Cuba: Religion, Social Capital, and Development

Cuba: Religion, Social Capital, and Development

by Adrian H. Hearn
Cuba: Religion, Social Capital, and Development



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Cuba: Religion, Social Capital, and Development by Adrian H. Hearn

When Cuba’s centralized system for providing basic social services began to erode in the early 1990s, Christian and Afro-Cuban religious groups took on new social and political responsibilities. They began to work openly with state institutions on projects such as the promotion of Afro-Cuban heritage to encourage tourism, and community welfare initiatives to confront drug use, prostitution, and housing decay. In this rich ethnography, the anthropologist Adrian H. Hearn provides a detailed, on-the-ground analysis of how the Cuban state and local religious groups collaborate on community development projects and work with the many foreign development agencies operating in Cuba. Hearn argues that the growing number of collaborations between state and non-state actors has begun to consolidate the foundations of a civil society in Cuba.

While conducting research, Hearn lived for one year each in two Santería temple-houses: one located in Old Havana and the other in Santiago de Cuba. During those stays he conducted numerous interviews: with the historian of Havana and the conservationist of Santiago de Cuba (officials roughly equivalent to mayors in the United States), acclaimed writers, influential leaders of Afro-Cuban religions, and many citizens involved in community development initiatives. Hearn draws on those interviews, his participant observation in the temple-houses, case studies, and archival research to convey the daily life experiences and motivations of religious practitioners, development workers, and politicians. Using the concept of social capital, he explains the state’s desire to incorporate tightly knit religious groups into its community development projects, and he illuminates a fundamental challenge facing Cuba’s religious communities: how to maintain their spiritual integrity and internal solidarity while participating in state-directed projects.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822341802
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 08/18/2008
Pages: 232
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.40(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Adrian H. Hearn, an anthropologist, is an ARC Future Fellow at the University of Sydney.

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By Adrian H. Hearn


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ISBN: 978-0-8223-4180-2

Chapter One


In May 2002, as I was nearing the end of my first stay in Cuba, I was invited to attend a theatrical performance of popular traditions in Santiago de Cuba. As with folkloric recitals in hundreds of hotels, cabarets, cultural centers, and nightclubs throughout the island, the spotlight focused on the most exotic, visually stimulating aspects of the Afro-Cuban religion Santería. It was a night of drumming, dancing, spirit possessions, and, to the fascinated shock of the audience, an animal sacrifice. The program for the performance, printed in English and Spanish, noted the central importance of these ritual activities to the practice of Santería in Cuba. The following week I returned to the house of Miki Alfonso, a babalawo (priest of Ifá, a divination tradition related to Santería) and my teacher of batá drums in Havana, with whom I had lived for nine months. When I showed him the program from the performance he commented that its theatrical sketches of Santería deities were inconsistent with the religion's spiritual teachings, but to my surprise, he also laughed and said that to get away with this, the performance directors must be adept salespeople and true cabrones (literally "bastards," though used in Cuba to signify cunning).

Miki was no stranger to the folklore stage. He dealt frequently with foreigners, from percussion students and anthropologists to filmmakers and tour operators impressed with his lively explanations of Afro-Cuban religions. But he also had a substantial local religious following. He owned a set of sacred batá drums, consecrated by the renowned Pancho Quinto, and his house operated as a center of religious activity in Old Havana, drawing a wide range of relatives and friends into a network of community support. The ceremonial gatherings that took place there served the community both spiritually and materially: the pork, chicken, and goat meat used as ceremonial offerings were subsequently divided and shared among participants, and derechos (fees) were paid to those who helped facilitate these occasions.

The social welfare activities of Miki's religious family reflect a historical concern for community support in Afro-Cuban religious practice that dates back to the establishment of cabildos (mutual aid societies) in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This tradition of grassroots social welfare has remained an important focus of Santería, and many practitioners view folkloric performance as a logical way to protect their communities' economic interests and openly celebrate their spiritual heritage (Bettelheim 1991:75; Menéndez Vázquez 1995, 2002). Other practitioners and commentators disagree, arguing that the forces of commercial "folklorization" are blurring Santería's social focus. They contend that growing opportunities for employment in hotel cabarets, not to mention the birth of a profitable informal market for teaching foreigners the ways of Santería, has undermined the internal solidarity of religious communities and the efficacy of spiritual symbols and practices (Brandon 1993, Martínez Furé 2001, C. Moore 1988a). There are even claims, discussed below, that this has been a calculated political strategy of the Ministry of Culture, which has drawn additional criticism for sponsoring (allegedly divisive) multiple readings of the letra del año (letter of the year) ceremony, the country's most widely followed Afro-Cuban religious practice.

