Rastafarianism in Cuba

Regina Cano

The Reggae band Remanente.

For many people in Cuba, a “Rastafarian” is someone associated with reggae.  Their clothing usually includes red, yellow and green colors; they wear dreadlocks and they’re known as users of marijuana.

My first impression of Rastafarians came from those semi-hard matted locks —so close to being natural— that grew from their heads.  To this was added their music, which touched my African roots, so accustomed to percussive rhythms.

With the passing of time, I’ve learned that they’re more than that.  I’ve come to realize that they have a strong belief in their god, Jah (Yahweh); in Marcus Garvey as a prophet, and in the black Messiah (the Savior).  They are in route to their promised land (Africa), where Haile Selassie was the Emperor in Ethiopian, though he died in 1975.

I learned that this way of life arose in Jamaica among the poorest, that they once defended Black supremacy, and that their dreadlocks symbolize the Lion of Judah.

I found that smoking “ganjah” (cannabis or marijuana) is a path to getting closer to their God, a sacrament, though it’s not required to smoke the substance to achieve that.

The music that identifies them arose in Jamaica as a product of the fusion of various sounds. The first played was “ska” and later reggae appeared, with Bob Marley beings it’s most famous singer-songwriter as he converted lyrics into ideology, sermons and prayers.  This is a music that gives them freedom and hope.

“Babylon” is an enemy that prevents the Rastas from moving the tasks forward that are in their path.

In the 1990s there was an avalanche of Rastafaris in Havana, the great majority motivated by tourists interested in these types of exotic individuals.

It became stylish.  Many of them had pretty, well-formed and orderly dreadlocks, accompanied by “jineteriles” (hustler/gigolo) clothes with Rasta symbols.  Among them, a certain percentage of these lovers of reggae music came from the east of the country – but without roots; they are called “phony Rastas” or “tourist hunters” by some.

It’s certain that many were involved in half-truths.  Yet among them there exist those who began on that path for the most superficial reasons but have turned into studious and fervent followers of the movement.

The “true ones” or “pure Rastas” that I’ve known have a very personal way of conducting their lifestyle and are said to be kings in their own kingdom.  They wear the dreadlocks that the years have given them, grown like roots of sacred trees and reasons in themselves for adoration.

They wear large tanges (tams or turbans) and on festive occasions put on traditional tunics.

Their diet is natural, though not all of them are vegetarians.

Among them there are reggae musicians and others devoted to artisanship.  There are few university graduates among them, as most work in diverse trades and occupations.  A good part of them study their ideology and are lovers of peace and justice, as well as defenders of cultural and racial pride.  Many are authentic warriors with their flowing manes full of energy.

Regina Cano

Regina Cano: I have lived my entire life in Havana, Cuba – the island from which I’ve still never left, and which I love. I was born on September 9, and my parents chose my name out of superstition, but my mother raised me outside the religion professed by her family. I studied accounting and finance at the University of Havana, a profession that I’m not engaged in for the time being, and that I substituted for doing crafts, some ceramics, and studying a little English and about painting. Ah! – concerning my picture: I identify with Rastafarian principles, but I am not one of them. I wear this cap from time to time, but I assure you I just didn't have a better picture.

3 thoughts on “Rastafarianism in Cuba

  • With regards to Rasta, I think there is a very important issue here for the integration of the caribbean and the wider progress of humanity to the transcendence of the false construct of “race”. Indeed the failure of the Grenadan Revolution and Michael Manley’s socialist project in Jamaica can be traced to the divergence between the revolutionary thought of Rasta and Cuba. Rasta developed as an attempt to overcome racism primarily in the British colonies of the caribbean. Crucially, unlike the dominant attempts to overcome racism in Cuba, it is thought that originates with those against whome racism was practiced. Jose Marti’s statement that “race” does not exist, whilst fundamentally a transcendental one, has the disadvantage of providing an excuse for not dealing with the existing consequences of the imposition of racist ideology on the world. “Race” is a false construct, but it is a construct nonetheless, and continues to have existence until it is transcended. Rather than denying the existence of “race”, Rasta tries to deconstruct it, identifying where “White” supremecy continues to exist and subverting it. Simply saying “race” does not exist whilst living with all the priviliges of being “White” is the luxury of “Whites”. Thus there are important lessons for Cuba from the Rasta discourse. Equally I would say there are important lessons for Jamaica from the Cuban experience. From the anti-thesis of “Black” supremecy to the thesis of “White” supremecy or the other way round depending on your take of history, emerges the synthesis of neither “White” nor “Black”. Afro-Centric readings of history provide another anti-thesis, but also contain the germs of synthesis in that we now know that all of us originated in Africa. Rasta’s anchoring of it’s struggle to the Ethiopean empire, as the only African nation not to be colonised, is a powerful anti-thesis that allows for self empowerment. The theosising of Haile Selassi provides a similar anchor upon which the struggle can be built. Unfortunately, as many Rastas have come to realise, Ethiopia has it’s own internal contradictions with identity, which whilst not based upon the false construct of “race” that the West European elites imposed elsewhere, nevertheless have extreme consequences, including the Ethiopean Revolution in which Haile Selassi was deposed. There is a major problem with contructing a “Black” anti-thesis in that in someways it continues the program of the “White” racists, by destroying the complex and essential diversity that existed in Africa. The construct of the “Black” race was formed in the Americas when millions of diverse peoples from Africa were lumped together with their individual histories destroyed. Cuba in many ways has avoided this with the preservation of diverse African traditions. It is not clear why this happened, but undoubtedly it is in part due to the difference between the British colonisers and Spanish who had their own history of Moorish influence. Just as Communist unity in Cuba is seen as being both essential and problamatic, “Black” unity has the same contradictions. The reality is that unity without diversity is not unity but uniformity. Another problem with the constructed “Black” anti-thesis is that it ends up collaborating with the spread of the racist “White” construct to parts of the world that previously were not involved with the Western Europeans racist agenda, such as Russia and Eastern Europe. Again destroying the natural diversity that is so crucial to liberation. The 1959 Revolution in Cuba produced a discourse that was seen to be mutually beneficial to those struggling for liberation, be they of African descent or Spanish descent or both. I have often thought that in many ways Cuba has succeeded with one of the main tennents of the Rastafari movement, going back to Africa, in a way tha Marcus Garvey didn’t. Unlike the disasterous colonisation of Liberia by American freed slaves, Cubans have been able to go back to Africa as liberators, doctors and teachers, bringing back the best of the American experience. However Cuba still struggles with a left over Euro-Centricity. It is here that the Rasta discourse becomes hugely important. The erosion of economic gains caused by the failures of the Soviet Model and its collapse in Russia and Eastern Europe is the other main obstical to transcending “race”. As is alluded to in the above article, West European tourists have disrupted Cuba’s transcendence of “race” by bringing with them “racist” values combined with the economic spoils of “racism” from the imperialist countries. We are still waiting for an economic synthesis to emerge that will facilitate the transcendence of “race” but Cuba has shown the beginnings by starting to pay it’s debt to Africa. But again this is a debt that is mostly those of Spanish descent who have inherited, again reflecting a Euro-Centricism in Cuban revolutionary thought that needs to be addressed. Thus as an anti-thesis, Rasta continues to have relevance. But in synthesis both Rasta and the Cuban revolution will have to change. The impact of such a synthesis, the unification of the caribbean and the greater transcendence of “race” will have a hugely positive impact on the rest of the world. But as Rasta so often says, it is not until Africa is free that racism will be trully elliminated.

