Cuba is a nation of multiple races dominated by Spanish people and those of African origins. Roman Catholicism is the major organized religion. Catholicism is mixed with other Afro-Cuban religions that are a blend of African religions and Roman Catholicism.
Cuba was officially an atheist state from 1959 to 1992. The declaration was not official until 1976 when the first socialist constitution was added. The Cuban government under Fidel Castro was a serious thorn in the side of the Catholic faith. Many Catholic schools were closed in the early 1960’s because the government believed the message being delivered to the people was dangerous. The pressure the church received was enormous because many capabilities were inhibited. These included training for priests, useful social institutions as well as hospitals and clinics.
From 1969 to 1997, it took 28 years for Christmas to regain the status of an official holiday. The visit from Pope John Paul II in 1996 was instrumental in this return to that status. The visit from The Pope was allowed as a measure to work on some of the issues related to the Catholic Church within the boundaries of Cuba. However, that measure was very short lived because as soon as the Pope left, things returned basically to the way they were. Christmas did retain the status of an official holiday though.
There are other religions that do practice in Cuba. These practices include Protestant, Evangelical, Pentecostal and Jewish faiths. There is also a Greek Orthodox Church as well as practice of Buddhism and Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Rites of Santeria
One practice in the Cuban region is the rites of Santeria. The basis of the Santeria religious practice is considered a cult. The African slaves from the region that is currently Nigeria have merged with the Cuban religious environment to form this Afro-Cuban religion. The basis of this religious rite is lineage from Yoruba West African gods and Roman Catholic Saints. The foundation is animal sacrifice and worship of ancestors. Unlike Christianity and other formal religions, there is no temple that represents the belief. The media has contributed to the somewhat negative attribution of being a cult regarding the Santeria practice.
A male priest manages this practice and the ceremony is based on curing diseases and providing protection. The male priest is called a babalao. This is a significant part of the Cuban culture. The rites are performed in a shrine at the babalao’s home where Catholic saints represent the deities. Stones are dropped with colored necklaces. These stones are believed to hold the real power. They supposedly contain the spirits of the deities. These deities are referred to as orishas or Yorubas’ deities. Animal sacrifice is definitely a part of the rituals. The animals used for sacrifice include chickens, goats and doves. These offerings are placed before the shrine.
This religious practice is also done for tourists who are welcome to visit the home of a babalao. Tourists do learn general information about the religion at this time. Neighborhoods known for holding these ceremonies include Guanabacoa and Regla around Havana. Donations are expected from the tourists for the orishas.
There are quite a few churches that are famous in the Cuban culture. The Cathedral of Havana is considered one of the most famous. Located in Old Havana, it is a beautiful church and draws tourists as well as locals for worship. Another beautiful and famous church, The El Cobre Basilica is located in Santiago de Cuba. Our Lady of Charity of Cobre is worshipped here. The Lady of Charity of Cobre is considered Cuba’s patron saint.
Today’s Religious Culture
Although Cuba is considered mostly Roman Catholic, other religious faiths are allowed to practice there. Leaders of any religion must register with the government before they can practice in Cuba. While there is freedom to worship, many religions are secularized. This may be due to the historical fact that the government does not want dangerous religious beliefs permeating throughout Cuba.
Protestants are the second largest religious group in Cuba. This denomination is on the rise with variations in the denomination of Baptists and Methodists to name a few. Religious freedom has always been an issue in Cuba but as time has shown, changes do come even if they are slow to materialize.
With that being said, revival is on the rise. Economic conditions have influenced more people to seek comfort in their faith. The standard of living is widening the gap between those with access to pesos and those without. Statistics show that living conditions are still below the levels they were in 1989.
Cathedrals are truly symbolic of the Catholic faith in this country. They do still offer Mass services. However, home altars are much more common. These altars include elements that are Catholic and African. Christian events are celebrated but not on a level that includes great street assembly.
Although Christianity is permeating the religious culture, there are still inhibitions in public rituals. The effect of suppression of religion in the early revolutionary era still shadows the public expression of Christianity. Whatever the challenges have been, Cuba is still a country of faith with traditions of belief, public or not.