Cuba’s Religious Melting Pot

Fernando Ravsberg

The Protestant Church is mushrooming in Cuba, particularly the neo-Pentecostal house-churches. Photo: Raquel Perez

HAVANA TIMES, March 26 — Many experts agree that among the fastest growing religions in Cuba is the African-based Santeria faith and non-traditional Pentecostal belief systems. However religious amalgamation makes it difficult to determine the exact number of followers of each doctrine.

Iliana Hosch, a researcher with the Department of Socio-religious Studies and a specialist in African religions, explained that “Cubans can believe both in the Catholic ‘Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre’ (Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre) and in Oshun, a diety of the Santeria faith.”

She added: “We can safely say that Cubans are believers. What we can’t say is whether they’re clearly Catholic, Protestant or associated with some religious expression of African origin.”

The Catholic clergy relates on an equal footing with the other historically Christian-based churches, but they maintain a distance from house-churches and Santeria, which weren’t even invited to the activities taking place during the two papal visits.

The number of Catholics doesn’t matter?

Santeria is the religion with the most believers and the most rapid growth in Cuba, but — due to “syncretism” or religious amalgamation — it holds ceremonies like the baptism in the “church”.

Lazaro Cuesta, the best-known Santeria priest of Cuba, says that for them the Pope’s visit has no significance. Photo: Raquel Perez

According to Joel Suarez, the coordinator of Martin Luther King Center, in recent years a tremendous surge has been seen in the growth of “non-traditional Pentecostal services, especially in the countryside where house-churches and their members are multiplying daily.”

Bishop Juan de Dios does not specify the number of Catholic believers. “That’s not what matters the most. I don’t care that much if there are three, thirty, three hundred or three thousand Catholics. What’s important is that they experience Jesus deeply, that they experience the church.”

Concerning its social impact, what speaks volumes is that even before 1959 the Cuban Catholic Church had to find most of its priests and nuns abroad. According to Iliana Hosch, this was because “the particular characteristics of the Cuban people and the dogmas of the Catholic Church” just didn’t match.

Friction but no burning at the stake

The figurine of “La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre,” which is the patron saint of Cuba, was recently carried all across the island summoning hundreds of thousands of faithful along its way and in churches, thus giving the impression that the Catholic Church has massive popular support.

However a professor of the history of religion, Enrique Lopez Oliva, explained that the believers of the Virgin are not necessarily Catholic. “My church was filled when the figurine was there. But when the Virgin left, those ‘believers’ also disappeared. The only ones left were those who come every Sunday.”

However, despite giving it the appearance of more faithful, the Catholic clergy has serious problems tolerating the Santeria belief system. During the procession of the Virgen, Villa Magdalena says that she was kicked out of one church by the priest. She added that this wasn’t for trying to conduct any kind of business, but for entering the church with “Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre.”

“Santeros” (believers in Santeria) smoking cigars in the San Lazaro Church, a ritual that irritates priests and nuns who interpret this as disrespectful. Photo: Raquel Perez

It’s easy to perceive the irritation of the nuns during the annual San Lazaro procession, when santeros take over the churches and fill them with offerings to the “Orishas” (Afro-Cuban saints) and then begin blowing cigar smoke. Nor are those nuns well-regarded by Afro-Cubans, who carry the Orisha Yemanja to the Regla Church for her to give these believers blessings.

Bishop Juan de Dios said that Santeria is “an expression of transcendent reality that isn’t part of people in their full reality, but that doesn’t mean that we put santeros to the stake. We try to help these people uncover the reality of Jesus Christ.”

They always ignore us

Lazaro Cuesta, one of Cuba’s most important babalaos (Santeria priests), said: “It’s an error for the Catholic Church to consider us deviants. We simply have our own religion: the Yoruba religion.”

He explained, “If we baptize our children in the Catholic Church, it’s by force of habit, because that’s what my father and grandfather did.  The priests would then say that everyone who is baptized is a Catholic even though they knew that wasn’t the case. Nowadays, many of us can perform these ceremonies.”

“Eighty percent of Cubans are loyal to Orishas, and they turn to them when they have a serious problem,” he said, adding: “But for us Yoruba, the Pope’s visit has no significance. In any case, they always ignore us during these visits.”

A large proportion of people who go to Catholic churches are santeros. They are known for their white clothing, their colorful necklaces and bracelets, and for not taking communion. Photo: Raquel Perez

Despite its social significance, Santeria is the only religion whose leaders were excluded from the official activities of the visit. Bishop Juan de Dios argued that “the Pope has very little time,” but the truth is that the same thing happened when Pope John Paul II visited.
One of the charms of Santeria is that it helps to solve earthly problems of health, love or work. Cuesta told us, “We don’t offer a paradise. We help so that things go a little better for people here on earth.”

The secular, non-denominational state

Baptist Joel Suarez says “the current framework of religious freedom is unprecedented since the beginning of the revolution.” This opening has benefited everyone but it started in the 1990’s with contacts between the Protestant churches and Fidel Castro himself.

The coordinator of Martin Luther King Center believes, “The Cuban Catholic Church is very ‘Roman,’ and the impact of liberation theology — arguing for the rights of the poor — didn’t sink in here to the same degree as in other Latin American countries.”

Suarez claims that “the various reasons for Cubans following the procession of the Virgin or attending activities around the Pope’s visit are well known. They range from people’s deepest beliefs to mere curiosity to official mobilization.”

He then warned of the danger of falling into a confessional State and criticized the fact that the national baseball team entered onto the field carrying the Virgin. “We aspire to greater religious freedom but within a secular state, one that demonstrates diversity,” he explained.

An authorized translation by Havana Times (from the Spanish original) published by Cartas Desde Cuba.

One thought on “Cuba’s Religious Melting Pot

  • It’s disingenuous for Lazaro Cuesta to say that “Eighty percent of Cubans are loyal to Orishas, … but for us Yoruba, the Pope’s visit has no significance.” Then from where did the hordes of people who turned out for the Pope and his masses (services) come? Orthodox Lukumi is the US and elsewhere are more and more disassociating from things Catholic but the Cubans can’t seem to do this!

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