abril 24, 2007

Easter in Cuba: Recovering traditions banned for years.

Cathedral Square. At 7 pm, some hundreds of people gather there to follow the Via Crucis procession through the streets of the city.A common image in many Catholic countries of the world at this time of the year, but not such an usual picture in the communist Cuba of Fidel Castro. The procession of this Good Friday - which also took place in several other Cuban cities - has only been publicly celebrated for the past three years, after almost 40 of prohibition.
It was after the historic visit to the island by the late Pope John Paul II in 1998 that the Cuban authorities again allowed the celebration of public religious acts that had been banned in the early 1960s.
As a "goodwill gesture," Christmas Day was re-established as a day off work, the only Christian holiday to be so designated. The days of Easter remain normal working days, and the Catholic Church has been forced to adapt by celebrating mass and other events after working hours.
"Of course we would like to have some vacation to celebrate it properly," sais Lucia, a 50-year-old Havana resident. But she says to feel just happy to being able to participate in this kind of public processions.
Nowadays, it is even permissible to be a member of the Communist Party and publicly go to church, "which is a great contradiction," smiles Francisco, a 60-year-old pensioner also participating in the Via Crucis.
In the past years, the Catholic Church has even gained some space on local radio to transmit religious messages during Easter, and State television even showed the Via Crucis celebrated by Pope Benedict XVI in the Vatican this year and in 2006.
Although a communist state, Cuba never banned totally the Catholic religion, the most popular in the island - alongside the "Yoruba", the African-Cuban rites brought by slaves from Africa centuries ago. Both have been practiced together in a very extended syncretism: many Catholic representations have their Yoruba "alter ego. "
It is thus that Saint Lazarus represents for the Yoruba followers the god Babalu Aye, Saint Barbara is the powerful Chango, the Holy Mary of Mercedes is Obatala or the Holy Mary of Regla is associated by the Yorubas with Yemaya.
Unlike the Via Crucis, that has seen a slow decrease of participation, the processions celebrated on Yoruba "holy" days are followed by thousands of believers.
"In Cuba we say that they are with God and the devil", says Caridad, a 50-year-old Cuban who defines herself as "exclusively" Catholic.
Although Easter is one of the "purest" Catholic celebrations, Yorubas have increasingly participated in the rituals over the years, although many priests specifically say in mass that followers of Yoruba practice are not allowed to receive the Holy Communion.
"We are Cuban Catholics, we are religious. We don't mix up both things, but syncretism is something normal in Cuba," says Israel, 59. He too follows the Via Crucis. But on this Friday, he has discreetly hidden the necklaces that reveal himself as a "santo" (saint), a follower of the Yoruba religion.
During these past days, mass has been celebrated in many Catholic churches in Cuba, the main ones after 6 pm, in order "not to interfere" with the working hours.
"There must be an opening now in Cuba," says Israel. "Cuba is opening up to the world, as the Pope said. Only God has the absolute power. "
"Before (the Pope's visit), you could not talk about anything religious, nowadays you can be in the Communist Party and religious, which is a great contradiction," adds Francisco.
Many Cubans show these days the "guano," a blessed palm leaf. They hang them during Easter in houses and cars, as an amulet to keep them safe. And they will keep it the whole year and use it if necessary.
"Some people burn it during powerful storms to ask God to protect them, others put it under the mattress of a sick person or in baby cradles," explains Caridad, who also will keep her "guano" until she gets another one the following Easter.
This Saturday and Sunday, Cuban Catholics will gather again at their churches to celebrate the resurrection of Christ on Easter Eve and the Easter Sunday mass.
"We are recovering the religious traditions they had taken us away," says Israel.
"In Cuba, everybody believes in God," adds Lucia.