Revolutionary Spirits: Afro-Cuban Religion in Castro's Cuba
Theron E. Corse
Asst. Professor, Latin American History
Fayetteville State University
Prepared for presentation at SECOLAS, 1998, Savannah.

Over the last two years, I have begun a preliminary study of the relationship between Afro-Cuban religion and the Cuban state since the 1959 revolution. This relationship is critical to a full understanding of the role of religion in Cuba, but remains largely unstudied. In a series of interviews with practitioners of Santeria and other Afro-Cuban religions in Havana and Matanzas, I have been studying how these religion have fared under the Revolutionary government, and how that relationship has developed over the last thirty-eight years. In particular, I have been interested in the extent to which the development of this relationship mirrors that of the relationship between the Christian churches and the state outlined in John Kirk's Between God and Party (1987). This study is based primarily on approximately thirty interviews conducted in July, 1996 and January and September of this year. As yet, I have done little archival work, and have made no official contacts with government representatives.

The best study of Church-State relations in Cuba is Kirk's Between God and Party. In it, he outlines a series of stages: (1) Initial euphoria on the part of the Catholic Church was followed by (2) an almost immediate confrontation and complete breakdown of the relationship stemming from the developing leftward tilt of the government. (3) From 1962-1969, the Church, at its nadir, remained silent while it was marginalized and largely ignored by the state. (4) After 1969, the Church broke its silence, and through 1979 the two sides worked openly on developing an accommodation, (5) a process that accelerated in the 1980s, (6) developing into a degree of genuine rapprochement by 1987.

Kirk argues that the breakdown of relations between the Catholic Church and revolutionary state was fundamentally the result of politics. Church leaders interpreted the leftism of the Revolution in light of the Soviet Union's official atheism, and quickly moved to the forefront of the political opposition. The new government reacted angrily, and the Church found itself completely out of its league in a rapidly escalating conflict. Kirk believes that for revolutionary leaders, ideological, anti-religious attitudes stemming from Marxist atheism were of secondary concern in the break between Church and state. The conflict was inherently political.

This is not to say that ideology was unimportant. The role of Fidel Castro highlights this. It seems clear that religion is an important topic to Castro. In his discussions of religion, he focuses on the revolutionary nature of Christianity, and has praised the social work efforts of Christian groups. He has given support to liberation theology and its antecedents. But as Kirk describes it, Castro has done this while having to work against the anti-religious attitudes of many Party members. Kirk believes that Castro has worked to push these two sides together, seeking a common revolutionary ground for Church and Party.

The relationship between the Afro-Cuban religions and the revolutionary state mirror the relationship with the Catholic Church in many ways. Like the Christian churches, Santeria and related religions suffered an initial period of repression from 1959 through 1962. One of my most important informants, a babalawo-doctor in Havana named Remberto Chaguaceda, believes that Santeria was caught up in the state's efforts to cerrar religion, to seal it off from the rest of society. From the beginning of the Revolution through the early 1970s, the Afro-Cuban religions went through their most difficult period. Chaguaceda would close his fist in our interviews as a visual metaphor for the state's efforts to close off these religions in a hermetic seal. First, Afro-Cuban religions were cut off from positions of power and influence. Party members were not allowed to participate, and ideologically sensitive jobs, such as teaching, were off-limits. Professionals, such as doctors, were also supposed to stay away from these religions, though obviously Dr. Chaguaceda, like others, was able to avoid the restrictions.

For Santeria, the key restrictions were those placed on gatherings. Santeria and its cousins are heavily dependent on group rituals, so any restrictions on gatherings and processions would weigh heavily upon them. Religious processions were banned in Cuba in 1961. A series of confrontations involving Catholic processions, culminating in a melee stemming from a procession on the feast day of Cuba's patrona, the Virgin of Caridad del Cobre, resulted in the ban. While the outright ban was later relaxed somewhat, Afro-Cuban processionals, which ordinarily are heavily syncretized with Catholic processionals (the Virgin de Caridad del Cobre, for example, also represents Oshun, one of the key goddesses of Santeria), came under the same heavy restrictions.

More important were the restrictions placed on private gatherings. The government seemed to fear these gatherings because of their potential to stand as cover for something else, particularly as cover for political gatherings. While not strictly illegal, large gatherings, such as those that would normally accompany important rituals, required police permits, which in the 1960s and early 1970s were exceedingly difficult to obtain. In response, practitioners continued to conduct ceremonies, but with great care. Curtains would be drawn and doors shut, while all signing and music was done in voz baja. Considering the noise that an unrestricted ritual can produce, with several drummers and dancers and dozens of singers, such efforts were a very concrete reminder of the difficulties practitioners faced in this period. Also, practitioners had to take great care as to who was invited to these gatherings, for fear of betrayal. Such runs counter to the normal practice of Santeria, in which most rituals are open to all comers.

