September 8, 2014
By Nelson P. Valdés as told to Nan Elsasser* in 1989
They are an unlikely duo: she is self-centered and he is self-sacrificing.
She likes to dance; he thinks it’s a waste of time. She is a hedonist; he is
a fervent Marxist. She is originally from Africa; he was born in Argentina.
About all they have in common is striking good looks and the love and
adoration of the Cuban people who have adopted them.
Official Cuba lionizes Ché Guevara, the hero who fought his way to power by
Fidel Castro’s side and was killed by government soldiers in Bolivia. When
Cuban soldiers return from supporting the Marxist regime in Angola, they are
awarded medals for following “el camino del Ché” (the path of Ché). Yet
within a few days of receiving their medals, the same soldiers will visit
Cachita’s shrine and leave their medals among the gifts of her devotees.
Cuba’s political, economic, and cultural life rests significantly on a shaky
compromise between the values represented by Cachita and Ché.
The Santuario/Basilica of Caridad del Cobre, called Cachita, the patron
saint of Cuba, is 12 miles west of the city of Santiago, over 400 kilometers
east of the Museo de La Revolución in Havana. It is at the Ermita, as well
as at the museum, that the rich history of revolutionary Cuba is on
display, flickering in the shadows of votive candles. In the half-light of
the tiny flames is the vial of hometown dirt that orbited the planet with
Comandante Tamayo, the first and only Cuban astronaut; gold, silver, and
bronze medals from the recent Pan American games in Indianapolis; and
petitions from Fidel’s mother from the days when her son was fighting in the
sierra nearby. Side by side with these artifacts of national unity and
revolutionary sacrifice are letters requesting a new car or a bigger
apartment, and the traditional honey and cigar left in exchange for good
In this small island nation, the fact that young communist
internacionalistas, the spiritual heirs of Ché, pay homage to a virgin from
Spanish colonial times surprises no one. Nor does the fact that Caridad,
alleged mother of God, most sacred of Catholic icons, bears the decidedly
unholy nickname of “Cachita,” central character of a popular song that
choruses: “Cachita está alborotá, ahora baila el cha cha chá (Cachita is
wild now she’s dancing the cha cha cha).”
Caridad del Cobre is not what she appears to be. And hundreds of thousands
of Cubans know the truth: Cachita Caridad del Cobre is neither Catholic,
Spanish, nor white. She is Oshún, the mulatto goddess of pleasure. An
African hedonist masquerading as a Spanish saint, a Catholic shrine in a
communist country, consumerist dreams in a revolutionary setting – Caridad
del Cobre epitomizes the contradictions and combinations of Cuban life. In
the past and in the present, Cubans have learned to live comfortably with
the combination of power politics and mystical imagery.
In a country accustomed to signs from the other world, it was logical, for
example, that Fulgencio Batista chose December 31 [rather than January 1st]
to abandon power and flee to the Dominican Republic. For Cubans, it is
essential to leave the old year’s problems behind before a new year begins.
On the last day of December housewives all over Cuba “se hacen la limpieza”;
they throw a bucket of water on the floor of the innermost room and sweep it
through the house and out the front door, pushing evil spirits along with
the dirty water. If Batista had remained, he would have been burdened
throughout the coming year with the bad karma of his defeat.
Nor were Habaneros surprised when a relatively unknown Fidel Castro
descended from the mountains of Oriente. Since Spaniards first landed in
Cuba with boatloads of human cargo in the early 1500s, the easternmost
province has been a refuge for those escaping tyranny. For the past three
hundred years, Santiago and the mountains that surround it have been the
actual and symbolic home of freedom. a cradle of rebellion, and the
preferred territory of the African gods called santos. In Oriente, where
Santería (the worship of African gods with the names of Catholic saints) is
the dominant religion, everyone understood when Fidel came down from the
mountain and told the assembled masses, ” . .I do not speak in my name. I
speak in the name of the thousands and thousands … who made victory
possible. I speak in the name of our dead … This time the dead will
continue to be in command.” It does not really matter that Castro was
probably expressing his heartfelt commitment to those who died in the
struggle to overturn Batista.
To believers, those words, like the white eleke (necklace) he wore around
his neck, were a sure sign that the gods were speaking through Fidel. Any
doubts were dispelled on January 8, when Fidel first entered Havana and
addressed the Cuban nation. I remember that day, because my family owned the
only TV on the block. Everyone in the neighborhood was either in our living
room, standing in the doorway, or looking in through the front window. We
were all listening to Fidel with one ear and to a neighbor with the other.
