This week, The Economist’s Americas bureau pays attention to a growing trend in Cuba: Santería, which is gaining popularity as the Communist government takes a less aggressive stance toward religion.
Pope Francis is reportedly considering a fall trip to Havana, after helping the United States and Cuba reach a diplomatic breakthrough. When his predecessor, Pope Benedict, visited in 2012, Byron Pitts of CBS News observed that “rejuvenating” the Catholic Church there would be a “big challenge”: although a majority of Cubans identify as Catholic, only one in ten regularly attends services.
However, the history of Santería highlights just how difficult it can be to measure people’s religious lives by simple categories. It’s often categorized as a “syncretic” religion, a blend of different faiths: in this case, colonists’ Spanish Catholicism and slaves’ West African beliefs. The popular idea that Santería is somehow ‘secretive’ may stem from practitioners’ need to hide their faith from their masters.
Today, the day-to-day lives of Cubans who follow Santería continue to blend their country’s traditions. Among Catholics,
[m]any see no reason not to incorporate Santería rituals into their spiritual lives. A Catholic priest will marry a couple, but a santero might foretell their destiny […].
Vice’s Phil Clarke Hill suggests that Cubans are drawn to Santería precisely because it reflects, and embraces, this complex history and identity:
By accepting and adopting the beliefs of both Cuba’s historic oppressor and oppressed, they have formed a religion that can neither be labeled as truly Christian nor Yoruba, but instead inherently Cuban. […] Santeria offers an outlet through which modern Cubans can fuse together a ruptured past.
Karolina Lubryczynska, "Santeria Believer," 2007, Flickr Creative Commons.