Reports from Cuba: The devotion to Saint Lazarus

By Ivan Garcia in Translating Cuba:

Cuba: The Devotion to Saint Lazarus

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The plastic artist Luis Manuel Otero shortly before being arrested by the political police.

On the night of Thursday, 14 December at night, after fifteen hours on the road under a copious downpour, from Sagua de Tánamo, in Holguín, province 530 miles northwest of Havana, in an old General Motors truck from the 1950s, Erasmus and his wife arrived in Havana ready to fulfill their promise to Saint Lazarus, who is as popular among Cubans as the Virgin of Charity of Cobre, Cuba’s patron saint.

“We live in a neighborhood called Ocapuna. My wife had breast cancer that thanks to the ’old man’ she overcame it. I was threatened with twelve years for embezzlement in a coffee company. And my prayers to Saint Lazarus were heard. After these incidents, even if I have to walk, I will give my offerings to the Saint,” says Erasmo.

On the morning of Friday the 15th, after a hearty breakfast of melon juice, bread with pork steak and cold salad of macaroni with ham, pineapple and mayonnaise, the couple, dressed in sackcloth and dragging a medium-sized stone they began their journey to Rincón, a small town south of the capital, where at the stroke of twelve o’clock on Saturday, December 16, in the sanctuary adjoining a leprosarium, the saint of beggars and the poor is venerated.

Erasmus wants to arrive at the town of El Rincon in the afternoon and buy candles, flowers and prayers. Also food and a bottle of rum to alleviate the cold that usually attends this time of year. “We thought to sleep outside in the sanctuary and after the mass, give our offering to old Lazarus. He deserves it.”

Because the procession coincides with the weekend, the “congregation of devotees, which is always impressive, this year is expected to be more numerous,” says a priest of a church in the neighborhood of La Víbora, who adds:

“There is a lot of frustration in the country. The wet foot/dry foot policy was eliminated, with the arrival of Trump to the White House and relations between Cuba and the United States have worsened. And after the supposed acoustic attacks, obtaining family reunification visas has become very complicated, because people have to travel to Colombia with all the expenses that represents. In addition, the government has slowed down its economic reforms.

“For more than three months now, it has not been issuing licenses to the most prosperous private businesses and the economy continues to deteriorate. All this is being suffered by the Cuban family, with salaries that do not solve much, a lack of housing, expensive food and an indecipherable future. As if that were not enough, it is unknown what will be the course of Cuba within three or four months, when it is assumed that Raúl Castro will leave power.”

Not only is Catholicism favored in times of economic crisis and people’s distrust of the poor management of the regime. Evangelists, Protestants and Jehovah’s Witnesses, among others, have increased their numbers of faithful. As have, of course, the Afro-Cuban religions, both Santería and Palo. Due to religious syncretism on the Island, Saint Lazarus is also known as Babalú Ayé and is venerated without distinction of creed.

Three years ago Yanira joined Santería — Yemayá, clarifies — and now goes dressed in white to El Rincón. “Every December 16, on the eve of Saint Lazarus, I’m walking down Rancho Boyeros Avenue to Rincón. The last section, from the village to the sanctuary, I crawled down the street. I have a lot of faith in old Lazarus. Thanks to him I have been successful in life.”

According to Ana Luisa, a resident in the town of Rincón and owner of a small business selling entrepanes (sandwiches) and flowers, “there are believers who spend up to one hundred convertible pesos in offerings to Saint Lazarus. When this time of year arrives, almost everyone in the village starts to sell something: food, flowers, candles, statuettes … Whatever it is, to take advantage of the influx of thousands of devotees, who usually pay a lot of money.”

Shortly before December 17, El Rincón is decorated with large floral decorations and dozens of images of San Lazaro, some of large size, which are placed in glass urns or in the portals of the houses.

On the main street, several private coffee shops offer Creole food, fruit smoothies, ham and cheese sandwiches or bread with roasted suckling pig. They also sell coffee, beer, rum, brandy and red wine, which helps to bear the coldness and damp that at night is felt in El Rincón, which belongs to Santiago de las Vegas, a town where temperatures usually drop quite a bit in December.

Although the official press hardly reports on the pilgrimage, spontaneously thousands of Cubans come to venerate Saint Lazarus. “It’s a village show. Even in the hard years, when the regime banned religious demonstrations, people flocked to the Rincón. That voluntary participation in Cuba only occurs in baseball games or mega concerts, like the Rolling Stones,” says Carlos, sociologist.

In spite of the silence, the authorities allow a flotilla of state buses to transport thousands of people to the sanctuary. During the journey on foot, hundreds of policemen, black berets and agents of the State Security dressed in civilian clothes, without much discretion, watch the pilgrims.

The plastic artists Luis Manuel Otero and José Ernesto Alonso, began a walk in support of freedom and democracy in Cuba, but they could not even leave Centro Habana: at the intersection of Belascoaín and Carlos III, they were detained by the political police. Alonso has already been released, but Otero’s whereabouts are unknown.

And by tradition, Saint Lazarus receives various prayers and petitions. Erasmo and his wife, from the Ocapuna neighborhood in the eastern province of Holguín, thank the “old man” for healing breast cancer and having escaped from prison.

Other faithful, like Ernesto, come from Miami to pray for reunification as soon as possible with his daughter who lives in Havana. And Otero and Alonso, with all their rights, they demand freedom and democracy.

Saint Lazarus, somewhere, hears them all.