Letter From Cuba

By Eugene Robinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 20, 2000

GUANABACOA, Cuba ¿¿ The babalawo is in. Step this way; he will see you now.

Seventy-five years old, but with a teenager's bright and darting eyes, Jose Lino has been a babalawo--a priest in the Afro-Cuban religion--for three decades. He certainly looks the part as he sits there in his easy chair, carefully sizing you up. He is shirtless and barefoot, his skin a walnut brown, his hair nearly white, his face deeply lined. You'd expect a prophet who wandered in the desert for 40 years to come out looking exactly like Jose Lino. Except for those lively eyes: This is not a prophet who condemns the world, but one who celebrates it.

Across the tiny living room is a framed picture of a Caucasian, airbrushed Jesus with flowing hair and a copiously bleeding heart. In the middle of the floor, like an altar, sits a round table with a child's black baby doll positioned in the center.

But this room is just for sitting and talking, for greeting the many supplicants who drop by. When it is time for the actual reading--the session when he tells you who you are and what will be--Jose Lino takes you into a back room that seems more workshop than sanctuary, unadorned and filled with so much random clutter that you hardly notice the modest little shrine assembled in one corner. He is efficient and practical as he consults the oracle Orula, methodically going about his business while an assistant, one of his sons, takes careful notes.

"Pray to Chango. Ask Chango to take care of your needs," he finally says. "But please, don't be a fanatic about it. Don't be one of those people who stand on the corner and say, 'Chango, help me cross the street.' No, this is for big things. Ask him for things that matter, like health. After all, if you have money but you do not have health, then you're still poor."

When he is done, the babalawo offers you a bit of rum. Then he tells you to wait a second while he walks down the street to a weed-choked hillside, where he uses a long blade to lop off a few branches of an herb called "paradise." It looks like a close cousin to poison ivy. "This would be good to bathe with," he says. "It might help. It couldn't hurt."

The Afro-Cuban religion that most Americans know as Santeria is an everyday fact of life in Cuba, a constant presence as commonplace as potholed streets, afternoon thunderstorms or the laughter of children heading home from school.

First let's deal with the exotica: Yes, the occasional animal sacrifice is involved. But doing horrible things to a chicken or a goat (no worse, believers argue, than the horrors that meat-eaters vicariously inflict on the animal kingdom every day) is required only for certain ceremonies. The day-in, day-out practice of the religion is much more prosaic, taking place inside one's own home, quietly and reverentially, in the form of a conversation with the orishas, or guardians.

The religion, which comes from the Yoruba culture in what is now Nigeria, is as old as the hills. What's new is that here in Cuba the religion is striving to become more African, to connect more firmly with its ancient roots--and that more and more Cubans, in a time of economic crisis and wrenching change, have become believers.

The collapse of the Cuban economy in the early 1990s, after the disintegration of the country's Eastern Bloc sponsors, meant more than just a drastic fall in virtually every Cuban's standard of living. It was also a profound psychological shock. People needed to be comforted, needed to find answers.

"Are there more believers in this period of crisis? I think obviously yes," says Rafael Robaina, a researcher at the Center of Anthropology in Havana who specializes in the faith that most people here call "Regla de Ocha" ("Rule of the Guardians") or simply "the Yoruba religion."

"Man tends to want to believe when he sees his life falling apart," Robaina says. "He tends to want superhuman intervention."

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