The Chicago Tribune
January 25, 2002

My own private Cuba


At the beginning of each year, Cubaís santeros and babalawos -- the high priests of the Afro-Cuban religion of santería -- get together and read the Letter of the
Year, a message from the gods designed to give believers something of a heads up.

Casa Yorubaís Antonio Orestes Castaneda Marquez says his groupís membership includes more than 500 of Cubaís most important santeros and babalawos, but
itís a historically unruly community so every complaint has to be taken seriously.

Like the one about the cafeteria. Most santeros and babalawos live in poverty; itís almost a rule. Yet the cafeteria at Casa Yoruba is charging in dollars, not Cuban
pesos. Hardly anyone can afford it except foreigners.

"We donít have permission to change pesos into dollars, and weíre forced to buy supplies in dollars," explains a frustrated Castaneda. "Plus, we pay a lot of taxes to
be in business, to be part of Old Havana."

The pressure -- even in their own headquarters -- to deal in dollars is causing some shamans to consider altering the rules of their faith.

"I know itís true -- a lot of people are adapting ceremonies for foreigners who pay in dollars," says Castaneda with a pained look. "But weíre against that, just like
weíre against filming the ceremonies or participating in any way in all the fetishism foreigners have with our animal sacrifices and that sort of thing. Commercialization
isnít good for us."

Yet Castaneda recognizes the problem of trying to please foreigners isnít just about making money.

"We come from a culture of slaves, so sometimes we bend," he says. "We donít always realize weíre a free people now, and we can say no."

Finally, after more than an hour of practical explanations and apologies to those gathered, Castaneda finally gets down to Letter of the Year and the gods' message:
Not surprisingly, 2002 is going to be a difficult year.