Until, seemingly from nowhere, three doves appeared and, illuminated by
television lights, circled Camp Columbia where Fidel was speaking. As if on
cue, one landed on the podium, and all of Cuba went silent. When the second
dove perched on Fidel’s shoulder, people gasped, then began chanting,
“Fi-del. Fi-del.” Over the years, many interpretations of this phenomenon
have circulated. The New York Times said the dove symbolized the dawn of
peace in a troubled land; the conservative Cuban press claimed the Holy
Spirit had blessed the revolution. Both missed the mark because, appearances
notwithstanding, neither Catholic nor Marxist-Leninist interpretations of
reality have deep roots in Cuba. Behind the icons and the anti-imperialist
billboards beat Santería drums.
Originally, Santería was a new world synthesis of various animist religions
from southwest Nigeria. When threatened by Spanish slave owners for
practicing heathen rites, African slaves clothed their beliefs in the
protective coloring of
Catholicism, and a new synthesis occurred. Today, the two religions share
the same altars, the same images, sacred dates, and even prayers. In January
1988, Jaime Ortega, the archbishop of Havana visited the chapel of Santa
Barbara in nearby Guines (reputed to be a “bewitched” town). He was moved by
the profound devotion be observed, which be chose to interpret as a
manifestation of strong Catholic faith. But this chapel is maintained by
santeros, not priests. And while the forms of these two religions overlap,
the content does not. The eighty-year-old mayordomo who cleans and protects
the church will tell you that the real power dwells behind the statue of
Santa Barbara in the otá, or sacred stone of Changó. What distinguishes otá
from other stones is that sacred stones are alive. They grow up and have
children, assuring worshippers of a steady supply of supernatural energy.
The otá is not the only difference between Catholicism and Santería.
According to santero theology, Olofi created the universe. Initially, his
creation was immobile, but soon, bored with the static cosmos, be added
plants, animals, flowers, seas, clouds, rain, human beings, and more than
three hundred male and female gods called orishas. Each orisha, or santo,
bears both an African Yoruba name and a Catholic name, as well as unique
personalities and powers. Obatalá, for example, is unimpressed by money.
Oshún, on the other hand, adores it, although she prefers a good party.
Elegguá alone determines the future. What he predicts cannot be forestalled
by man, woman, or other gods.
Unfortunately, by populating the heavens with so many strong characters,
Olofi had also created interminable wrangling. Tired of endless conflict, he
chose Obatalá to rule over other gods and human beings, who were also
behaving poorly. Obatalá, who speaks through Fidel, is the leader, the god
of thinking and consciousness. He is also the god of justice.
In Santería, both men and women serve as santeros. Over them are the
babalawos, who have the power to make animal sacrifices, initiate believers
into the religion and read the future with the Ifá oracle or with the eight
largest pieces of a smashed coconut shell. Although there is a titular
“king” of babalawos, he lacks the theocratic and administrative control of a
Catholic pope. There are no “Thou shalt nots” that apply to all in Santeria.
Believers do not attain salvation through good works and a pure heart. They
get what they want in direct proportion to the adequacy of their offerings
and following what your orisha expects.
The santos communicate their feelings via the orishas, or supernatural
messengers. White doves are the messengers of Obatalá, the right-hand man of
the god of all creation. Thus when the bird landed on Fidel, everyone
watching knew that Castro was blessed; he was El Elegido (The Chosen One).
Since then, Fidel bas been called El Caballo (the Horse), the term used to
designate someone whom an orisha has mounted and possessed.
On January 8, 1989, thirty years after the triumph of the Cuban revolution,
Fidel spoke once again from Camp Columbia, and once again a white dove
perched on his shoulder. He spoke of sacrifice, commitment, and hard work,
and he invoked the spirit of Ché. But masses of Cubans attending the annual
event saw and heard the spirit of Obatalá – whether the dove, like the site,
was orchestrated, is irrelevant. What is important is the continuing
influence of Santería on Cuban popular culture, and, consequently, on
political life. Contemporary Cuban values are rooted in a past without hope.
Africans who had been seized and transported in chains across an ocean,
deprived of family, land, and language, had little incentive to believe in
their power to shape the future. Unlike Pilgrims, Puritans, and even
indentured servants, their futures were determined by the whims of a slave
master. In this despondent milieu, Santería was born and flourished. And in
times, led to revolts. A stepchild of medieval Catholicism and African
polytheism, Santería is the antithesis of Calvinism.
The descendants of slaves and landless peasants were convinced by the slave
plantation that material and spiritual well-being is not the reward for hard
work and clean living. Three hundred years of experience taught them that
happiness is fleeting and often achieved only at someone else’s expense.
Whether you acquire a new house or lose the one you already have, whether
the sugar content of cane is high or low, whether the economy prospers or
stagnates, depends not on budgeting, technology, or international banking
policies; it is in the hands of a pantheon of capricious gods. The Cuban
revolution has attempted to change that.
