Cuban San­teros wary as pope’s visit looms

John Paul II snubbed its priests in ’98 tour; re­li­gion far more pop­u­lar than Catholi­cism

The Washington Times Daily - - World - BY AN­DREA RO­DRIGUEZ

THAVANA hey cast snail shells to read their for­tunes, proudly wear col­or­ful neck­laces to ward off ill­ness, dress all in white and dance in “bata” drum cer­e­monies. But although their Afro-cuban San­te­ria re­li­gion owes much to Ro­man Catholi­cism, many are de­cid­edly un­en­thu­si­as­tic about Pope Bene­dict XVI’S March 26-28 tour of Cuba, even if it is be­ing hailed as a wa­ter­shed mo­ment for a church seek­ing to boost its in­flu­ence on this com­mu­nist-run is­land.

San­tero priests still re­mem­ber the last time a pon­tiff came to town — and flatly re­fused to meet with them. They are ex­pect­ing no bet­ter treat­ment this time, and some are openly dis­ap­pointed.

Their re­li­gion is by far the most pop­u­lar on the is­land, with ad­her­ents out­num­ber­ing prac­tic­ing main­stream Catholics 8 to 1. Yet as far as the Catholic Church is con­cerned, “we live in the base­ment, where no­body sees us,” said Lazaro Cuesta, a San­tero high priest with a strong grip and a pen­e­trat­ing gaze.

“We have al­ready seen one pope visit . . . and at no mo­ment did he see fit to talk to us.”

Mr. Cuesta’s bit­ter­ness stems from what many San­te­ria lead­ers see as an un­for­giv­able snub by Pope John Paul II dur­ing his his­toric 1998 tour.

Be­fore that visit, San­tero high priests, or “ba­bal­awo,” led a day­long cer­e­mony to ask the spir­its to pro­tect John Paul and make his trip a suc­cess. As men, women and chil­dren danced to the throb of African drums, the priests blew cigar smoke and spat con­se­crated al­co­hol to salute the dead.

But while the pope met with evan­gel­i­cals, Ortho­dox lead­ers and rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the is­land’s mi­nus­cule Jewish com­mu­nity, he never deigned to meet with the San­te­ria prac­ti­tion­ers who had danced for his good health, or even to ac­knowl­edge their faith.

No ‘in­sti­tu­tional lead­er­ship’

Ex­perts say as many as 80 per­cent of is­lan­ders ob­serve some kind of Afro-cuban re­li­gion, be it San­te­ria, which is more prop­erly known as Regla de Ocha-ifaor, or one of its lesser-known ones.

Prac­tic­ing Catholics num­ber fewer than 10 per­cent, and as else­where in Latin Amer­ica, that share is un­der as­sault from con­ver­sions to Protes­tant and evan­gel­i­cal de­nom­i­na­tions.

The 84-year-old pope’s sched­ule is con­sid­er­ably shorter than John Paul’s five-day visit, and it in­cludes no events with San­teros, or lead­ers of any other re­li­gions for that mat­ter.

A Vat­i­can spokesman, the Rev. Fed­erico Lom­bardi, said Bene­dict’s sched­ule could still be tweaked, but he ab­so­lutely ruled out a meet­ing with San­te­ria rep­re­sen­ta­tives.

Fa­ther Lom­bardi said San­te­ria does not have an “in­sti­tu­tional lead­er­ship,” which the Vat­i­can is used to deal­ing with in cases when it ar­ranges meet­ings with other re­li­gions.

“It is not a church” in the tra­di­tional sense, Fa­ther Lom­bardi said.

A decision not to meet with San­teros is in keep­ing with Bene­dict’s his­tory of ve­he­ment op­po­si­tion to any whiff of syn­cretism — the com­bin­ing of dif­fer­ent be­liefs and prac­tices — on the ground that it could some­how im­ply that all faiths are equal.

Some also blame his­tor­i­cal racism to­ward San­te­ria’s Na­tive Amer­i­can and African tra­di­tions. The pope may op­pose these tra­di­tions, but they are an in­te­gral part of is­lan­ders’ daily life, even that of its Catholics.

All Cubans know that a woman dressed in yel­low honors Ochum, a pa­tron of fem­i­nine sen­su­al­ity re­lated in Catholi­cism to the Vir­gin of Char­ity. Be­liev­ers crawl on hands and knees in pro­ces­sions of homage to Ba­balu-aye, or St. Lazarus, pro­tec­tor of the sick.

Re­la­tions be­tween San­teros and Catholics have im­proved since the early days of the is­land’s 1959 rev­o­lu­tion, when Afro-cuban wor­ship­pers were os­tra­cized by both the church and the Com­mu­nist Party, and those who dared to at­tend Mass decked out in all-white San­tero garb were rou­tinely ejected.

How­ever, priests still give hom­i­lies crit­i­cal of Afro-cuban re­li­gious tra­di­tion.

