Santería is a subject I have never written about because it is not part of my Cuba, that is, the internalized Cuba which we all carry inside us and which informs our knowledge of the other Cuba which exists apart from us. I was never enthralled or embarrassed by it because both reactions are on the same continuum and indicate an exaggerated estimation of whatever has our attention. Santería was something which existed outside my range of interests, like protestanism, spiritualism or Buddhism (all of which also flourished at one time in Cuba). Most Cubans, however, paid more attention to santería than I did (at least since spiritualism waned in the 1920s). They may not have been practitioners or even believers, but they "respected" santería. That was the word that was usually used when Cubans were asked their opinion about it. "Respect" implied at least enough reverence not to risk offending its deities. Of course, there was also a vocal minority that considered santería an "atraso" (backward) and wanted it suppressed because they were embarrassed by it. Santería crashed with their conception of a modern country. Babalú was acceptable as a motif in our music, alongside Siboney and other symbols of a vanished tribalism; but not as an incarnate deity in a Catholic country. Cuba was not Haití. The prospect of becoming another Haití was synonymous for much of our history with the end of civilization. Long before the 1950s, when Cuba rivalled Europe on every indicator of socio-economic progress, the specter of a Haitian future seemed to have been transcended forever.
No one would have guessed then that in just a half-century Cuba would replace Haití as the seat (or "see") of tribalism in the Western Hemisphere and santería itself would be accorded official recognition by both Cuba and the U.S. (there's a Supreme Court decision that uphelds their right to animal sacrifice). I have no problem with santería being raised from a cult to a religion ("cults" are just religions that are not popular). What does offend me, however, is that santería has become as much an establishment religion in Cuba as Catholicism. That is, its hierarchy — for now it has one — is as cravenly and complicit as the Catholic Church's. Both admonished their followers, who are often the same people, to raise prayers for Fidel Castro's recovery, and both, of course, hold him blameless for Cuba's woes, the existence of which they either deny or attribute to the U.S. Neither santería nor Catholicism has made common cause with plight of the Cuban people, not even to win new converts or at least keep the ones they have. This is why I don't believe the Associated Press' contention, no doubt derived from some unmentioned Castroite source, that there are 3 million Cuban santeros. People who "respect" it, yes; but not 3 million who are practicing members. I doubt that there are even 1 million practicing Catholics on the island. Unless its occultism has beaten out the occultism of the Catholic Church, I doubt also that santería's adherents reach 1 million, or one-tench of the Cuban population.
At this time of year, however, some 950 babalaos meet in Havana to offer their prognostications for the coming year. More than one thousand gurus also issue their predictions in India and hundreds of other places throughout the world; but the media only report on the predictions of Pat Robertson and the Cuban babalaos. In case anyone is curious, this year the Rev. Robertson prophesied a recession, a major stock market crash and oil at $150 per barrel. All this implies, to his followers at least, a Democratic victory in 2008, though Robertson was reluctant to say so outright for fear of being accused of making a self-fulfilling prophecy. His followers, no doubt, take some comfort from the fact he is always wrong.
Cuba's official babalaos, in their official predictions for 2008, did not discuss political phenomena, but limited themselves to the natural kind (as opposed to the unnatural kind). They have foreseen dangerous changes in climate and an impending environmental hecatomb involving forest fires (is this how they interpret "global warming?") in addition to wars and global epidemics. They have, in short, been reading Castro's "Reflections" and have taken their cues from him (the biggest "babalao" of all). Cubans who triple-distill these predictions as some do Nostradamus' will be pressed to find any indication about Cuba's future with or without Castro. "The challenge at this historic moment is not a political challenge," said a babalao at the press conference where the annual soothsaying report was read. "It is not a social challenge, but the challenge of Nature." Asked directly about what the future year held for Fidel Castro, Babalao Ifa Iwori Bofun, also known as Lázaro Cuesta, discreetly demurred that "That's a topic we're not authorized to discuss (or "touch") because we're not politicians." That did not, however, stop them from predicting that Cuba's economy would "continue to grow" in the coming new year, which was a hat tip to Raúl. Of course, this blessing depends on placating the deities with the traditional food offerings (none of which are available in Cuba), and following their special injunction this year not to squash any ants. Well, if you can't feed them with the offerings, at least don't squash them.
Of course, when the unnatural hurricane that has been afflicting Cuba for 49 years finally subsides, the 950 babalaos will not be as conspicuous nor their predictions a source of national speculation. This, however, will not be the case with the Roman Catholic hierarchy, who serve at the pleasure of the pope. Their conduct has been no less reprehensible, more so, really, since it is they who look askance at the babalaos but show not one ounce more of heroic virtue. Even in Poland, dozens of church officials have been exposed as Communist agents, including John Paul's successor as Archbishop of Krakow. We, at least, know what we can expect from our prelates. No more than from our babalaos.