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Religious Symbolism in Cuban Political Performance
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TDR: The Drama Review 44.2 (2000) 30-55


The true history of Cuba is the history of its entangled transculturations.

--Fernando Ortiz ([1947] 1991b:86)

In January of 1959, Fidel Castro commenced his regime with his first televised speech to the Cuban nation. While on the podium, a white dove landed on his shoulder, another perched upon his rostrum; both stayed there throughout his two-hour oration (plate 1). In Cuban Santería, a religion derived from the Yorùbá people brought to Cuba as slaves, a white dove represents the divinity Obatalá, a divine king who molds humans from clay in heaven. While the international press regarded the spectacle as a freak accident involving "doves of peace," many Cubans read it as evidence of Castro's selection by supernatural forces.

The spectacle of white doves in Castro's speech is one in a long history of examples in which Caribbean leaders publicly use symbols from local religions. Coded performances in the Caribbean political arena often have dual implications: One is geared to impress upon the international press and those with capital invested in the country that the speaker is popular and will maintain the status quo; another is geared to the local population by using icons from their religious practices. Because these symbols often derive from secret religions, their use dramatically implies that the leader is privy to local secrets and esoteric power. By sharing a symbolic language created from the legacy of African bondage, their use demonstrates a leader's ties to the local population. The intimacy of this discourse implies that a leader is 100 percent Cuban (to use a phrase from the Cuban Revolution) and not a puppet figure sent from Washington, DC. Analogous to Bakhtin's "double-voiced word," symbols are here used to speak "doubly"--one message to the leaders of the First World, another to the general Cuban population.

African-derived religions in Cuba are based on oral traditions. They are rich in symbols, and knowledgeable practitioners use colors, ritual objects, movement, music, and esoteric words to represent mythic events; in turn they can decode these symbols to interpret local social action. Many practitioners do not verbally announce their participation in secret religions, but demonstrate it through the use of elaborate symbolism. Several presidents of the Cuban Republic were widely rumored to be devotees of Santería and other Afro-Cuban religions.

Cuban ethnographer Romulo Lachatañeré documented the interpretations of many santeros (Santería priests) regarding the alleged Santería practice of Gerardo Machado, President of Cuba from 1924 to 1933. Because of his impulsive and aggressive temperament, Machado was considered to be a "son" of Changó, the divinity of thunder and military strategy. As far as some santeros were concerned, this interpretation was confirmed by Machado's public use of Santería symbolism.

On the occasion of the Sixth Pan-American Conference in Havana (1928), he wanted to celebrate the event with the inauguration of a newly reconstructed park, which [...] took the name of the Park of Pan-American Fraternity.
On the inauguration day, a Ceiba tree was planted in the center of an arena filled with earth taken from the 21 republics represented in the conference. In the same ornamentation of the park, palm trees had been utilized, which had clear symbolic meaning for Cubans, and especially santeros: the palm tree is where Changó found sanctuary for his anger. The Ceiba tree is one of the homes of Changó [...].
What could a santero deduce from this ceremony where with so many types of earth a Ceiba was planted, symbol of Changó, and precisely during the government of one of his "sons"? Again the deduction was logical. Changó had ordered the president to make this magic ceremony to protect him from his enemies, because at the time they were increasing in numbers. The truth is that five years later Machado was overthrown; but in the period of collecting this material, a stroller who passed by the Park of Fraternity in the light of dawn could find sacrifices for Changó deposited at the foot of the palms and at the now robust Ceiba. (Lachatañeré [1942] 1992:113-14)