The Market Logic of Cuban Santeria

Jorge Milanes Despaigne


HAVANA TIMES — The “Santeria Multinational Religious Consortium” is how I often refer to this religious practice today, a practice governed by market trends in Cuba and beyond.

This Afro-Cuban religion, conceived to improve the health of the ill, has become one of the most lucrative enterprises one can pursue in Cuba. It has become almost the contrary of what its spiritual essence dictates.

It was once practiced primarily to secure physical and spiritual health. The clothing used by initiates was and continues to be white. Today, however, the vast majority of these pieces of clothing – the fabrics, collars, shoes and all of the utensils employed in the ritual – must be of the highest quality, paid for at market price and the price agreed to for the ceremony.

This situation has got me thinking. In the past, black people did not pay the sums of money today demanded for these rituals, sums that make its practitioners economic references within society and prompt a broad range of opinions about this religion.

No few people feel the spiritual need to practice a religion and to have the sense they are being protected by something that is part of our culture and African tradition, many a time inaccessible to us, because of the way these are being commercialized.

I pity those who feel they need the services this business affords, be it for health-related reasons (as was customary at the beginning) or other reasons. They will have to work in the tourism industry or a warehouse, receive remittances from abroad or work somewhere they can sell things under table, until putting enough money together to “save their lives.”

With money, they will be able to afford a top-of-the-line ceremony, pay their dues and extend the good to all people who take part in it. Then, they will have to put on expensive Iyawo clothes, like the ones initiates wear today and are seen everywhere. It may seem a bit contradictory, but then, only then will they enjoy “impunity” with respect to all kinds of illegalities, even the ones they are responsible for.

What kind of religious offering could we seriously talk about under such circumstances, when faith and crime come together? Are these the feelings that traditional and respectable beliefs have led to? True religious devotees have always been characterized by humbleness, honesty and an infinity love for higher beings. True faith does not corrupt itself, even when a corrupt market demands this.

3 thoughts on “The Market Logic of Cuban Santeria

  • ridiculousness

  • I was blown away by the prices that are being charged for initiations, both in Havana and the USA. I do not think is fair, there should be a ceiling which makes it more affordable. $30,000.00 + U$D in Miami is as crazy as 5 to 7 thousand CUC in Havana for most people. And this besides all the clothing, the rum, the flowers and often even the Batá group and the sacrificial animals, most of which was included in the past. There is nothing wrong with charging money for religious, spiritual, psychological or herbalist services for a Babalocha, Babalawo, Palero, Espiritista or Christian Priest, just keep it within the People’s reach!
    A first-class Initiation for my closest friend cost $150.00, which was a lot of money in the Camagüey of 1962 but still feasible for most, less elaborate Initiations were then available at lower costs. His Elevation to Babalocha in Oyó, Nigeria (1972) cost him $66.66 plus a $100.00 U$D donation to the temple for the party. He still charges from $25 for a Consulta to $125.00 for baptisms, weddings and house-cleansings/blessings here in Canada with no shortage of work. He, however, does pro-bono work whenever there are financial difficulties and accepts trade instead of cash often.

  • This is wonderful. The aspirational nature propels people to engage in productive activity to secure the funds needed. It is the sort of thing that raises the masses out of poverty as once learned, productive habits carry forward.

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