  • Firstly to Grok… I have a lot of sympathy for atheistic thought… so much of those who practice religion is a question of man creating God in his own image… but mysticism is an inescapable part of how we understand the wold… mathematics and science cannot function without the concept of infinity… yet infinitiy is inherantly paradoxical because the moment you name it you are making it finite… the furthest mathematics can approach it is to deduce the presence of undecidable propositions or contradictions related to the infinite… mysticism begins when you try to operate with these contradictions… thus dialectical logic is semi-mystical… so the question is what do you mean by scientific… it is true that dialectical logic is still grounded in empricism, but it does not offer ways of deducing synthesis… one can empirically observe the thesis and antithesis, but one has to wait for the synthesis to emerge before one can know it… unlike with deductive science where one can deduce the outcome… communism is the synthesis of the contradictions in capitalism, one knows that such a synthesis must arise, but one cannot deduce what it will be… what contradictions it will contain etc… claiming to have exact knowledge of synthesis is idealism which is certainly unscientific… the fact that the infinite goes beyond formal logic and even dialectical logic leads one to a conception of absolute singularity, which some call God… as something completely beyond logic, anything one says about this concept is contradictory at best if not totally meaningless… but this realisation is valuable because it instils humility… one realises that one is nothing in this context… that ones reasonings and ambitions are nothing… and thus one comes to accept others as equal… all of this is suggested by mathematics… by the concept of the infinite, which as I said, mathematics cannot do with out… already when we try to measure the circumference of the circle with respect to the radius we encounter the infinite… for me the best approach to religion is to analyse the cultural dialectics… there are cultural thesis and antithesis that shape are evolution… I am even happy to reduce culture to materialism, but then one has the question what is material which again in the presence of the infinite is an undecideable question… so I agree that we should be scientific and not get sucked into the obscurantism that so many use to control others… I agree that religion is “the opium of the people”… but that does not make it irrelevant… a proper understanding of mathematics reveals that one cannot exclude it from our understanding… even opium has scientific properties that can be studied…

  • As I tried to say earlier in regards to Baha’i and other religious people in Cuba: everyone has the right to believe whatever they want, certainly; nevertheless, the signature feature of the ‘modern era’ of Humanity is our *scientific* understanding of how the World works. And the more we understand the phenomena of the Universe in terms of Science and the scientific method, the less people can be satisfied with fantastic and mystical explanations of how things are, and came to be. Truly.

    And this *matters* too (and I feel compelled to keep pointing it out on this particular website) because not only does religious obscurantism aid and abet what is reactionary in this World — being foremost World imperialism in our case — but it is a given that imperialism *has also a longstanding program to encourage exactly such retrograde belief and behavior* inside any country it cannot outright control by this means or that. And so the “growth” of religiosity in ‘socialist’ countries is not all wholly as innocent as some would claim… which is the basis of past repression of religion by foolish forces, in the name of socialism. So the question today is: how to allow people’s freedom to be different — and as objectively wrong about life as they can be, in that difference — while still maintaining the security and integrity of a scientifically-socialist social and political revolution in the face of external and internal treachery..?

    Which is a moral and political high-wire act of the most difficult kind, clearly. So better that socialist thinking prevail in people’s minds instead. And so please: let’s not actually *encourage* people to be “mystics” about life, eh..? It is in fact encouraging ignorance. Who would really want that for anyone. Such a reaction to overbearing stalinism is worse than the ill it seeks to cure.

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