When Oshún asks for a sacrifice, she expects you to kill a pigeon; she is
unimpressed by Ché’s sacrifice, the kind where you die fighting
imperialists. Nor is she impressed by a capitalist working others or himself
to death, accumulating money for the benefit of generations down the road. A
people who worship the goddess of sex, lover of gold, and patron of parties
is not a people favorably disposed to endure the hardships required to
surmount economic dependency and construct socialism. Yet, Santería has
No one knows this better than Fidel Castro. For thirty years, Fidel, chief
apostle of revolutionary sacrifice, has dedicated himself to transforming
the ideology of the Cuban people; for thirty years he bas exhorted his
people to scorn the siren Cachita for the selfless Ché.
As perestroika rolled across the former Soviet Union and much of eastern
Europe, Fidel pushed “rectification” – a return to asceticism, voluntarism,
and collectivism. Political pundits interpreted Fidel’s endless sermons as a
direct challenge to Gorbachev’s neo capitalist policies. But Castro’s devil
was not Russian; she was/is a happy-go-lucky, mulatto goddess who cha-chas
to the name of Cachita. In a 1979 speech, Castro said, ” .. the most
powerful weapon … is an ethic, a consciousness, a sense of duty, a sense
of organization, discipline, and responsibility.”
Castro knows that to bring prosperity and socialism to an underdeveloped
society, he must provide Cuban citizens with a revolutionary version of the
Protestant ethic. He has to make people believe in their power to shape
their individual and collective futures. They must have faith that in their
labor lies the foundation for the future. In other words, they must emulate
Ché, a man who gave everything and asked nothing in return, a guerrilla who
believed devoutly in his ability to shape the forces of history by sheer
willpower. To this end, whenever children in the Young Pioneers (a Cuban
version of the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. organized by the Communist Party)
set off to work in the fields or march in a parade, they raise their right
band and pledge, “Seremos como el Ché (We will be like Ché).’
Ironically, the same government which expends tremendous energy inculcating
revolutionary values has inadvertently enhanced the power and prestige of
Santería. When Castro assumed control of Cuba, be did not exhort the poor to
construct socialism through voluntary labor. As the bourgeoisie fled, the
revolutionaries seized their assets and distributed them among their former
servants, prompting the poet Nicolás Guillén, to write: “Te lo prometió
Martí y Fidel te lo cumplió.” (What Martí – hero of the Cuban war for
independence – promised, Fidel delivered).
In Santeria, promesa is a contract with a god-if you make an adequate
offering, your petition is granted. This unexpected bonanza reinforced many
people’s belief in magic. According to the First Party Congress in 1975,
Santería was permissible as folklore, a relic of an ignorant past. When
religious superstitions failed to wither away, the ever-pragmatic Castro did
more than recognize them: he permitted a national association of babalawos,
invited the Nigerian king of all santeros for a visit and promised to build
a temple and hold a national congress of santeros. In the interim, Santería
benefited from the revolutionary leadership’s confrontations with the
Catholic Church. As the authority of recognized “official” religion was
curtailed then, the influence of Santería expanded to fill the vacuum.
Finally, Santería’s prestige was augmented by the mass movement of Cuban
troops and technicians to Africa, where religions similar to Santería are
practiced openly. More than 200,000 Cubans have visited the motherland over
the last ten years. This re-acquaintance, instigated by the government, has
made it more difficult to repress African-inspired religions.
Castro is not unaware of the extraordinary convergence between Santería and
revolutionary holy days, nor is he above manipulating their significance.
January 1, the day of El Triunfo, is also Elegguá’s day. July 26, officially
commemorated as the commencement of the struggle against Batista, is also
celebrated as the day of St. Ann, mother of Mary, who, as any Cuban can tell
you, is really the benevolent Nana Burukú, goddess of Justice and mother of
Babalú-ayé. No one knows if it is coincidence or foresight that the red and
black of the 26th of July Movement happened to be the colors of this
But relying on signs from the gods is risky business. In 1987, the Ifa
Oracle, the annual prediction for the new year, announced that Castro would
die unless the Yoruba “king of kings; , the “great Oni” of babalawos,
traveled to Cuba and kissed the ground. The revolutionary government duly
issued the invitation, and a picture of the great Oni arriving at the José
Martí Airport in Havana graced the front page of Granma, the newspaper of
the Communist Party. Reportedly, the Nigerian kissed the ground. Fidel did
not die. And neither has Santería. Contemporary Cuban politics is the child
of an unlikely marriage. The children of the revolution admire Ché, their
handsome, idealistic leader; they worship Cachita, their beautiful,
fun-loving mother, and they hope to grow up to be both.
*Nan Elsasser is a free-lance writer and has lived and taught in the Caribbean.