The major characteristic of Cuban culture is its combination of the African and European. Because slavery was not abolished until 1886 in Cuba, black African traditions were kept intact much later than elsewhere in the Caribbean. They persist now, inevitably mingled with Hispanic influence, in religion: in
, for instance, a cult which blends popular Catholicism with the Yoruba belief in the spirits that inhabit all plant life. This now has a greater hold in Cuba than orthodox Catholicism, which has traditionally been seen as the religion of the white, upper class: opposing independence from Spain in the 19th century and the Revolution in the 1950s.

The Roman Catholic Church

Church and State were separated at the beginning of the 20th century when Spain was defeated by the USA and a constituent assembly approved a new constitution. The domination of the USA after that time encouraged the spread of Protestantism, although Catholicism remained the religion of the majority. Nevertheless, Catholicism was not as well supported as in some other Latin American countries. Few villages had churches and most Cubans rarely went to mass. Even before the Revolution, the Church was seen as right wing, as most of the priests were Spanish and many of them were supporters of General Franco and his fascist regime in Spain.

After the Revolution, relations between the Catholic Church and Castro were frosty. Most priests left the country and some joined the émigrés in Miami, where connections are still strong. By the late 1970s, the Vatican's condemnation of the US embargo helped towards a gradual reconciliation. In 1979, the Pope was invited to visit Cuba on his way back from a trip to Mexico, but he also received an invitation from the Cuban émigrés in Miami. Caught between a rock and a hard place, the Pope opted to go to the Bahamas instead. In the 1980s, Castro issued visas to foreign priests and missionaries and allowed the import of bibles, as well as giving permission for new churches to be built.

In 1994, Cardinal Jaime Ortega was appointed by the Vatican to fill the position left vacant in Cuba since the last cardinal died in 1963. A ban on religious believers joining the Communist Party has been lifted and Protestant, Catholic and other church leaders have reported rising congregations. In the archdiocese of Havana, there were 7500 baptisms in 1979 but this figure shot up to 34,800 in 1994.

In 1996, Fidel visited Pope John Paul II at the Vatican and the Pope visited Cuba in January 1998. Castro has stated in the past that there is no conflict between Marxism and Christianity and has been sympathetic towards supporters of liberation theology in their quest for equality and a just distribution of social wealth. During the Pope's visit to Brazil in October 1997, he criticized free market ideology which promotes excessive individualism and undermines the role of society, which he further emphasized in his visit to Cuba. The two septuagenarians clearly share common ground on the need for social justice, although they are poles apart on the family, marriage, abortion and contraception, let alone totalitarianism and violent Revolution. At the Pope's request, Castro decreed 25 December 1997 a public holiday, initially for one year only, but it is now a regular event. Christmas Day was abolished in the 1960s because it interfered with the sugar harvest; a whole generation has grown up without it and many people were unsure of its religious significance when it was reinstated. Nevertheless, artificial Christmas trees sold out and tinsel and religious imagery were to be found in many homes.

Afro-Cuban religion

From the mid-16th century to the late 19th century, countless hundreds of thousands of African slaves were brought to Cuba. Torn from dozens of peoples between the Gulf of Guinea and southern Angola, speaking hundreds of languages and dialects, they brought from home only a memory of their customs and beliefs as a shred of comfort in their traumatic new existence on the sugar plantations. The most numerous and culturally most influential group were the Yoruba-speaking agriculturalists from the forests of southeast Nigeria, Dahomey and Togo, who became known collectively in Cuba as
. It is their pantheon of deities or
, and the legends (
) and customs surrounding these, which form the basis of the syncretic Regla de Ocha cult, better known as

Although slaves were ostensibly obliged to become Christians, their owners, anxious to prevent different ethnic groups from uniting, turned a blind eye to their traditional rituals. The Catholic saints thus spontaneously merged or syncretized in the
mind with the
, whose imagined attributes they shared.

While the Yoruba recognize 400 or more regional or tribal
, their Cuban descendants have forgotten, discarded or fused together most of these, so that today barely two dozen regularly receive tribute at the rites known as
toques de santo

, which claims to have at least as many believers as the Roman Catholic Church in Cuba, in all walks of life including Communist Party members, enshrines a rich cultural heritage. For every
there is a complex code of conduct, dress (including colour-coded necklaces) and diet to which his or her
must conform, and a series of chants and rhythms played on the sacred

is non-sectarian and non-proselytizing, co-existing peacefully with both Christianity and the
Regla Conga
Palo Monte
cult brought to Cuba by
, slaves from various Bantu-speaking regions of the Congo basin. Indeed many people are practising believers in both or all three. Found mainly in Havana and Matanzas provinces,
Palo Monte
is a much more fragmented and impoverished belief system than
Regla de Ocha
, and has borrowed aspects from it and other sources. Divided into several sects, the most important being the
, it is basically animist, using the forces of nature to perform good or evil magic and predict the future in ceremonies involving rum, tobacco and at times gunpowder. The focus of its liturgy is the
, both a supernatural spirit and the earthenware or iron container in which it dwells along with the
or saints.
Regla Conga
boasts a wealth of complex magic symbols or
, and has retained some exciting drum rhythms.

Abakuá Secret Society
is, as its name suggests, not a religion but a closed sect. Open to men only, and upholding traditional
virtues, it has been described as an Afro-Cuban freemasonry, although it claims many non-black devotees. Found almost exclusively in Havana (particularly in the Guanabacoa, Regla and Marianao districts), and in the cities of Matanzas, Cárdenas and Cienfuegos, it has a strong following among dock-workers; indeed, outsiders often claim its
members have
de facto
control over those ports. Also known as
, the sect originated among slaves brought from the Calabar region of southern Nigeria and Cameroon, whose Cuban descendants are called
. Some
claim the society was formally founded in 1836 in Regla, across the bay from Havana, but there is evidence that it already existed at the time of the 1812 anti-slavery conspiracy.
shares with freemasonry the fraternal aims of mutual assistance, as well as a series of seven secret commandments, secret signs and arcane ceremonies involving special vestments.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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