HAVANA—Cuba's most widely practiced religion is experiencing a popularity boom that it hasn't seen in decades.
Santeria, a syncretic religion that blends West African Yoruba beliefs and traditions with Roman Catholicism, has existed in Cuba since the days of the West African slave trade, but proliferated during the economic crisis of the 1990s and is now practiced by nearly 80% of the population.
The religion is currently experiencing another popularity boom, but one that seems to be tied to the country's opening to the U.S. and the gradual expansion of capitalism.
Santeria could be considered one of Cuba’s fastest-growing informal economies, luring tourists who are willing to pay thousands of dollars to become Santeria priests.
Religious experts I spoke to on the island say the average price to become initiated in the religion ranges from $1,000 to $3,000, which includes a ceremony to sacrifice a live animals including and other rituals including dance and the mixing of an assortment of holy plants for seven days.
In the U.S. and Europe, a similar Santeria ceremony might cost anywhere from $5,000 to $20,000. So more foreigners are traveling to Cuba to become santeros. And as the internet grows across the island, so, too, is Cuba's Santeria economy.
“Santeria is going virtual; there are more online stores,” says Adrian Lopez-Denis, a Latin American Studies professor at Princeton. He says the internet is making it easier for Cubans to study Santeria online, and market it to foreigners. “Today, most santeros have a laptop because they study the e-books and software to become santeros. It’s through educational software that people are learning now: Santeria 2.0. And, of course, they are commodifying it.”
But the Santeria boom has some of its faithful concerned that the newfound popularity will lead to exploitation and appropriation of a religion that is deeply connected to Cuba’s Afro-descendant legacy.
Juan Alvarez, a middle aged Afro-Cuban man who lives with his his family in Havana, is a long-time Santeria follower who worries that the religion is evolving from an organic spiritual practice to a lucrative business that leaves Afro-Cubans in a precarious condition.
“Santeria has become really trendy,” he told me in his living room, as his son’s stereo thumped U.S. rap songs in the next room. “Whites have been coming to Cuba and practicing this black religion and stealing our secrets. They began to realize that there was money to be made and they started taking advantage.”
Alvarez says the exploitation and hypocrisy is as old as Cuba itself.
“Since the beginning, whites have always been interested in black religions. Now they are saying that our religion is good, but we as black people are bad," he says. "They want to criticize black people but also be like black people; it’s a form of racism and envy.”
Lucas Napoles-Cárdenas, a celebrated Santeria storyteller and Afro-Cuban activist from Havana believes that the rise of Santeria's popularity has created a form of racial exploitation that's "similar to what happened with rock and roll in the U.S., when whites took over black music in the 1950s and claimed it as their own."
A similar appropriation is happening in Cuba with Santeria, he says. "They [foreigners] have now tried to take the religion over here. They study the religion and are taking ownership of it.”
Still for others who practice Santeria, like Christian Betancourt, a 36-year-old European descendent who lives in Santo Domingo, a small rural town located in the Villa Clara province, Santeria is not entirely defined by its racial dynamics.
Betancourt became a Santero in 2001, and has become a babalao, the religion’s highest rank. He thinks the growth of the religion is about people from all walks of life looking for spirituality.
“The religion is growing and can be practiced by whomever believes in a supreme higher being,” he explained as he prepared an assortment of ceremonial herbs for a practitioners upcoming ceremony. “It doesn’t matter what color you are. There are a lot of people today who have fallen in bad situations and all of those things are missing from their lives. People are coming from all over the world to practice Santeria because we have the purest form here."
Some Santeria practitioners don't see any problem with making money from the religion. After all, Santeria certainly wouldn't be the first religion to profit from faith.
“We are living in a place where there is a lot of struggle and necessity,” says Neviz Ayón Samé, a woman who claims she was cured of disease by a Santeria priest when she was young. “People who become santeros are often waiting for a foreigner to come from the outside so that they can make money. You can’t survive with what the government pays you, so Santeros do whatever it takes to survive like charge tourists a lot of money for their services and, in a way, are obligated to do these illegal things.”
“It’s all about survival,” she said.
Walter Thompson-Hernández is a Los Angeles-based writer, photographer, and researcher.