LIFE had become unbearable for Maria (who requested anonymity). Like many Cubans, she was desperate to escape poverty and Fidel Castro's socialist regime. But before braving the shark-infested waters between Havana and Miami on a rubber inner tube, she decided to ask her santero for advice.
The santero, or priest, practices an animist religion known as Santeria that dates back to the days of African slaves. He consulted Chango, the god of fire, thunder, and lightening, and claimed to read Maria's future in the fall of the coconut shells. He cleansed her in herbs and told her that if she applied for a visa to the United States, she would be allowed to leave in six months.
Maria got her visa, and has been living in the US almost a year.
Her santero was Pedro Luis Marin, an industrial security technician barred from working because of his opposition to the Cuba's Communist government. He has been consulted by many trying to escape the effects of Cuba's ongoing economic crisis.
Years of rationing, shortages, and economic upheaval following the end of Soviet aid in 1990 have sparked a revival of the country's Afro-Caribbean religion, Mr. Marin says. As state restrictions on religion are loosened, more and more people are turning to the faith, which uses secret ceremonies and animal sacrifices to address problems of day-to-day living.
''The situation is so bad, people want to leave as fast as they can and many have come to me asking for help getting a visa [to the US] or to earn more money so they can leave,'' says Marin, his soft-spoken voice adding to the ancient, otherworldly feel brought on by the animal skulls, African masks, and altars to the various orishas, or deities and saints, adorning his Havana home.
While religion in general is enjoying a revival in Cuba, many Roman Catholics and Protestants still seek advice from santeros, Marin says. He is often asked to attend baptisms. Brought to the island by African slaves between the 17th and 19th centuries, Santeria has since become an ingrained part of Cuban culture for blacks as well as whites. Also known as Yoruba, after its origins in Nigeria, the religion is based on the worship of orishas who represent various forces of nature.
Santeria was able to survive persecution by syncretizing with the country's dominant religion, Catholicism, as each orisha became identified with a Catholic saint.
Cuba's 1959 socialist revolution condemned Catholicism and animism alike, however, and Santeria's adherents were forced underground. It wasn't until 1991 that the Communist Party opened its doors to religious believers. Now almost every night the rhythmic drum beats of a toque del santo can be heard reverberating along the tropical outskirts of the capital. As devotees dance and sing in communion with the saints, rice pudding and cocoa desserts are piled high before the shrouded deities as offerings.
''The government tried but they couldn't destroy the culture,'' says Natalia Bolivar in Havana, a renowned Santeria authority and author of 11 books on the subject. ''And now it's enjoying a resurgence because when you have a lack of confidence in the world surrounding you, you search for your roots and your culture. For five years, there has been a crisis of values and integrity, so people are looking for something to evaluate their lives with.''
As the religion booms, so do prices for advice. The more ornate ceremonies cost as much as $1,500. Once a strictly nonprofit practice, prices have started to balloon with the increasing interest of foreigners and New Age groups coming to Cuba in search of Santeria wisdom. Santeros are a dime-a-dozen, while babalawos, the faith's highest-ranking priests, are handing out their cards to foreigners with a $20 rate per consultation.
Germans, Mexicans, and French are among the people Pedro Luis Marin attends to regularly. He also prays every day that life in Cuba will get better and that one day, like Maria, he will be able to leave, too.