A slow change began in the early 1970s, and was clearly underway by 1975. While this corresponds roughly to the beginning of the easing of tensions between the Catholic Church and the state, it is much harder to date this shift because, unlike the Christian churches, their is no official Afro-Cuban hierarchy that could open a dialogue with the government, as happened with the Catholics. From 1975 until about 1989, Cuba witnessed a gradual easing of restrictions on Afro-Cuban religion, whose practitioners were able to work in a somewhat more open environment. While improving relations between the state and the Christian churches probably had a spillover effect on the Afro-Cuban religions, the key element in this period appears to be the influence of foreigners. The interest of foreign anthropologists and academics in Afro-Cuban culture seems to have made the government more aware of the possibilities inherent in these religions. During this period, the state treated Afro-Cuban religion primarily as an example of folklore, establishing museums and promoting dance and music groups on a limited scale. Not only could the state benefit materially from the presence of foreign academics, it also stood to gain from a revival of interest in all things Cuban that these academics could bring, an interest focused on something other than the immediate political situation. Also, Carlos Moore has suggested that the Cuban government began reaching out to Afro-Cubans in the mid-1970s in an effort to garner support for its interventionist policies in Africa, and this may also have contributed to the gradual relaxation of restrictions on Afro-Cuban religion.

The changes that took place in this period were gradual. Dramatic change would have to wait until 1989, when Cuba first began to place renewed emphasis on travel, and large numbers of Western tourists began to appear. Change accelerated rapidly with the beginnings of the Periodo Especial, such that today, Afro-Cuban religion operates in a very open and public way. The primary reason for this is financial - all my informants agree that the Cuban state has recognized the financial potential of Afro-Cuban religion and its ability to draw hard currency out of the pockets of foreign tourists. Naturally, the state has become heavily involved in the folkloric aspects of the religion, promoting music and dance groups, whose performances are now commonplace in tourist packages. In Havana and Matanzas, I have found evidence of a number of such groups forming, training, and seeking official status so as to gain access to tourist and foreign markets. There is an academic side to this as well. Besides promoting academic conferences devoted to Afro-Cuban themes, some schools and universities, such as the University of Matanzas, are now offering music and dance instruction to foreigners.

The government is also apparently fully aware of the financial potential of foreign converts. The late 1980s and 1990s have seen an upsurge in foreigners seeking spiritual or medical advice from practitioners, and some of these foreigners have gone on to become converts. While it is possible to arrange the elaborate and expensive initiation ceremonies, such as the hacer santo, working through private members of the priesthood, there are also state-sponsored cabildos (religious houses) which foreigners can work through. In these state-sponsored cabildos, foreigners are expected to pay in dollars for all the materials needed, and the state gets a cut of any proceeds. These "official" cabildos are supposedly a secret affair, but many of my informants were aware of their existence. One of them, not surprisingly, is run by a man named Lazaro Ros, who is also a musician who performs Afro-Cuban music abroad, meaning that he has well-established contacts with foreigners and is part of the older effort of state-sponsored folkloric activity.

This official state involvement in these religions has been accompanied by a far more open toleration of the practices and activities of believers, evidenced in large part by the increasingly prominent role that these religions are taking in public life. Santeria music is much more common on the radio. Large numbers of people now openly wear the colored necklaces characteristic of believers, something that was uncommon before 1989. Rituals are now open, and easy to find. In Matanzas, or in the Havana suburbs of Regla and Guanabacoa, sometimes all you have to do is follow the sounds of drums to join in a ritual. More professionals are becoming involved, and perhaps most telling is the lifting of restrictions on Party members, who have been allowed to participate since the Party Congress three years ago.

However, a recent spate of bombing at tourist hotels has revealed a continuing concern on the part of the government over any kind of independent gathering. The long-abandoned processional of the Matanzas stevedores honoring Yemaya (Our Lady of Regla), in which they carry her image around the bay, was to have been revived this September for the first time in years. In wake of the bombings, permission for this and other processions during this fall have been denied. Despite this reversal, the limitations of state control are being tested by some santeros. In Matanzas this September, at least two groups conducted unsanctioned processionals for the holy days of Yemaya and Oshun (Caridad del Cobre). In both cases, the processionals were short, covering only a block. The leader of one of these processions informed me that he plans to try a larger processional each year, pushing the envelope and in effect testing state tolerance for these activities.

