Religion in Cuba

Cuba shares a common history with Latin America, beginning with the conquest and European colonization. However, there were also some differences. One of the differences dealt with the indigenous peoples.

While throughout most of the continent, especially in areas where great civilizations were established, the roots of native cultures were preserved for various reasons, colonization and the introduction of catholicism in the Antilles brought with it the extermination of the Indian nation and with it the disappearance of religious beliefs and practices of those people.

This is the case of the Arawak Indians (Guanahatabeys, Ciboneys and Tainos), that once lived in Cuba and worshipped inanimate objects, believed in mythology and performed magic. They personified deities, praying to them during their religious services and celebrated religious holidays, known as the Areitos. Their priests were in charge of healing, fortune-telling and the preservation of tradition.

During the complex process of transculturation, the Indian heritage has barely survived in the form of legends and popular myths. Some areas have been preserved, such as the caves in which they held funeral rituals and painted murals.

The Spanish conquistadores imposed their culture, language, civilization, way of thinking and religion: catholicism. With the support of colonial authorities, over a period of time, catholicism became the official and exclusive religion. Through the spread of the gospel, Christianity became ethnocentric.

Education, health care and social relations in general were primarily in the hands of the clergy. The Catholic Church maintained a favored political and social position, even after the independence of Cuba.

As a consequence of centuries of slavery, a number of African religions were introduced in Cuba during the colonial period. The religious beliefs differed according to the region in Africa from where the slaves were brought.

Since then, Spanish and African people have been the foundation of the ethnic and cultural heritage of the Cuban nationality. Other cultures have had their influence (Caribbean, North American, Chinese and European), in a complex process of intercultural mixing. This brought about a unique religious diversity.

The original African creeds were modified according to conditions in Cuba. Uprooted from their surroundings on the African continent and subjected to a blending of cultural and ethnic influences, the deities and religious rituals changed.

As a result of slavery, many of the rituals were for protection and divine assistance. Other religious rites, such as fertilization, were seen as less important. Thus, Cuban religious beliefs were influenced by African creeds.

As they were barred from cultivating their beliefs, the African slaves reflected their deities in the Catholic saints. That's why, the Virgin of Charity is also Ochun for followers of the Yoruba Rule.

The Ocha Rule, popularly known as Santeria, came from the Yoruba culture in Nigeria. The focus of worship is a group of orichas (deities), connected to different myths. Among the most important gods: Olofin, Olorun and Oloddumare.

The religious leaders of Santeria are Santeros, in the case of men (babalochas) and Santeras, in the case of women (iyalochas). They have other hierarchical and secondary functions. The most systematic and complex expression is in the worship of Ifa -- a god whose main attribute is prophecy-- which is worshipped by the higher priests, the babalawos.

People originally from Congo followed the Conga Rule, Palo Monte or Palo Mayombe along with religious ceremonies that dealt with natural forces.

An important element of this belief is the nganga, a receptacle in which various objects, organic materials and minerals, key to the faith, are collected and carefully guarded by religious leaders.

The highest authority is the Tata Nganga. They concentrate on the medicinal properties of plants and herbs. There are several with such characteristics in Cuba --Mayombe, Brillumba and Kimbisa.

Another religious manifestation of African origin, located in the western part of Cuba, are secret men-only groups called Abakua, also known as naniguismo. These groups developed at the beginning of the past century, originating from the area of Calabar in Nigeria.

These groups are associations for mutual protection and assistance, following a mythical legend. They are organized in groups with teams headed by plazas, the highest dignity for life.

Originating from ethnic groups, such as the Arara and Iyesa, there are different beliefs with lesser influence, also located in the western part of Cuba.

Religious expressions emanating from Africa --compared with Christianity -- are less developed theoretically. They are based on symbols, spirits and rituals, tied directly to nature and daily life. There is no central structure that regulates doctrine or the way services are conducted. Independent groups establish their own particular routine.

In the Abakua societies, a structure have been created to incorporate several local groups. In Santeria, more centralized groups have been formed, such as the Yoruba Cultural Association of Cuba, which brings together a number of Babalawos or Priests from the Ifa cult.

These religious expressions, particularly Santeria, are widely spread among the population. As a result, it is difficult to calculate the exact number of people who practice African-originated religions. With the exception of Abakua, which uses temples, services are carried out in private homes, making it more difficult to determine the exact number.

African influence in Cuba is noticeable in daily life, in the streets and in the culture -- especially in music, dance, musical instruments, cousine and the arts.

Spiritualism is a widespread religious expression in Cuban society, too. It appared during the middle of the 19th Century and first spread through the area where the independence war was being fought. At the same time, it assimilated elements of African beliefs and Christianity.

These forms of spiritualism are known as "cords", "crossed" and "individual". They are practiced within spiritual centers and societies, using individual "mediums," but do not have a formal federation. There has been, however, a tendency toward formalizing a group and an association with a leadership was set up.

Protestantism arrived relatively late in Cuba, due to the protection of the Catholic Church by the Spanish rule. The first Protestant influence appeared late last century, initiated by Cubans who had emigrated to the United States - - although the main churches were built after the U.S. intervention of 1898.

The Protestant faith grew during the first 50 years of the Republic, assisted by missionaries from the United States. Cuban Protestantism was molded from the denominations found in the American society.

There are several other religious expressions, but their followers are fewer in number. Some are associated with immigrants, such as Voodoo, brought to Cuba by Haitians. Other religious beliefs were brought over by Chinese immigrants, but little is known about these practices. In each of these cases, only a small percentage of Haitian and Chinese descendants practice those religions.

Judaism is practiced by member of the Hebrew community in Cuba; and there are a few Jewish synagogues, mainly in Havana.

There are also small groups of Eastern philosophical religions, such as the Theosophical Society and the Baha'i Assembly, as well as other similar, less organized religious faiths.

Masonic membership in Cuba is a little more than 26,000, with 314 lodges throughout the nation. The Cuban capital, Havana, has the largest number of Masonic members in the country.