Faced with the Difficulties of Life, Santeria Spreads in Cuba
Like a young fortune teller or a sorcerer out of A Thousand and One Nights, in Omar’s memory are rites, spells, stories and words, mixed in ancient languages. Talkative, with toasted skin and wide-open eyes, he lives among books and sacred objects of the the Regla of Ocha.*
Omar has tried to understand Santeria from practice, respect and rationality. Devoid of fanaticism and open to dialogue, there are few people in Santa Clara — a city that’s a labyrinth of beliefs — with whom you can talk so seriously about the Afro-Cuban religious universe.
“Although I warn you,” he says, “that I will only talk about Ocha, because Palo Monte and abakuá, also of African origin, are two topics in which I have no life or book experience.”
In this conversation with Omar, I’m trying to learn why Cuban celebrities and politicians are so interested in Santeria and what the “state of health” of this religion is on the Island. It’s continually intriguing that there are pro-government factions and “independent” babalawos [high priests] who predict the government’s imminent fall.
Politics, religion, fear, honor among initiates, superstition, the usurpation of ritual elements by State Security to frighten dissidents… the list of topics would exhaust the serenity of a reasonable interlocutor. But Omar is patient, like an elderly sorcerer, and he begins to look for the causes of the problem.
“The Afro-Cuban religion is everywhere,” he says. “It penetrates jargon, gestures and imagination; it molds national beauty, and even gives shape to the worst in Cubans, in a process where many elements are replaced by others of disturbing origin.”
“The first sign of this ‘mess’,” Omar explains, “can be found in what someone called the baby boom of the babalawos in the eighties and nineties.” This boom occurred thanks to Miguel Febles (1910-1986), a santero who “reduced” the rigorous controls to be initiated into the religion.
The center of consecration of a babalawo is the “foundation,” an orisha or fetish on which the ceremony is performed. Before Febles, the number of foundations was very small, and to initiate a new babalawo the fetish had to be loaned or rented, often from one city to another.
“Febles relaxed the rigor for delivering the fetish,” says Omar, “in favor of the economic capacities of those who intended to receive it. That guaranteed an arithmetic growth in the number of consecrations.”
The babalawo had traditionally been formed according to criteria very similar to those of Freemasonry: he must be heterosexual, “wise,” a good son, father and husband, with availability to advance in the study of religion. But, after the reform of Febles, that ideal was blurred, and “people of a very diverse nature began to be consecrated, among whom were many foreigners, thugs, pimps and people from different professions.”
The Special Period and the new millennium brought more changes to the Regla de Ocha: initiations became more expensive, a process of commodification began — monetary benefit rather than spiritual profit — and santeros immersed themselves in a kind of “success model.” Not to mention the “invention” of orishas to attract tourists who were looking for an “exotic” and Creole religion.
“In this new dynamic,” Omar laments, “people ask for three fundamental things: solving love problems with witchcraft or sorcery; spiritual cleansings to improve personal luck; and magical protection to deal with justice.”
He adds that “the hazardous living conditions faced by Cubans condition the search for security on the esoteric level, precisely because they want to control the chaos that is experienced daily through the intervention of magic.”
Omar refers, not without discomfort, to Cuban artists who have made Santería a kind of “seal.” “Luna Manzanares became iyawo [an initiate of Santeria] during Fidel Castro’s pharaonic funerals,” he says, “knowing that an iyawo is prohibited from participating in funeral activities or entering cemeteries.”
“Kimiko and Yordi made their most famous video, El Campeon [The Champion], dressed as iyawos, even though they knew that in their state it’s taboo to take photos or appear in a video. But these artists did nothing more than reproduce what Chacal and Yakarta had done at other times, and many others. Today the timberos celebrate with musical themes their access to the most misogynistic and exclusive cult of Ifá, according to the trend that Adalberto Álvarez began when he became a babalawo.”
Omar doesn’t speak of the “approach” of the leaders of the Communist Party to Santeria, considered as an “unofficial religion” by the Central Committee, nor about the “saints” attributed to Díaz-Canel and other government figures. “I had no idea that elements of the Ocha, such as animals, were used to threaten or scare dissidents. That amazes me!” he says, when asked about the dismembered birds in the doorways of several opposition houses.
“But don’t be fooled,” Omar warns, “the visibility of the practice has nothing to do with its good conservation.”
As happened in the Special Period, religion once again acquires a kind of “anesthetic” status on the island in the face of the difficulties of life. People pray, look for answers, trust the “beyond” and consult all kinds of divinatory mechanisms to know how much longer they have to “resist.”
On the other hand, the Government has made every effort to assimilate and organize, according to its parameters, the religious panorama of the island. Entities such as the Council of Churches of Cuba and the Yoruba Cultural Association have an agenda defined by State Security, according to a recent report by the organization Prisoners Defenders, based in Madrid.
Santería, practiced in a more or less orthodox way by many Cubans, faces not only the internal division and infiltration of the G2, but also the mass exodus that the island is experiencing. The response given by babalawos and their believers to this phenomenon and their rigor or flexibility in the new rites, celebrated beyond the Island border, will largely determine the survival of this religion, which has several centuries of antiquity and tradition in Cuba.
*Translator’s note: La Regla de Ocha combines the Yoruba religion, Catholicism and Espiritismo, which allows communication with ancestors through prayer. The saints of Regla de Ocha are called orishas.
Translated by Regina Anavy