The chapter analyzes these issues with two objectives: first, to provide the study with a contextual basis sensitive to the cultural dynamics underlying state engagement with Afro-Cuban religion since 1990; and second, to outline the opinions of local protagonists about the complicated task of balancing community autonomy with official collaboration. I begin with an analysis of two organizations at the heart of the issue: the Casa del Caribe in Santiago de Cuba and the Asociación Cultural Yoruba in Havana, both of which have been promoted by the state as key representatives of Afro-Cuban religion. Despite their official status, or perhaps because of it, both have attracted the suspicion of religious practitioners for their role in developing commercially oriented programs of folkloric training and performance. Their activities have been widely perceived not only as a profanization of sacred practices, but also as part of a wider attempt of external, state-sponsored "representatives" to coopt grassroots structures of religious authority. Public suspicion about contemporary structures of representation and authority in Cuban Santería has given rise to the formation of grassroots associations committed to the rediscovery of more traditional "African" modes of religious organization. Although they have been criticized for promoting a reductive, purist understanding of Santería, these groups have set out to "rescue" Afro-Cuban religious heritage from commercial erosion by carefully defining traditional spiritual and social teachings while endeavoring to stay loyal to community interests.

The extent to which religious communities exploit economic opportunities arising from the state-managed tourism industry reveals not only their degree of willingness to recast traditional practices in a commercial format but also their level of readiness to endorse the state institutions that employ them and claim to represent their interests. I conclude the chapter by arguing that religious Cubans have increasingly resolved this conflict by developing flexible ties and allegiances that permit them to maintain their loyalty to their religious communities while engaging strategically in the tourism market. Those who accomplish this not only forge a path between cultural continuity and change but also go some way toward conserving horizontal lines of community trust while developing vertical lines of cooperation with the state. Miki is a good example of such a person. His orchestration of presentations and meetings to accommodate the diverse needs of foreign filmmakers, percussion students, aspiring initiates, and local religious followers effectively combined community, commercial, and political objectives. These overlapping loyalties allowed him to work within distinct religious and professional codes of conduct while simultaneously transcending their limits.

Collaboration, Cooption, and Tourism: The Casa del Caribe of Santiago de Cuba

International interest in Afro-Cuban religious exotica has swelled and subsided over the centuries, peaking prominently between 1920 and 1940 (R. Moore 1997), but the expansion of tourism in Cuba since the early 1990s has generated unprecedented commercial appeal around Santería and other elements of Cuban "traditional" life, including prerevolutionary music as portrayed in the Buena Vista Social Club phenomenon (R. Moore 2001). The economic ascendancy of tourism in the Caribbean region is evident in a 100 percent growth rate in the industry between 1990 and 1999, compared to a 65 percent global average (Henthorne and Miller 2003:84). As preferential trading arrangements for traditional Caribbean exports like sugar, bananas, and bauxite are progressively dismantled, most governments in the region have identified tourism as a key instrument for national development, despite the economic enclaves and local social disparities it generally produces (McDavid and Ramajeesingh 2003:182-183).

Dependency on tourism has made it the Caribbean's largest industry, and Cuba's emergence as a popular destination has intensified regional market competition. Tourism had established itself as Cuba's largest industry by 2000, generating an estimated U.S. $1.95 billion. The island attracted 1,774,541 visitors in 2001, or 11 percent of total visitors to the Caribbean, and 1,850,410 visitors in 2004 (CTO 2002, 2005). One result of the intensifying regional competition is the growing promotion of "heritage tourism" alongside more conventional "sun and sand" packages offered by contemporary Caribbean tour agencies (Adams 1984; Brunner 1989, 1991; Henthorne and Miller 2003; Palmer 1994; Silver 1993). Industry promoters throughout the Caribbean have increasingly focused on the folkloric representation of African-based traditions, often resorting to the shock value of exotic religious practices to ensure visitors a memorable and "authentic" experience.

Cuban tourism promoters have frequently developed commercial strategies in partnership with domestic educational and research institutions. One of Cuba's primary research institutions in the field of Afro-Cuban religious traditions is the Casa del Caribe, located in the relatively affluent Santiago de Cuba suburb of Vista Alegre. In January 2002 the Casa held a public meeting in its amphitheater to outline its accomplishments for 2001 and to discuss its ambitions for the new year. It was announced that the Casa's team of researchers had completed ten projects on local popular traditions that year and published sixteen articles in foreign and Cuban academic journals. These achievements were cited as evidence of the Casa's ongoing commitment to its 1982 inaugural mandate as specified by the Ministry of Culture: to investigate, report on, and "rescue" Cuban popular traditions. Joel James, the Casa's director, expressed this mission in his own words: "Our task is to dignify our religions rather than prostitute them to commercialization. We have to support the grupos portadores [community groups that "carry" cultural traditions] because every time they perform in the streets and on a stage it's a pro-revolutionary statement." During his speech a Cubanacán tour bus pulled up, dropping o holidaymakers at the door of the amphitheater. As they filed in and took their seats the formal presentations ended and a local folklore ensemble took the stage. I recorded my impressions of the performance in my research diary:


