You might expect that in a socialist country like Cuba there wouldn’t be a place for religion. That’s what I thought, too, when I first visited the country in 2008. Churches looked closed; people didn’t seem to be wearing crosses. But then in early 2011, quite by accident, I found myself travelling by ferry across Havana harbour to Regla, a district apparently known for its church.
The people standing in the passenger room of the ferry were normal-looking Havana citizens – not middle class, not poor – just dressed in informal, colourful, body-tight clothes. But as the oily ferry made its way across the harbour’s rainbow oil slicks, the female passengers, a clear majority, started pulling on shawls and knee-length skirts, unwrapping bouquets, tying up their long, wild hair and lowering their voices. By the time we docked on the other side, they had transformed themselves into pious worshippers ready to enter the church of Nuestra Señora de Regla.
The church itself is nothing special (see right), but it obviously exercises strong power on people. Only 20 or 30 steps from the ferry dock, it consists of two rooms: a large nave dominated by the formally dressed black madonna pictured at the top of this post, and a smaller side room where a similar madonna, backgrounded by small sailboats and fishermen, is much closer to worshippers, who kneel to pray behind a railing, light candles and leave flowers.
These two black madonnas holding a white baby Jesus interested me from the beginning, as did the history I read about how African slaves brought to Cuba in the early 1800s were forced by their masters to worship as Catholics. Their own West African gods (many of them were from the Yoruba tribe) did not disappear entirely, but resurfaced in an amalgamation with a Catholic saint. Thus, the Virgin Mary was amalgamated (or syncretised) with the Yoruba spirit Oshun, who was worshipped as the goddess of fresh water, life, love and beauty. And so on, each Catholic saint being linked with a specific Yoruba spirit. The Virgin of Regla is the patron saint of sailors and fishermen, and you will find both black and white Cubans praying at her altar.
There are many kinds of Christians in Cuba: Methodists, Presbyterians, Baptists, Pentecostals, Seventh Day Adventists … as well as Catholics. And, although these aren’t religions new to Cuba, church membership and attendance is on the rise. The worshippers I observed in Regla were clearly on a mission to make or fulfil a personal vow, remaining very serious the whole time they were inside the church.
As a tourist, you will occasionally notice Cubans dressed from head to toe in white, often carrying white umbrellas. These are followers of Santeria, a religion based on the syncretisation of Catholic saints and Yoruba gods or spirits. The people in white are going through a period of purification before becoming leaders of Santeria worship, which usually takes place in people’s homes rather than in a church-like building.
So, to come back to the original question, Cubans are much more religious than one would expect.