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In Cuba, there are Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Jews, Orthodox, Muslims, Protestants of various denominations, disciples of the “New Era” movement and followers of the spiritualism of Yoga. The economic crisis unleashed after the fall of the socialist bloc and the religious tolerance after years of political roadblocks that terminated with the constitutional reform of 1991 and the aperture permitting believers of all faiths to join the Communist Party are factors that have helped along the religious explosion that today permeates every stratum of society. Of all the tendencies, the Catholic faith is the oldest; it was brought by the Conquistadors and the aboriginal religions disappeared along with the aboriginal peoples. The Africans would enter the picture later on when the local labor force had become spent.
In a recent publication, the Catholic Church stated that in 2012 approximately 52 % of the population was Catholic; this included non-apostate baptized persons. It has been said, however, that formal practitioners only number around 200,000. Popular religions are very noticeable: this is something common to all peoples but much more extended throughout Latin America. It is a term that has been much discussed and which includes a long list of phenomena. There are those in Cuba who are visibly and actively committed to the Christian community. There are those who believe “in their own way,” belonging to a church in which they have been baptized and for which they feel a certain sense of belonging, but do not regularly attend Mass. They will have their children baptized because it is the custom or because they think it is something “good for them.” And that’s the extent of it. There are those who believe in God but not in the priests and they won’t set foot inside a church if their lives depended on it. There are those who have Masses for their dead, they pray and wear crucifixes and collect blessed palm leaves on Palm Sunday and attend the Midnight Mass once a year. There are those who feel themselves to be Catholic and yet they incorporate into their faith the elements of the African cults in an act of syncretism. A young colleague of mine once said that for him spiritual life was like an empty bag that gained in value the more it contained. And that was why he managed to be babalawo, palero, spiritualist, Catholic and Communist all at the same time.
Without going to such lengths of cultural mixing, it is true that many Cubans are Catholic in a very special way. It is amazing to see the passionate devotion to the Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre, patroness of the Island. Our Lady of Charity’s Basilica at El Cobre near the city of Santiago de Cuba is visited by countless faithful who go there to make and carry out promises and make offerings. Before she became the official patroness of Cuba, she was the protector of Indians and blacks. The first Cuban flag that fluttered over the liberating troops of Carlos Manuel de Céspedes was sewn from the cloth of the Virgin’s canopy.
San Lázaro, whose sanctuary is at El Rincón on the outskirts of Havana, is a strange case because he is not an official saint nor does his name appear on any calendar. The image that presides the altar of the church is Lazarus, Bishop of Marseille, but the pilgrims actually pay respect — to another image situated to the left of the high altar, which the Church considers the same saint, but which popular tradition identifies with the Syncretic Lazarus, the one in crutches accompanied by a dog. If you are in Havana in December, you can take part in a huge pilgrimage because this poor, sickly Saint Lazarus accompanied by his dogs has been attributed with extraordinary powers over life and health.
Another beloved saint is Barbara. A popular saying has it that there are persons who only remember Saint Barbara whenever it thunders because her father, who had her put to death on account of her faith, died struck down by lightning in holy retribution. She is the patron of storms, firemen and miners. Saint Barbara is a Christian martyr and is often shown lifting the sword that cut off her head and for that reason she is erroneously associated with war.
Saint Jude Thaddeus, Saint Rita of Cascia and Saint Expeditus have been gaining in popularity in recent years. They intercede in impossible cases and urgent causes and Cubans beseech them whenever they are faced by some circumstance that they cannot resolve on their own. Saint Jude is especially consulted to intercede in migratory matters.
People pray to the Virgin of Regla, a black virgin brought from Andalusia in Spain. The fishing village on the other side of Havana Bay was named after her and is where the Iglesia de la Virgen de Regla church is located. Our Lady of Mercy also has a large following. There are home which also have a picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus so that prayers can be offered to Jesus for indulgence and compassion. The Virgin of Loreto has been extra-officially declared patron of Havana’s new-born real-estate business. If you want to sell or buy a house, that’s who you should pray to.
In every case, devotion to these saints is based on utilitarian needs. If you have lost something, get in touch with Saint Dismas, the Good Thief; if you want to get married, hang an image of Saint Anthony on the wall. One lady who is in charge of selling prints at an important church in Havana says: “People ask me what the saints are good for, as if they were appliances.” And in many cases, there is a syncretic relationship between Catholic saints and the entities in the Yoruba pantheon. To add to the confusion, these African deities are generically referred to as santos, that is, saints.
Are you confused now? Well, that’s hardly surprising. Cuba is a small island but its spiritual world is enormous. What is perhaps the best feature is that every faith appears to coexist in harmony. Across the street where I live, there is an apartment building. The family on the first floor are 100% Catholic; the one on the second floor are santeros—the kind that play the drums at least three times a year—while the family of Pentecostals who libve on the top floor go to church regularly on Wednesdays and Sundays. Every morning, these three families all go and buy their bread at the same bakery, they greet each other and share stories, troubles and vicissitudes. That’s what people are like here. I love that, don’t you?
September 2014 This article formed part of the September 2014 issue of What’s On Havana The definitive monthly travel & culture guide to Havana Download our current issue of What’s On Havana, your definitive travel, culture and entertainment guide for all things happening in Havana, Cuba’s bustling and enigmatic capital city. We include features from around Cuba written by the best international travel writers covering Cuba. Our monthly online digital magazine is also available in Spanish and French.
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