strong protests from serious believers.

Government tourism offices, meanwhile, promoted the Afro-Cuban religions in their advertising abroad, giving the impression that Santeria and not Catholicism was the island's dominant religion,

"For years this government has promoted Santeria as a virtual official religion, giving oxygen to friendly babalawos to earn tourist dollars while trying to asphyxiate the church,'' said one Havana priest.

A more defined faith

But with Catholics growing in strength as Castro eased restrictions in advance of the pope's visit, the priest added, church leaders decided it was time to push their own dogma, embracing all Afro-Cuban believers who accept Catholic leadership while distancing the rest.

"It seems to me the church has decided that it wants people to be more defined in their faith, less willing to mix their Catholicism with Santeria,'' said Ernesto Pichardo, president of Hialeah's Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye.

"They are pushing for the people to be fully converted to Catholicism, and not be mixing religions,'' added Natalia Bolivar, both an academic expert and believer in Afro-Cuban religions.

Catholic relations with the Afro-Cuban religions have always been uneasy because of their tenuous common ground—Catholic practices adopted by the Afro-Cubans long ago to hide their African roots from slave masters.

Ortega has recently sidelined the Rev. Carlos Manuel de Cespedes, a former Havana vicar and liberal who long advocated Catholic tolerance of Afro-Cuban religions and followers.

But even the leaders of Afro-Cuban religions themselves do not agree on their relationship with Catholicism.

Many babalawos insist that theirs is a "syncretic'' religion, a mixture of African and Catholic beliefs. That is why some of the Afro-Cuban gods known as Orishas also have Catholic equivalents such as the Virgin Mary.

"I have been Catholic since birth, and I demand that all my followers are baptized in the church before I initiate them,'' said Miguel Angel Plasencia, a 47-year-old Santeria priest in Havana.

But some purists argue that Afro-Cuban rites should be considered independent, fully formed religions that only took on some of the trappings of Catholicism to protect themselves.

"These are not syncretic religions,'' said Bolivar. "They are separate religions, but they make use of Catholicism and send their people to fill Catholic churches.''

Copyright © 1998 The Miami Herald

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