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Cuba is traditionally a Catholic country. In some instances Catholicism is much modified and influenced through syncretism. A common syncretic belief is Santería, which was brought to Cuba by the slaves from Africa and spread to neighboring islands; it shows similarities to Brazilian Umbanda and has been receiving a degree of official support.

The Roman Catholic Church estimates that 60 percent of the population is Catholic.

Membership in Protestant churches is estimated to be 5 percent and includes Baptists, Pentecostals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh-day Adventists, Presbyterians, Anglicans, Episcopalians, Methodists, Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), and Lutherans. Other groups include the Greek Orthodox Church, the Russian Orthodox Church, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Baha’is, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons).

Our Lady of Charity, Patroness of Cuba

Cuba is home to a variety of syncretic religions of largely African cultural origin. According to a US State Department report, some sources estimate that as much as 80 percent of the population consults with practitioners of religions with West African roots, such as Santeria or Yoruba. Santería developed out of the traditions of the Yoruba, one of the African peoples who were imported to Cuba during the 16th through 19th centuries to work on the sugar plantations. Santería blends elements of Christianity and West African beliefs and as such made it possible for the slaves to retain their traditional beliefs while appearing to practice Catholicism. La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre (Our Lady Of Charity) is the Catholic patroness of Cuba, and is greatly revered by the Cuban people and seen as a symbol of Cuba. In Santería, she has been syncretized with the goddess Ochún. The important religious festival “La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre” is celebrated by Cubans annually on 8 September. Other religions practised are Palo Monte, and Abakuá, which have large parts of their liturgy in African languages.


After the communist revolution of 1959, Cuba restricted religious practice, this led to persecution of many Catholics at universities and jobs. Today, the government recognizes the right of citizens to profess and practice any religious belief within the framework of respect for the law.

From 1959 to 1961 eighty percent of the professional Catholic priests and Protestant ministers left Cuba for the United States. Relationships between the new government and congregations were tense, the new Cuban government was very limiting and suspicious of church operations, blaming them for collaboration with the CIA during the Bay of Pigs invasion and stockpiling arms provided for a “counter-revolution“.

In accordance with the traditional antireligious doctrine of marxist-leninist ideology, the state adopted a policy of promoting atheism. Religious beliefs were considered backward, reactionary, ignorant, and superstitious.

The ‘Committees for Defense of the Revolution’ said

Studies appeared that attempted to link Afro-Cuban religions with mental illness . The campaign for the eradication of racial discrimination in Cuba was (and still is) used as grounds to forbid the creation of Afro-Cuban institutions, because doing so was labelled as racially divisive .

Religious believers suffered from discrimination at schools and at work .

The decade following the 1960s was turbulent, and many believers chose to hide their faith in response to the state persecution. Many parents did not wish to burden their children with the difficulties that they would inherit if they were baptized Christians, and therefore did not raise them as such. The archdiocese of Havana in 1971 reported only 7000 baptisms . In 1989 this figure had increased to 27,609 and in 1991 to 33,569 .

In 1985 the Council of State in Havana published a best-selling book called Fidel y la Religion, which was the condensed transcription of 23 hours of interviews between Fidel Castro and a Brazilian liberation theology friar named Frei Betto, O.P. He claimed responsibility for excluding non-atheists from Communist party membership on grounds that:

What we were demanding was complete adherence to Marxism-Leninism…It was assumed that anybody who joined the party would accept the party’s policy and doctrine in all aspects

In the years following and after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the state adopted a more conciliatory position towards religion and lessened its promotion of atheism. In November 1991, the Communist party began to allow believers into its ranks. In July 1992, the constitution was amended to remove the definition of Cuba as being a state based on Marxism-Leninism, and article 42 was added, which prohibited discrimination on the basis of religious belief. Small worship centres were legally permitted to exist again.

Nevertheless, by the early 1990s, after three decades of state atheism, Cuban society had become almost totally secularized. Weekly church attendance on the island of 11 million was estimated at around 250,000 or about 2% of the population (with an even division between Catholics and protestants) . Cuba had fewer priests per inhabitant than any other Latin American country.