Thus the 1990s have seen an enormous increase in religious activities, a movement that seems to be affecting all religions. Anecdotal evidence suggests rapid growth in the Christian churches - the Baptist church in Matanzas, for example, appears to be growing at the rate of about ten members per month. All members of the Afro-Cuban priesthood I have interviewed reported a substantial increase in the number of people seeking their help. Hard numbers are essentially impossible to come by - my informants estimated that anywhere from 50% to 90% of Cubans are now involved in Afro-Cuban religion to some degree. Indeed, interviews were sometimes difficult to conduct with members of the priesthood because of a steady stream of supplicants seeking their help and advice. People are joining now for a number of reasons. First and foremost, they can. Lifting restrictions on Party members reflects a more widespread toleration of religious activity that is a dramatic change from even the late 1980s. Clearly, the enormous economic crisis that has left large numbers of Cubans in desperate circumstances has pushed many to seek any source of help they can find. It should be noted that this is of potentially tremendous benefit to the Cuban government, which would probably to see social pressures channeled into religious rather than political activity. There are also apparently darker reasons. Some people seem to be joining for the social prestige that can come from obtaining a high position in the priesthood, while others may be motivated by the potential for cash paid both by natives and tourists alike for priestly services.

With the expansion has come certain problems. The difficult economic times that are pushing more people into these religions are also making it difficult to carry out rituals. Some of the more elaborate rituals require large amounts of expensive material, such as food, alcohol, and special clothing. Special ritual objects are actually more abundant in stores than in previous years, but are only available for those who have dollars. This has resulted in some compromises. Whereas ordinarily one "makes the saint" (hacer santo) alone, now this ritual, which brings one into the Santeria priesthood, is sometimes done in groups to keep down on expenses.

There is also real tension around "tourist Santeria." In this period of religious growth, many cabildos are growing. But the total number of cabildos is in fact in decline. Those cabildos that have access to dollars, meaning access to foreigners, are the most likely to survive and grow. Smaller cabildos, without dollars, are finding it impossible to carry on and are disappearing. Cabildos tend to depend on one family for leadership and motivation - if that family falls on hard time, the cabildo can find itself in serious trouble. There is also a predictable tension between traditionalists and those who make accommodations for foreigners. One palero (a group that works primarily through the dead) in Havana, Juan O'Farrill, dismissed both the folklore groups and those who make adjustments to appeal to the tourist trade, saying that they were tricksters who would be punished by the gods, punishment up to and including death.

Despite such warnings, foreign interest is very strong. While many foreigners encounter the folklore groups as part of their tour packages, many others are coming specifically to join and to participate. There are also growing numbers studying the dance and the music, and increasing interest from academics. In the arts and crafts fairs catering to tourists, Santeria-themed art is a strong seller.

We can see much of these trends in the Hanke family of Matanzas. Three daughters of Josephina Hanke epitomize much of what has happened to Afro-Cuban religion in the last ten years. Guadelupe Hanke was once a Party member and schoolteacher, but was forced out of both job and Party because a supervisor discovered ritual Santeria objects in her home. Yet shortly after losing her job, the political situation for Santeria greatly improved. Now she is a santera with large numbers of "clients." Having become a social force in her neighborhood, she is apparently self-sufficient from her religious activities and has no desire to do anything else. Her sister Humiliana bridges the gap between "tourist" Santeria and the traditional forms. Herself an active believer, she instructs children and young adults at the local Casa de Cultura in Afro-Cuban religious dance, students she is training for the tourist trade. The youngest sister, Diosdada, would like to follow her sister Guadelupe and become a santera. Ironically, in this time of greater religious freedom, she is unable to because of financial impossibility - the needed rituals are simply too expensive.

While this study is preliminary, I think it possible to draw some tentative conclusions. The new openness seems based overwhelmingly on economic need - Afro-Cuban religion is a magnet for foreign dollars, and so the state tolerates traditional practice and promotes its folkloric aspects. Further, repression demands resources, and in these desperate times, the state may simply not be able to afford to repress Afro-Cuban religion. Religious tolerance is also good for business because it improves foreign relations. The Western nations who Cuba is courting for investment dollars will look more favorably on a tolerant Cuba, whereas open repression would likely hurt investment.

In all, the history of Afro-Cuban religion's relation with the state supports the idea that politics have been the most important element in determining state-religion relations in Cuba. It is the politics of economic desperation that have lead to a much more open position for Santeria. But clearly an anti-religious ideology has played a role as well. Unlike the Catholics, the santeros did not organize against the Revolution, and indeed lack an organized hierarchy that could do such a thing. There is no sense that they have ever had a political program of any type, and yet they suffered much of the same repression as the more politically active churches. It is my hope that in the months and years to some, I can develop a more precise understanding of this relationship and the motivations behind it.