"Santeria" Lures Tourist Cash to Cuba

Reuters/May 7, 2007

Havana -- After a few minutes tossing a string of flat beads and chanting, Rogelio Castellano decides his tourist client is emotionally scarred by an old conflict. Only a $500 ritual goat sacrifice will put it right.

He's insistent. Even after he halves the fee, it's more money than he could make in a year on a Cuban state salary.

A babalawo, or priest, of Cuba's ritual-filled Santeria religion, Castellano wears a gold chain and has a TV and a telephone that stand out from the animal skulls, pigeon blood, melted candle wax and feathers that litter his dingy home.

Such modern accoutrements are testament to a flow of tourists that has made Santeria a lucrative business for some, bringing in foreign currency that makes the difference between a frugal lifestyle or relative wealth in communist-run Cuba.

"I see seven or eight foreigners a week. Germans, Mexicans, Italians, Americans,'' said Castellano, who spent years studying the African-based faith of ancestral spirits and shrines teeming with fruit, horse hair, ribbons and rum.

"Quite a few come off the cruise ships,'' he added, grinning to reveal a set of gold-rimmed teeth that most Cubans could not afford.

Whereas a Cuban would pay with a fistful of pesos, a foreigner might spend $20 to meet a priest and $50 on good-luck charms like gravel-filled gourds or plastic bead bracelets.

A full-on initiation ceremony into Santeria, which grew out of the Yoruba religion brought to the Americas by African slaves, would cost a foreigner well over $1,000.

Such prices are normal for Yoruba-style rituals in much of the continent, but they are dizzying in Cuba, where people get by on a state wage of around $15 a month plus whatever they can do on the side.

"It can be a swindle. But not with me. Foreigners have come to me for years,'' said Castellano, dusting off a feathered clay head which for $10 -- and if one pours rum and honey on it and blows cigar smoke over it -- will keep bad spirits away.

Warm blood

Some seven in 10 Cubans are Santeria followers and consult babalawos, or "santera'' priestesses, about health, financial or relationship woes, like followers of Yoruba-based faiths in countries like Haiti and Brazil.

Everyone in Cuba knows somebody whose life was changed forever by a Santeria ritual, which can entail being beaten with herbal plants or sprayed with warm animal blood.

Yet backpackers directed to babalawos by tour guides or taxi drivers invariably pay more than the couple of dollars guide books suggests for a "fast-food'' helping of Santeria.

Across the Havana bay in the Santeria-rich port of Regla, santeras greet tourists arriving off a rickety ferryboat.

After a fortune-telling session with Tarot cards or seashells, they offer to stay in touch by e-mail and urge foreigners to send over their friends.

"Tourists come every day to see me. Mostly Spanish and Mexicans,'' says Laura, a voluptuous santera decked out in a tight lycra bodysuit and a mass of tinkling gold jewelry.

"People come back to Cuba to see me or stay in touch by e-mail. I send advice and they send gifts. I even have ''ahijados'' (godchildren) in France,'' she said, pausing to sell half a dozen $10 amulet bracelets to a Mexican tourist clutching a wishlist from his friends back home.

Her speedy $20 consultations, next to a bead-strewn altar to the Virgin of Charity El Cobre, Cuba's patron saint, are entertaining -- but a little short on insight.

A reading of a time-worn pack of cards and some cowrie shells cheerily predicts wealth, career success and an imminent love affair leading to marriage and two kids.

But you're obliged to buy a tiny cloth bag of gravel, for luck, a bead bracelet and a wooden figurine -- total $30 -- and there's an order to come back soon with friends.

Marital tips

Blending Yoruba deities called "Orishas'' with Catholic saints, Santeria took root among slaves on sugar plantations run by Spanish colonialists. It thrived after Castro's 1959 revolution displaced Catholicism, with babalawos offering personal advice in intimate consultations.

As Cuba opened up to tourism in the 1990s, some babalawos were licensed to deal in dollars with foreigners, from curious academics to would-be priests, and sell Santeria souvenirs.

Today, these white-clad taxpaying babalawos are on a level with Cubans with permits to run book stores or drive taxis.

And the ones working on the quiet make more than they would as cigar hawkers or tour guides. Many are among the few Cubans with access to a phone or e-mail.

Still, like anything in life, when Santeria goes too commercial, it loses much of its magic.

"Santeria is not a commercial thing. Everyone has to pay to be cleansed, but priests shouldn't pester people for business,'' said Cuban anthropologist and Santeria expert Natalia Bolivar.

"Foreigners have always come to see babalawos, because it's fashionable or someone told them about it. There are unscrupulous people who take advantage of that. But truly religious people never would.''

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