Since 1992, restrictions have been eased and direct challenges by state institutions to the right to believe eased somewhat, though the church still faces restrictions of written and electronic communication, and can only accept donations from state-approved funding sources. The Roman Catholic Church is made up of the Cuban Catholic Bishops’ Conference (ccbc), led by Jaime Lucas Ortega y Alamino, Cardinal Archbishop of Havana. It has eleven dioceses, 56 orders of nuns and 24 orders of priests.

The Cuban Bishops’ conference has been very critical of the US embargo against Cuba and has claimed that the entire population has suffered from it. The US catholic bishops’ conference has been influenced by this and has argued that food and medicine should be excluded from the embargo .

In January 1998, Pope John Paul II paid a historic visit to the island, invited by the Cuban government and Catholic Church. He criticized the US embargo during his visit.

On October 20, 2008, the first Orthodox Church in Cuba opened during an official ceremony attended by Raul Castro.

Santeria in Cuba

The arrival and endurance of Santeria (also known as Regla de Ocha) in Cuba is the result of multiple contributing factors. The roots of Santeria stem from Nigeria and were transported to Cuba by way of the Lucumi people. However, the Lucumi people only consisted of about 8% of the overall slave population in Cuba from 1760 until about 1850. With such low numbers to draw upon the religion was under constant attack in the form of dilution through more dominant numbers in the form of reproductive outsourcing and the cruelty inflicted through the employment of slavery. Between 1800 and 1850 almost the entire population in Cuba consisted of people of African descent. This factor created a sense of uncertainty for Plantation owners because of tensions amongst the slave population. The slave rivalries eventually resulted in an ever-rising loss in production. The method for combating the losses yielded that an increase in the Lucumi population would serve the plantation best. Lucumi people are known to be hard workers and are mild mannered.. As result of increasing import of slaves the population of the Lucumi rose sharply to about 34%. Attributing to the increase of Santeria was that many other slaves and freemen began to practice the religion of Santeria thereby increasing the span of influence and affiliation in a more diverse manner. The disposition of colonialism brought a significant strain on all religions outside of Catholicism. Over the course of a 90-year span the Lucumi maintained the practice of the religion of Santeria. The religion of Santeria encompasses sacrificial food, song, dance, costumes, spiritual deities and the use of artifacts. In the beginning the Lucumi and other worshippers of Santeria would have to practice in secret. They would create hasty areas in which they would conduct structuralized practice of Santeria and return to their colonial life after. However, the practice of Santeria on a more regular basis takes place not on the sugar plantations but in the urban areas.[5] The syncretism that modernized Santeria was introduced when high-class Mulattoes needed to find ways to alleviate ailments such as stress or sickness. There was no formal medical aid available to the community at the time. In light of this disposition high-class Mulattoes pulled from whatever resources that they could find. They employed the practices of Christian taught house slaves with Afro-Cuban healers and Spanish curanderos.The Afro-Cuban healers and Spanish curanderos served as the only medical practitioners in Cuba and were responsible for treating both the Black and White population. The distance between the city and the countryside made it very difficult for the opportunity of slaves to participate in the syncretism of Santeria with Catholicism and Christianity. This was due to geographic reference. Most of the European religious practice and churches were located the urban areas or towns and to attend services would require traveling over long distances, which would interfere with the sugar production. In the urban areas slaves worked alongside freemen and White Cubans in a less restricted atmosphere. They were educated and trusted to perform skilled labor and given a great deal of responsibility. Their presence served in a number of diverse jobs, which acted as a catalyst for the syncretism of Santeria with Catholicism and Christianity. Not every slave in Cuba complied with the employment of slavery. Cimmarones, as the Cuban slave owners labeled them, were a group of slaves who fled captivity and formed communities consisting of thousands of people. They took refuge in the wilderness and the mountains of Cuba where they maintained the practice of Santeria. They were considered a very serious threat to the colonial government’s hold on slavery and oppression. The Cimarrones were able to elude capture and to provide aid and shelter to other escaped slaves. Over the course of time they developed the means to communicate with other surrounding secret camps via the plantation slaves and friendly White Cubans. Other slaves and freemen who lived in rural areas formed secret societies and groups in which they would exercise their religious beliefs of Santeria out of the public view to avoid colonial reform and oppression. After the abolishment of slavery Palenque, the Cimarrones establishment was converted into a town named El Cobre after surviving for fifty years. In the religion of Santeria the emphasis of conscious existence binds the understanding of nature, the higher powers, and the channels of lineage together through ritual practice and clairvoyance. The circle is a symbol that is divided into three sections that begin at the core with people and extend out into two other sections being ancestors and finally divinities. The significance of people at the inner core stand to represent the present day of existence and understanding in the form of perception with in the individual as he or she can interpret the information surrounding them. The outer layer of the ancestor represents the heritable understanding that the individual carries with them as a source of how and why to interpret values of perception with in a given realm. The outmost layer represents divinity is the value of knowledge, direction and understanding that is acquired from Orishas and personal experience. The existence the circle represents is not a fixed plain of understanding but stands as an interchangeable ever evolving and rotating sense of awareness and being. Santeria lineage is structured in the connection through Sibs (a group of kin) with each Sib being traced back to a common male ancestor linking the bloodlines to the religion. “There were three different routes for the transmission of Orisha worship. A child could inherit an Orisha from either its mother or father and continue their worship of it. In this case a triangular relationship existed between the child, the parent, and the Orisha”.


