‘Cachita’ Goes for a Walk Through Havana Under the Watchful Eye of the Political Police
With more needs but equal enthusiasm, Havana residents gathered this Friday at the Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre Church on the corner of Manrique and Salud, in Centro Habana. Inflation and mass exodus have marked the day dedicated to Cachita*, the Patroness Saint of Cuba, in modest and heavily monitored celebrations.
“I managed to buy a small bouquet of sunflowers for 500 pesos, but I was lucky because most are between 700 and 1,500”, an elderly woman told 14ymedio. She came to Mass in the central church that every September 8 pays tribute to “the mother of all Cubans”.
From Avenida Galiano, metal fences and several police officers controlled the passage to the Havana temple where thousands of people attend every September 8 to pay tribute. This year the date has coincided with a deep economic crisis, which has cut back on the offerings left on the altar at the entrance of the church.
Outside the temple, dozens of people waited for the image of Cachitato emerge to follow it in a procession through Zanja, Galiano and Reina streets and finally back to Manrique. A route in which flower petals are thrown from the balconies and the Cuban State Security tightly controls the passage of the devotees.
After half past five in the afternoon the image of the Virgin appeared through the door of the church and was received with songs, applause and raised hands holding mobile phones trying to capture the moment. A vehicle with loudspeakers was waiting for Cachita and people alternately dressed in yellow and white clothes in the crowd, symbols of the Virgin who, in African religions, is syncretized with Oshun.
“What I want is for you to bring me luck on the journey I have to undertake,” repeated a young woman to the image, one of the first devotees with a sunflower in her hand, as soon as she descended the stairs of the temple. “I already set your yellow candle for you and now I need you to accompany me on the road. Little Virgin, go with me”, she repeated.
The crowd’s passage was guarded by the evident presence of State Security agents dressed in civilian clothes. This is the second procession after the suspensions of public activities forced by the pandemic and comes at a time of great popular unrest due to inflation, lack of cash and mass departures from the Island.
“My daughter is crossing right now through Nicaragua,” says Nieves, a 62-year-old Havana native who has been left in charge of her two granddaughters. “Our Virgin of Charity knows about that, she accompanies the rafters and everyone who leaves here, so I come to ask you to guide my daughter until she reaches her goal”.
Next to Nieves, two teenagers pointed their phones at the image of the Virgin. The Instagram and Tik Tok generation also mark a day where many had empty hands where before there were candles, bouquets of flowers or images. The crisis has turned this procession into a moment for minimalism. Some didn’t even get to the procession and were content with the photos.
At her house in Lawton, Mercedes de la Caridad preferred to wait for a couple of friends to send her the images of the procession. “With what it costs me for a round trip by car, I buy candles, candy and flowers for Cachita to put here”, she says. Next to the image of the saint, a sweet meringue, cascarilla and honey close the syncretism with which Mercedes lives her religiosity.
“The sunflowers have been very small this year”, laments a seller of flowers and other religious supplies who has a small table on Salud Street. “I buy from others and what has arrived in Havana is all like this, small and expensive. People complain, but for us the prices have risen a lot too. It is not a whim; it is what a sunflower is worth right now”.
On the corners, agents in plainclothes stood out from the surroundings. Among the ruling party’s fears through the last two years is that the procession will become the scene of some demand for the release of political prisoners, which, since the protests of July 11, 2021, have increased to more than a thousand.
For the rest, from the beginning, the day has been influenced by complaints. The director of the Daughters of Charity in Cuba, Nadieska Almeida, published a text this Thursday on Facebook in which she summarized her wishes: “I want a free people. I want a government in dialogue. I want inclusion in this Cuba house. I want possibilities for everyone. “I want to dream again”.
“Where do we look when what surrounds us is hunger, abandonment, permanent flight from a country where it’s increasingly difficult to breathe? How can we stay here by choice? How can we find meaning in this senselessness?” questioned the religious nun, one of the most critical Catholic voices in Cuba.
Father Alberto Reyes, a priest, also described the current moment harshly, and extended his request to the Virgin to “help us get rid of so many omnipresent written, broadcast, televised… official lies, so much institutionalized falsehoods, so much sham that only serves to feed social paralysis”.
Dominican Priest Léster Rafael Zayas, for his part, asked his parishioners if Cubans had done “something wrong” to deserve that, in Cuba, “something has broken definitively.” He lamented the thousands of “fewer voices” in Cuba, after leaving on “planes that leave for Nicaragua… on a one-way trip: the backpacks of those who travel say so”. “What have we done wrong that young people do not feel proud of being Cuban?” He questioned. His response: “To silently approve with our lowered heads what is not right. What we have done wrong is to let fear overcome us, and lies take over all areas of our lives.”
Furthermore, he alluded to “young Cubans, who prefer to go to fight in Ukraine to obtain Russian nationality”. “What do we have to do with the Russians?” He added, criticizing those who let themselves be carried away by the “slogans”.
At this Friday’s mass at the Church of the Charity, Juan de la Caridad García Rodríguez, cardinal and current Archbishop of the Archdiocese of San Cristóbal de la Habana, was present. With his sparse, uncharismatic style, the priest limited himself to asking for the blessing of the Virgin for everyone and starting the procession immediately after.
The rest of the way was mixed with emotion, pleas and attentive looks from the police. For those who could not be in the procession in Havana, there was the possibility of following the mass at the National Sanctuary of La Virgen de La Caridad del Cobre, in Santiago de Cuba, starting at 8:45 pm this Friday. On the same television schedule where religion was stigmatized for decades, this Friday, Cachita will be able to be seen.
*Translator’s note: Nickname often used in Cuba for “Caridad,” the word for “charity.”