Religion in Cuba

Before 1959 more than 80% of Cubans were Roman Catholics, although only about 10% attended church regularly. Catholicism had always been seen as the religion of the wealthy, and the Protestants were usually poorer. During the first years of the Revolution there was a direct confrontation between the Church and the revolutionary government. In 1959 there were about 700 Catholic priests in Cuba, most of them Spaniards. Some 140 of the Spanish were expelled for reactionary political activities, and another 400 left the island by their own decision. The rest were allowed to continue their work. The Nationalization of Education Law of 1961, which transferred control of Catholic and other private schools to the State, made deeper the crisis. Despite the tense relationships Catholics services were never banned and there has never been a direct religious persecution.

In July 1992 the Constitution was amended in order to guarantee freedom of religion in Cuba. In December 1997, as an act of goodwill to the visit of the Pope John Paul II, the Cuban government granted, for the first time in more than 30 years, the Christmas day as a public holiday. In February 1998 the historic visit of Joan Paul II represented a moment of rapprochement between the Catholic Church and the Cuban government. Despite the differences Government-Church and without counting with accurate statistics, the last 15 years have seen a revival of the Christian religion in Cuba not only Catholic but Protestants also.

The most famous Cuban churches are the Cathedral of Havana in Old Havana and El Cobre Basilica where Nuestra Señora de la Caridad Cobre (Cuba's patron saint) is worshipped in Santiago de Cuba. Anyway, the whole island is plenty of beautiful churches. Christian Visitors are welcome to attend to religious services.

An important element within the Cuban religion environment is the merge of the religion of the former African slaves, brought mainly from the ancient kingdom Yoruba in the current Nigeria, with the Catholic iconography and dogmas which have finally formed several Afro-Cuban cults called Santerías or Regla de Ocha. Santería or Santerías differs from the Christianity and other religions in that it does not have a central structure that rules the cult; neither it has a temple specially built for the worship. In fact, ceremonies are held in the same homes of the believers. Santería, as almost all the African religion settled in America is an animist belief that worships the ancestors.

The rites of Santería are managed by a male priest called Babalao who is consulted for advice by those present in the ceremony, to cure diseases and to give protection. Offerings are placed before the shrine in a corner of the Babalao's home. In the shrine you will find Catholic saints representing the Orishas (Yorubas' deities), but the real power resides in the stones dropped with colored necklaces. The stones are believed to harbor the spirits of the Orishas and they must be fed with food, herbs and blood. Animals such as chickens, doves, and goats are sacrificed during the rituals, and the Babalao sprays rum onto the altar from his mouth.

For tourists, this rites result quite exotic and they are always welcome to visit household shrines or attend ceremonies in which they are gently introduced in the generalities of the religion and also are expected to leave some money for the Orishas. The most famous neighborhoods in Havana for the large presence of Babalaos and believers of this religion are Guanabacoa and Regla. Matanzas is also very well known as important center of the Santeria. Nevertheless, Santeros are everywhere in Cuba and is easy to recognize them for their impeccable white outfits and the colorful collars and bracelet their wear.

In Havana and its surrounding areas there are several museums devoted to this important part of the Cuban culture, among them:

  • Museo Casa de Africa, (Obrapía # 157 Old Havana)
  • Asociación Cultural Yoruba de Cuba, (P. Martí # 615 Old Havana)
  • Museo del Santero, (located in Madruga, a small town next to Havana)
  • Museo de Guanabacoa, (Martí # 108 Guanabacoa)
  • Museo de Regla, (Martí #158 Regla)

Besides the Catholicism and the Afro-Cuban religions in Cuba coexist in harmony around 3000 Muslims, 2000 Jews with 5 synagogues, 54 Protestant and Evangelical Churches, 25 Pentecostal Churches, a Greek Orthodox Church and an indeterminate number of Spiritualists, Masons, Buddhists and Jehovah's Witnesses.