The Crisis Fuels a Fervor for Afro-Cuban Religions on the Island

Many Cubans look to the orishas for answers to their problems or ask them to help them emigrate

The link between crisis and religion is not new in Cuba / Yoruba Cultural Association

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Laura Bécquer/EFE, 15 June 2024 — When a Cuban woman, Elvira García, knocked on the door of the babalao (Ifá priest) she did so looking for answers to her despair in the Afro-Cuban religion. The retired teacher was at her limit. Because of her difficulties in putting food on the table with the problems of shortages and inflation in Cuba, but also because of her daughter’s illness and the lack of medicines.

She also sought, she acknowledges, to reunite with her family – who had emigrated to the United States – and a spiritual refuge in the face of loneliness and difficulties. “I never professed any religion, but when my daughter had to have throat surgery and she was very ill, I looked to the orishas for the answers that could not be found on the earthly plane,” she explains.

It was then that she arrived at the house of babalao Daniel Oliva, who says that García is no exception. This 46-year-old Yoruba oracle scholar claims that he has seen a “religious explosion with the growth of believers due to the economic crisis in recent years.” This opinion is shared by experts and people linked to different religions on the Island. In the case of these traditional beliefs – which may be practiced by one in three Cubans, according to some studies – it is even more complex, because they are often mixed with Christianity.

“People are looking for a dream and see in religious places the possibility of helping them achieve it”

“People are looking for a dream and see in religious places the possibility of helping them achieve it,” explains Oliva from his house-temple in Havana. The link between crisis and religion, he says, is not new in Cuba. In the so-called Special Period, he remembers, something similar happened. “Many people turned to religion regardless of denomination – Yoruba, Christian, even Muslim – during the crisis of the 90s when things got bad,” he points out. In Havana, for example, it is common for groups of practitioners to meet on the shore of the sea or some rivers and, dressed completely in white, perform rituals.

Cuba is going through a harsh crisis that is reflected in frequent and prolonged blackouts, shortages of food, medicine and fuel, rampant inflation and a growing dollarization of the economy. The combination of the pandemic, the tightening of US sanctions and failed economic and monetary policies have aggravated the situation even further.

This scenario – and the lack of expectations for a medium-term recovery – has unleashed an unprecedented exodus in the last three years. According to different unofficial calculations, around 7% of the Cuban population has emigrated. Since 2021, some 650,000 have left for the United States and another 100,000 for Mexico. The numbers are even higher if those who have gone to Europe or other Latin American countries are counted.

The desire to leave their country in search of a better life is a recurring theme among those who consult Oliva

The desire to leave their country in search of a better life is a recurring theme among those who consult Oliva. “Ifá (father or guardian of secrets) has been listening to people’s prayers for years. The majority come because they want to live a little better and for that they have to emigrate,” explains the Cuban babalao.

Leaving Cuba “to improve economically” was precisely the reason that led Cuban chef Vladimir Blanes to “ask Orula” (the orisha who owns the Ifá board and divination). “I had several difficulties in achieving my dream, so I saw my last opportunity in religion,” explains the 36-year-old.

Oliva, however, is concerned because “these are times when deception, falsehood and lies increase in the face of people’s suffering.” However, he tells “all Cubans not to lose faith and to continue searching for “el aché ” (luck or blessing) despite the crisis.


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