Although I'm seated in the sixth row of the open-air amphitheater, I can see the stage clearly. The batá drummers are at the back of the stage, the singer (or akpón) to their left, and the dancers, all women, in front. Dressed from head to toe in the white robes of recent Santería initiates (iyawó), the eight dancers move in a slow, graceful circle to the rhythm of the goddess Yemayá, " ... asesu Yemayá, Yemayá olodo, olodo Yemayá ..." The akpón's phrase is repeated in soothing tones by the dancers. The rhythms gradually build tension and the phrases of the call and response songs become shorter and more energetic: " ... tsikini ... a la modanse ..." The dancers have broken from the circle and are stepping quickly now, the largest batá drum (iyá) filling the electrified evening air with torrid, thunderous improvisations. One of the dancers near the front of the stage starts to convulse, eyes rolled back, taken by the goddess Yemayá. The other dancers catch her before she falls; she regains balance and starts to spin faster and faster: " ... yaale yaalu ma o ..." The three batá drums are locked into a controlled, very rapid polyrhythm, punctuated by the calls of the iyá and responses of the second drum, itótele. The spinning dancer collapses and hits the floor. The show is over and the audience is on its feet applauding. The lights come up and the air gradually fills with the sound of European conversations: "The energy was incredible! Where can I get a recording of this music?" "Grabaste esa última parte con la cámara?" "A quelle heur vient l'autobus de l'hotel?" Slowly the crowd disperses. -Santiago de Cuba, January 2002

After the performance, the tourists paid the entrance fee of two U.S. dollars for a guided tour of the Casa's "Museum of Popular Religions," which introduces visitors to each of the deities of Santería (orichas) and their mythical attributes (an ax, a shell, a fan, etc.). These tours typically culminate with a personal invitation for visitors to kneel before the altars of the orichas to ask for their blessings and assistance in daily affairs. Local Santeros also visit the museum to kneel before the altars, which, the guide explains, is why Cubans prefer to use the term "temple-house" (casa-templo) rather than "museum" to describe this and similar cultural centers in Cuba, "because in fact they are places of worship."

The guide's explanation implied that putting a religious object on display in a museum does not detract from its sacred significance, dignity, and power. Religious dance and music spectacles have been described similarly by Judith Bettelheim, who notes that many artists view their performances as genuinely spiritual experiences (1991:75, 1994). Rescued from objectification and reductionism by spiritual authenticity, folkloric dances, she notes, are interpreted in Cuba both as genuine religious expression and as evidence of progressive multiculturalism: "I believe that these images, these carnaval performances, are double coded. For African Cubans they are powerful messages, reminders of an ongoing rich and powerful reality. According to official culture they are indicators of the new status, an elevated status, of the African Cuban in post-revolutionary society" (1991:75). According to the Casa's deputy director, José Millet, it is this elevated status that the Casa is responsible for maintaining and guarding:

Our folkloric stage performances are a fundamental way to support Afro-Cuban religions, which would otherwise have no way of supporting themselves. Notice that you don't see religious groups practicing openly in public places. Do you know that the few public religious celebrations that do occur, like the procession to El Cobre on 7 September and the festivities for [the Santería deity] Changó on 4 December, are not legally supported by any institution? Except for these rare traditional occasions, it is only the Casa del Caribe that openly supports the practice of popular religions in Santiago de Cuba. (Interview, 28 January 2002)

Each July the Casa organizes the Festival del Caribe, which showcases religiously inspired folklore performances on stages around Santiago de Cuba. According to Gladys González Bueno, a historian linked to the Casa, the festival, which has started to generate considerable profits, was founded in the early 1980s to raise awareness of ethnic diversity in Cuba and the Caribbean: "The purpose of the festival is to celebrate regional cultural diversity. I was involved from the start. I studied with the descendents of Haitian immigrants in the countryside and brought them to the festival to perform their religious songs and dances. No one here had ever seen this before so it was a tremendous success" (interview, 18 October 2001). Today the festival also attracts the interest of foreign tourists and students, many of whom enroll in the Casa's annual summer school program, which features workshops on the ethnology of popular religions.

The Casa's involvement with local religious believers goes beyond the folklore stage. Throughout the year it allows practitioners of the Haitian-derived religion Vodún to conduct weekly ceremonies in the back patio of the museum. The encounters between religious practitioners and ethnologists that result from this arrangement serve as opportunities for the Casa's staff to conduct observational research, much of which appears in the Casa's academic periodical, Del Caribe. For a fee, foreign visitors can also enter to watch, take snapshots, and bring home a small piece of paper from a box in the hallway: a sort of fortune cookie, inscribed with spiritual advice. These activities allow the Casa to function as a center of both religious performance and religious practice, enabling it to realize its official mandate while attracting the interest and dollars of a growing foreign clientele.


Excerpted from CUBA by Adrian H. Hearn Copyright © 2008 by DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESS. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments vii

Introduction: Structure and Spirit 1

Chapter 1. Spirits in Motion: Folklore and Function 31

Chapter 2. State Decentraliation and the Collaborative Spirit 67

Chapter 3. Sustainable Sovereignty: International NGOs and Civil Society in Cuba 103

Chapter 4. Patriotic Spirits: Religious Welfare Programs and Politics of Syncretism 135

Conclusion: Development and Dialogue 181

Notes 191

References 195

Index 213

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