We Must Be Progressing

Veronica Fernandez
Veronica Fernandez

In my comings and goings along the streets of Havana in recent years I have noticed a growing number of people dressed in white, especially young people.

In the Santeria religion they are referred to as: yabo. The yabo must keep a series of limitations during the year following their initiation ceremony. These include not going out at night, not getting wet in the rain, not using makeup, and for the first three months eating on the floor only using a spoon, and covering the head.

It is quite natural anywhere in the city to see boys and girls wearing their religious regalia around their necks and their left wrists. The colors of these necklaces and bracelets correspond to different guardian angels.

For example, in Santeria if your guardian angel is Yemaya, you wear blue necklaces and bracelets; if it is Chango, you’d wear red; if it’s Obatala, they would be white and so on for all the deities of the famous Orisha pantheon.

Like with Catholicism, devotees of a particular saint visit churches or other places to pay tribute or venerate the saint’s image.

HEADING FOR SAN LAZARO SANCTUARY (photo by Irina Echarry)
HEADING FOR SAN LAZARO SANCTUARY (photo by Irina Echarry)

The annual “procession of miracles” takes place each December 17 when thousands of followers carry out a pilgrimage to the San Lazaro Sanctuary in the town of Rincon to the west of the capital, where they pray for health or the fulfillment of some promise.

Another occasion is on September 24, the day of Mercedes. Catholics, Santeros, and people of all faiths enjoy the mass and pray in the church that bares her name in Old Havana.

Because of the Spanish and African influence in Cuba, Catholicism and Santeria have had an enormous affect on our country. When Pope John Paul II visited in January 1998 mass was held throughout the island, in addition to the beautiful and historic mass held at the Havana Cathedral.

At that moment, and after so many years of revolution, December 25th became a formal holiday indicating progress in the ideas and thoughts of our government and party.

In fact, in the past, Catholic or Santero believers could not belong to the Communist Party and were harassed at the universities.

Students discovered taking part in religious practices were prejudiced. At the time, I wondered why so much unfairness? Many times these individuals had better moral standards than those who occupied management positions.

I remember in the 80s when the Socialist bloc still existed and I was studying in the philosophy department of the University of Havana, one of the best students was expelled for frequenting the Catholic Church. How could that be an act of humanity? I was really upset and I still think about it today. Why did it matter that she practiced her religion -unlike many who say they don’t in order to avoid problems- if she was a good student, an excellent worker, and was honest, simple, modest, and responsible?

Luckily for all Cubans, we have reached a point where we can acknowledge this terrible error, which has weighed heavily on the lives of many.

Now I see religious believers in the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Cuba and the Council of State. Religious institutions are represented at the highest legislative bodies. I also saw my president attending the beatification ceremony of Fray Jose Olallo that just took place in Cuba’s eastern city of Camaguey, where the Father lived his fruitful life dedicated to the poor and infirm.

That event was truly awesome. It filled me with joy and satisfaction when I realized that it had been broadcast in its entirety on Cuban television. We must be progressing.



2 thoughts on “We Must Be Progressing

  • While tolerance must be the hallmark of any democratic society — especially a socialist one — it is a sure sign of a loss of faith in ‘scientific socialism’ which makes people susceptible to mystical religion in an avowedly socialist society, where they weren’t previously. And it may not be surprising to find religious people in a communist party these days; but it sure is proof that socialist ideology is not advancing in society. This is not a trend to be encouraged — and it is certainly being used by the imperialists to drive wedges into cuban society. But it must be accepted as a democratic choice of free individuals in any case — individuals at least least free in the legal, secular sense.

    Frankly, I’ve always been uneasy with Fidel Castro’s long history of overtures to religious figures: not because they are the “enemy” or anything — but simply because it signals a weakness of the Revolution that he feels so-compelled. I have been a life-long atheist myself (and basically a committed socialist) since the age of 7, when I realized for myself the irrationality of religious belief in the face of Science. And now that I understand how the Universe is its own creation because it is always in motion and ‘self-assembles’ in a fractal and emergent manner, I am all the more certain that the World should quickly grow out of its past belief systems at the earliest opportunity.

    So this is no positive development here, AFAIC. No sirree. But the worst thing to do would be to oppress it — as your piece demonstrates concretely. The best way to proceed indeed is by simply making the socialist construction of Cuba a complete success — and let all the pieces fall into place, naturally. That also means not conceding the public sphere to these trends either. Let them make their own space — at their own expense. They want to be ‘free’ of the state, right..? So let them be free. Just charge them money like everybody else. Going rate. No special dispensations, like here in the West — where we are infested with religious reaction and intolerance at all levels of society — including in the state apparatus and the military. A very dangerous and decadent state of affairs.

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  • As an atheist Canadian married to a Cubana I’ve been trying to understand religion in Cuba. I think in the past the government just said ‘religion is bad’ and tried to stop everything. The better way would have been to properly educate people, for example say ‘the good part things about Christianity is…, the bad thing is…’ and let people decide for themselves.

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