Santería, also known as Regla de Ocha, La Regla Lucumi or Lukumi, is a syncretic religion of West African and Caribbean origin influenced by Roman Catholic Christianity. Its liturgical language, a dialect of Yoruba, is also known as Lucumi.


Priests are commonly known as olorishas or owner of Orisa. Once those priests have initiated other priests, they become known as babalorishas, “fathers of orisha” (for men), and as iyalorishas, “mothers of orisha” (for women). Priests can commonly be referred to as Santeros and Santeras (depending on gender), and if they function as diviners (using cowrie-shell divination known as Diloggun) of the Orishas they can be considered Italeros, or if they go through training to become leaders of initiations, Obas or Oriates.

Considered to be highest in rank are priests of Ifá (pronounced ee-fah), which in santeria is an all male group. Ifá Priests receive Orunmila, who is the Orisha of Prophecy, Wisdom and Knowledge. Once this happens they are known by the title Babalawo, or “Father Who Knows the Secrets“.

In recent years, a particular practice of the traditional Yoruba Ifa priests (from Nigeria) has come to the diaspora of initiating women to be Iyanifa or “Mother of Destiny“, but Lucumi practitioners do not typically accept this practice due to their interpretation of the Odu Ifa Irete Untelu which states woman cannot be in the presence of Olofin (otherwise known as Igba Iwa Odu) and so cannot be initiated as divining priestesses. This is a major difference between traditional Lucumí Ifa practitioners, and some traditional Yoruba practitioners from Oshogbo and, since the 1980s, Ile Ife. Instead, a woman in Lucumi is initiated as Apetebi Ifa, a “bride of Ifa”, and is considered senior in Ifa to all but a fully initiated Babalawo. There was little evidence of Iyanifa existing in West Africa until very recently, so the existence of the Iyanifa is likely to be of modern origin in Yorubaland, and it is probably due to this reason that it does not appear in the Cuban variant. The foremost Western academic authority on Ifa, William Bascom, traveled throughout Yorubaland studying the Ifa cult in a series of visits in 1937–1938, 1950–1951, 1960 and 1965, and never encountered a single Iyanifa nor was he told of their existence by any ofs informants. However, Maupoil, in his 1943 work, does mention he encountered a woman Ifa diviner in Dahomey.[4]


Santería is a system of beliefs that merges the Yoruba religion (which was brought to the New World by slaves imported to the Caribbean to work the sugar plantations) with Roman Catholic and Native Indian traditions. These slaves carried with them various religious customs, including a trance for communicating with their ancestors and deities, animal sacrifice and sacred drumming.

In Cuba, this religious tradition has evolved into what we now recognize as Santería. In 2001, there were an estimated 22,000 practitioners in the US alone, but the number may be higher as some practitioners may be reluctant to disclose their religion on a government census or to an academic researcher. In Puerto Rico, the religion is extremely popular, especially in the towns of Loiza and Carolina.