The two faiths have ar­rived at a tense co­ex­is­tence while in­hab­it­ing dra­mat­i­cally dif­fer­ent spa­ces in is­land so­ci­ety.

Car­di­nal Jaime Ortega, the head of the Catholic Church in Cuba, con­sults with Pres­i­dent Raul Cas­tro on weighty po­lit­i­cal mat­ters; San­tero ba­bal­a­wos tend to the spir­i­tual needs of the ma­jor­ity. Nei­ther side talks to the other.

Un­der­ground prac­tices

Schol­ars say San­te­ria, which was im­ported to Cuba through slaves brought from the Yoruba tribe of Nige­ria, re­mains on the po­lit­i­cal mar­gins be­cause of its scat­tered, non­hier­ar­chi­cal na­ture, cen­turies of taboo and the la­tent racism that keeps Afro-cuban faiths from be­ing fully ac­cepted in the fra­ter­nity of re­li­gions.

“San­te­ria is as much a re­li­gion as any other,” said Univer­sity of Ha­vana eth­nol­o­gist Maria Ileana Faguaga Igle­sias. But “its struc­ture is not ver­ti­cal. It does not have a max­i­mum leader. It has no build­ings, and it has never been part of any po­lit­i­cal power.”

When it first emerged on the is­land, pro­hi­bi­tions forced San­te­ria prac­ti­tion­ers to hide their worship of “or­ishas,” or spir­its, be­hind the names of Catholic saints.

Dur­ing Span­ish rule and in the early years of the repub­lic, San­teros had no choice but to ac­cept Catholic bap­tism be­cause church parishes were the only ones keep­ing birth reg­istries.

“His­tor­i­cally, at some point all San­teros had some Catholic prac­tice. The Catholic Church was power and was of­fi­cial, and oth­ers were per­se­cuted,” Ms. Faguaga said.

By the end of the 19th cen­tury, San­te­ria be­gan emerg­ing from un­der­ground. To­day, it flour­ishes openly and has spread through em­i­gra­tion to the U.S., Puerto Rico, Venezuela and else­where.

San­te­ria “is very ex­tended among the peo­ple, more so than when I was young,” said Mon­signor Car­los Manuel de Ce­s­pedes, vicar gen­eral of Ha­vana and great-grand­son of one of Cuba’s found­ing fa­thers. “Not just in peo­ple of African ori­gin, but also in peo­ple of Euro­pean ori­gin, whites, who to­day are also San­teros.”

In the 1960s and 1970s, as the com­mu­nist gov­ern­ment pro­moted athe­ism, San­teros risked jail if caught prac­tic­ing the rites. Like mem­bers of other re­li­gions, they were de­nied party mem­ber­ship un­til the 1990s.

Lawyers, doc­tors, engineers and blue-col­lar work­ers learned to hide their an­ces­tral be­liefs and tra­di­tions.

But the 1990s saw a boom in San­tero con­scious­ness, and for many it is now a fo­cus of na­tional pride and a fun­da­men­tal part of the Cuban iden­tity.

Though the Cuban Catholic Church ac­knowl­edges San­te­ria as a mass phe­nom­e­non, John Paul’s decision not to meet the high priests re­flected a judg­ment that be­cause the faiths over­lap, there was no need to treat them sep­a­rately, ac­cord­ing to church ex­pert Tom Quigley.

“At the time of the 1998 visit, the of­fi­cial line of the car­di­nal, and I think the church gen­er­ally, was that peo­ple who prac­tice San­te­ria are Catholics,” said Mr. Quigley, a for­mer Latin Amer­ica pol­icy ad­viser at the U.S. Con­fer­ence of Catholic Bish­ops. “They are just an­other — maybe de­viant, but not ab­so­lutely hereti­cal or schis­matic — form.”

San­teros nev­er­the­less took it as just an­other sign that on an is­land with a white ma­jor­ity, some still see it as a slave-bar­racks faith, an idea that goes against Cuban ideals of re­spect for di­ver­sity.

Johnpaul’s decision to ig­nore the San­teros, Mr. Cuesta said, was a decision “to deny our na­tional pat­ri­mony . . . brought to us by men in chains who ar­rived as slaves in this coun­try.”


A San­tero priest in 2010 moves around a fire dur­ing a San­te­ria cer­e­mony at the an­nual Caribbean Fes­ti­val in Loma del Ci­mar­ron, El Co­bre, Cuba.

A rooster is sac­ri­ficed dur­ing a San­te­ria cer­e­mony In honor of the ocean god­dess Ye­maya dur­ing the Cuban Caribbean Fes­ti­val. San­te­ria has its roots in Africa but is prac­ticed by a ma­jor­ity of Cubans, many more than the un­der 10 per­cent prac­tic­ing Ro­man Catholi­cism.

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