Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Cuban Santeros Join Fidel Castro's Spirit to a Ceiba Tree

The Earth News is dedicated to reporting "almost anything that affects the World and our planet, Mother Earth," which is certainly the most ambitious mission statement of almost any publication. It "is staffed 24/7, that is every hour of every day, seven days a week and every day of the year by a small, hard working and dedicated team, committed to providing you with information and news, fluid and as it happens." In other words, it is staffed by people who have absolutely no life outside of Earth News, and that level of dedication, too, may be almost unique. It purports to provide "a forum [for] 'voices from the field or street' - everyday men and women who are active agents of change and whose points of view are seldom heard in the mainstream media." Well, I am here to attest that Earth News really does report "almost anything" from almost anywhere that bears any relation, however esoteric, to Brother Tree and Sister Muckworm.

Earth News reported this week that a tree grows in Havana. This is news, of course, because not many trees have survived Castro's rule. Not only have Cuba's ancient hardwood forests disappeared in the last 50 years, but virtually every tree that grew upon the land. The trees stood in the way of socialist progress and had to be sacrificed so that 20 million coffee plants could grow. Except they didn't. Nor were the fallen trees replanted, with predictable consequences for both the quality of the air and soil. Castro, however, always finds a way of turning Cuba's man-made disasters to good account. He shipped Cuba's unemployed woodcutters to Siberia to replace the aging denizens of the Gulag in the great work of deforestation that turned Siberia into Siberia. This was 30 years ago and these Cubans have never been seen again. If their story is ever told, it could be called "The Gulag Archipelago, Part 2."

But enough about humans. They are of no concern to Earth News unless they are named Fidel Castro. The tree that grows in Havana, which was profiled in that publication, was no ordinary tree. Marvelous to us because it had survived the predations of the Great Despoiler, it was of interest to Earth News because it had been consecrated to Fidel's "health and strength."

For Fidel Castro's 82nd birthday, Earth News reported that 40 babalaos (shamen) revived an ancient pagan ceremony that was quite common in this country when Arbor Day was still celebrated here: they planted a tree. Or, rather, they replanted a tree. They found an old ceiba (cottonwood tree) growing in the front lawn of Tania González's house and announced to its delighted owner that it had been tapped for a greater honor than had ever fallen to any elm in Rockefeller Center. Tania's tree was to be the "Fidelmas" tree.

The tree had been planted 82 years ago to commemorate the birth of the owner's late father, a fervent fidelista by her account (was this a requirement?). Angel Castro, who was of a decidedly unromantic vent of mind, had planted no tree when his son was born, or perhaps he did and the earth just kept spewing it out. In most religions, including santería, there is a prohibition against recycling offerings for sacred ceremonies. Hence the communion wine is not the dregs from the bottle of Madeira that the priest quaffed last night nor is the communion bread the crumbs remaining from his breakfast. Offerings to the santería gods were also never leftovers until food became so scarce in Cuba that any "offering" was considered a waste unless the worshiper consumed it before it got spoiled. The gods are certainly in a better position to fend for themselves in Cuba than mere mortals and surely would not begrudge them a piece of sweet potato candy. But a ceiba tree consecrated to another and then "recycled" is certainly a revolutionary innovation!

The ceremony with the borrowed tree was held on August 13 at 2:00 AM, the hour when Fidel Castro was supposedly born. The octogenarian ceiba, which must have been removed by a crane and delivered to its new home in a Havana park on a flatbed truck -- none of which can happen in Cuba without government authorization and cooperation -- was formally dedicated to Fidel in a three-hour ceremony that included "mysterious rituals and animal sacrifices" which were performed outside public view.

The formal ritual was described by Earth News thusly:

"We dedicate [this tree] to Fidel, so that he draws from it great strength at his 82 years of age, because Cuba and the world need him," chanted priest Mario Pérez.

"Others present sang songs devoted to the god Olodumare, seeking blessings and asking for 'health, strength, union, peace, tranquility.' Perez next asked the audience to participate in the final act. As they threw soil around the tree, they chanted "ache, ache," an expression that is used to wish luck or progress. The ceremony ended as the sun set, and priests took the traditional 16 circles around the tree."

We find Earth News' fascination with the santería ritual rather surprising and wonder whether it is not an animist cult itself. Although its editors ignored completely its plight, let us at least express our concern for the poor uprooted and benighted ceiba. As a sapling it survived the terrible hurricane of 1926 which toppled the Maine Monument. Now, with mighty trunk and copious canopy, but a tenuous hold upon the earth, it may fall down with any errant breeze. Even if it survives Hurricane Fay, it will certainly not survive its new reputation as Fidel's source of strength. How many kicks must it not already have endured in the hope that these too might be conveyed to Fidel? The line to kick it must be the longest in Cuba, which is saying something. In the end, the consecrated ceiba may have to weather more assassination attempts than Fidel himself. Castro's constitution, depleted as it is, may not be able to withstand so many attacks on its arboreal familiar. Unless they mount a 24-hour guard on it, extending to it the same protection as accorded to Castro, it is unlikely that Fidel's ceiba will survive Fidel. The complicitous santeros may not know it, and even if they know it they may not wish it, but their ceremonial to increase Fidel's strength may just be his undoing.


At the bottom of The Earth News article on Castro's tree, there is a Google ad for Salem Tree Removal @ http://www.treeservicesalem.com/


Thursday, January 3, 2008

Cuba's Santeros Issue Their Annual Predictions: "It's the Climate, Stupid, It's the Climate"

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.


Ms Calabaza said...

That poor, poor Ceiba tree ... what did it ever do to deserve this?

Angel Garzón said...

Both of your pieces are notably good Manuel, especially the January 3rd one, which had me laughing when I reached the segment about Pat Robertson, I have seen his old 700 Club program a few times and although some of his points of view I share, he has always managed to somehow give me the creeps, whenever his meanderings conveniently fall into the realm of the "taboo" demarcation lines of the American "liberals" I cannot help it but to think that The Almighty may just look down upon him while shaking his head in disbelief..."Pat said what this time?...tsk...tsk, oh Pat, there you go again." As for the "babalaos," let's just say that I view them in the same vein that you apparently do, which is the same fashion in which I view the Catholic Church in Cuba, the vocal opponents in our past would have been able to count me as one of them had Cuba not fallen into the hell on earth that the Casstro enterpise has delivered from its onset, I too consider it to be as they labeled it.

I love Ceibas, my favorite one still stands at the small park in the forward courtyard at the West end of the "Iglesia de la Trinidad" (Church of the Trinity) in Santiago de Cuba, I lived about two and a quarter blocks west of it and its most beautiful display of virility and stamina occurred once yearly when it released its cotton puffs containing its seed pods, most of them were approximately 2 inches in diameter but 3 and 4 inch samples were not uncommon, the Trade Winds used to saturate a significant portion of the western end of the old city with these cotton puffs, many of them would wind up at the bay, when communism made it almost impossible to get any goods which had been easily available prior to 1959, many of the Ceiba cotton puffs were stored by Santiagueros of the old city as a replacement for common cotton.

Vana said...


Like you santeria never was a part of my Cuba though my mom was among those that "respected" it, I know nothing of it, that's is why like you I doubt there are 3 million santeros.

As to the planting of the ceiba dedicated to Fidel I must admit gave me a good laugh, lets hope the next strong wind knocks it down, the babalaos clamoring that Cuba and the world need Fidel made me sick to my stomach, what world are they living in? I don't think they themselves believe it, guess they wanted to put on a show.

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