Of those living in the United States, some are fully committed priests and priestesses, others are “godchildren” or members of a particular house-tradition, and many are non-committal clients seeking help with their everyday problems. Many are of Black Hispanic and Caribbean descent, but as the religion moves out of the inner cities and into the suburbs, a growing number are of African-American and European-American heritage.

“The colonial period from the standpoint of African slaves may be defined as a time of perseverance. Their world quickly changed. Tribal kings and their families, politicians, business and community leaders all were enslaved and taken to a foreign region of the world. Religious leaders, their relatives and their followers were now slaves. Colonial laws criminalized their religion. They were forced to become baptized and worship a god their ancestors had not known who was surrounded by a pantheon of saints. The early concerns during this period seem to have necessitated a need for individual survival under harsh plantation conditions. A sense of hope was sustaining the internal essence of what today is called Santería, a misnomer (and former perjorative) for the indigenous religion of the Lukumi people of Nigeria.

“In the heart of their homeland, they had a complex political and social order. They were a sedentary hoe farming cultural group with specialized labor. Their religion, based on the worship of nature, was renamed and documented by their masters. Santería, a pejorative term that characterizes deviant Catholic forms of worshiping saints, has become a common name for the religion. The term santero(a) is used to describe a priest or priestess replacing the traditional term Olorisha as an extension of the deities. The orishas became known as the saints in image of the Catholic pantheon.” (Ernesto Pichardo, CLBA, Santería in Contemporary Cuba: The individual life and condition of the priesthood.

As mentioned, in order to preserve their authentic ancestral and traditional beliefs, the Lukumi people had no choice but to disguise their orishas as Catholic saints. When the Roman Catholic slave owners observed Africans celebrating a Saint’s Day, they were generally unaware that the slaves were actually worshiping one of their sacred orishas. Due to this history, in Cuba today, the terms “saint” and “orisha” are sometimes used interchangeably.

This historical “veil” characterization of the relationship between Catholic saints and Cuban orisha is made all the more complicated by the fact that the vast majority of santeros in Cuba today also consider themselves to be Catholics, have been baptized, and often require initiates to be baptized as well. Many hold separate rituals to honor the saints and orisha respectively, even though the faith’s overt links to Catholicism are no longer needed.

The traditional Yoruba religion and its Santería counterpart can be found in many parts of the world today, including Cuba, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Panama, Colombia, Venezuela, and even the United States, which was mainly the result of mostly Cuban and Puerto Rican migration. A very similar religion called Candomblé is practiced in Brazil, along with a rich variety of other Afro-American religions. This is now being referred to as “parallel religiosity” because some believers worship the African variant that has no notion of a devil and no baptism or marriage, yet they belong to Catholic or mainline Protestant churches, where these concepts exist.

Operating independently of the historical syncretism described above, there are now individuals who mix the Lukumí practices of Cuba with traditional practices as they survived in Africa after the deleterious effects of colonialism. Although most of these mixes have not been at the hands of experienced or knowledgeable practitioners of either variant of the system, they have gained a certain popularity.

In 1974, the Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye became the first Santería church in the United States to become officially incorporated.

Controversies and criticisms

  • In 1993, the issue of animal sacrifice was taken to the United States Supreme Court in the case of Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah. The court ruled that animal cruelty laws targeted specifically at Yoruba were unconstitutional The Yoruba practice of animal sacrifice has seen no significant legal challenges since then.
  • There have been a few highly publicized cases where injuries allegedly occurred during Lukumi rituals. One such case reported by The New York Times took place on January 18, 1998, in Sayville, New York, where 17-year-old Charity Miranda was suffocated to death with a plastic bag at her home by her mother Vivian, 39, and sister Serena, 20, after attempting an exorcism to free her of demons. Police found the women chanting and praying over the prostrate body. Not long before, the women had embraced Lukumi. It should be noted, however, that Lukumi doctrine does not postulate the existence of demons, nor does its liturgy contain exorcism rituals. The mother, Vivian Miranda, was found not guilty due to insanity, and is currently confined in a New York State psychiatric hospital for the criminally insane.