Caribbean Tourism

Before Travelling

Climate:

The high season is mid-December to mid-April, when there are more dry days, more sunshine and less humidity. The season for hurricanes and tropical storms begins in August and can go on until the end of November.


In the last few years there have been several storms which have caused flooding and damage to houses and crops. There are also variations in climate: it is hotter and drier in Santiago than in Havana, and wetter and cooler in the mountains than in the lowlands. Northeast trade winds temper the heat, but summer shade temperatures can rise to 33°C (91°F) in Havana, and higher elsewhere. In winter, day temperatures drop to 20°C (68°F) and there are a few cold days, 8°-10°C (45°-50°F), with a north wind. Average rainfall is from 860mm in Oriente to 1,730mm in Havana; it falls mostly in the summer and autumn, but there can be torrential rains at any time. Walking is uncomfortable in summer but most offices, hotels, leading restaurants and cinemas are air-conditioned.

Documents:

Visas - Visitors from the majority of countries need only a passport, return ticket and 30-day tourist card to enter Cuba, as long as they are going solely for tourist purposes and are staying in hotels. Tourist cards may be obtained from Cuban embassies, consulates, airlines, or approved travel agents (price in the UK £15 from the consulate, or from travel agents, some other countries US$15 or Can$15). To get a tourist card at a consulate you have to fill in an application form, photocopy the main pages of your passport (valid for more than six months after departure from Cuba), submit confirmation of your accommodation booking and your return or onward flight ticket. Immigration in Havana airport will only give you 30 days on your tourist card, but you can get it extended for a further 30 days at Immigration in Miramar and some other towns.

Travellers who will be staying with friends or in any type of private accommodation are not normally granted a tourist card unless they have a pre-booked hotel voucher for part of their stay. If you have not you will be asked to pay for a minimum of three nights in a hotel upon arrival in Cuba. Officially you have to request authorization from the Immigration Office if you want to stay outside hotels, but no one ever does as far as we know.

Nationals of countries without visa-free agreement with Cuba, journalists, students and those visiting on other business must check what visa requirements pertain and, if relevant, apply for an official/business visa. For this you must submit two application forms, two passport photos, your passport and a letter from the Cuban organization or company which has invited you. A business visa is issued for one entry into Cuba and can take at least 10 days to process.

There is also a family visa, for those who are visiting relatives, valid for one entry into Cuba. You have to fill in an application form naming the relative who has invited you (in duplicate), submit your passport (which must be valid for six months after your departure from Cuba) and pay a fee of £45.

The US government does not normally permit its citizens to visit Cuba. US citizens should have a US licence to engage in any transactions related to travel to Cuba, but tourist or business travel are not licensable, even through a third country such as Mexico or Canada. For further information on entry to Cuba from the US and customs requirements, US travellers should contact the Cuban Interests Section, an office of the Cuban government, at 2630 16th St NW, Washington DC 20009, T202-7978518. They could also contact Marazul Tours, New York, T212-5829570, or Miami, T305-2328157, (information also from Havanatur, C 2 No 17 Miramar, Havana, T332121/2318). The Cuban Interests Section in Washington DC will process applications for visas. Visas can take several weeks to be granted, and are apparently difficult to obtain for US citizens other than businessmen, guests of the Cuban Government or Embassy officials. Many travellers conceal their tracks by going via Mexico, the Bahamas, or Canada, when only the tourist card is stamped, not the passport. The Cuban Consulate in Mexico City refuses to issue visas unless you have pre-arranged accommodation and book through a travel agent; even then, only tourist cards are available, US$20. In Mérida or at Cancún airport, a travel agent will arrange your documents so you do not need to go to a consulate.

Visitors travelling on a visa must go in person to the Immigration Office for registration the day after arrival. The office is on the corner of C 22 and Av 3, Miramar. When you register you will be given an exit permit. Travellers coming from or going through infected areas must have certificates of vaccination against cholera and yellow fever. The Cuban authorities do not insist on stamping your passport in and out but they often do so. They will stamp your tourist card instead if you ask.

Customs:

Personal baggage and articles for personal use are allowed in free of duty; so are one carton of cigarettes and two bottles of alcoholic drinks. Visitors importing new goods worth between US$100 and US$1,000 will be charged 100% duty, subject to a limit of two items a year. No duty is payable on goods valued at under US$100. You may take in up to 10kg of medicine. It is prohibited to bring in fresh fruit and vegetables, which will be confiscated if found. On departure you may take out tobacco worth US$1,000 with a receipt, or only 50 cigars without a receipt, up to six bottles of rum and personal jewellery. To take out works of art you must have permission from the Registro Nacional de Bienes Culturales de la Dirección de Patrimonio del Ministerio de Cultura.

Photography:

It is forbidden to photograph military or police installations or personnel, port, rail or airport facilities. A fee is charged for photographs in some museums and national monuments.

Safety:

In general the Cuban people are very hospitable. The island is generally safer than many of its Caribbean and Latin neighbours, but certain precautions should be taken. Visitors should never lose sight of their luggage or leave valuables in hotel rooms (most hotels have safes). Do not leave your things on the beach when going swimming. Guard your camera closely. Pickpocketing and purse-snatching on buses is quite common in Havana and Santiago. Also beware of bag-snatching by passing cyclists. In the capital, street lighting is poor so care is needed when walking or cycling the city at night. Some people recommend walking in the middle of the street. Old Havana is now much safer, with police on nearly every street corner. The police are very helpful and thorough when investigating theft, ask for a stamped statement for insurance purposes.

Cuba had a reputation for prostitution before the Revolution and after a gap of some decades it has resurfaced. Despite government crackdowns and increased penalties, everything is available for both sexes if you know where to look. Be warned, you are likely to be fleeced. The age of consent is 18 in Cuba, so if you are introduced to a young girl you are in danger of being led into a blackmail trap. Hotels are not allowed to let Cubans enter the premises in the company of foreigners, so sexual encounters now often take place in casas particulares, private homes where there is little security and lots of risk. If you or your travelling companion are dark skinned, you may suffer from the exclusion policy in hotels as officials will assume he/she is Cuban until proved otherwise. If you are a man out alone at night in Havana you will find the market very active and you will be tugged at frequently, mostly by females, but around Coppelia the prostitutes are mostly males. Cubans who offer their services (whether sexual or otherwise) in return for dollars are known as jineteros, or jineteras (‘jockeys’, because they ‘ride on the back’ of the tourists).

Emergency Numbers:

Police: T820116. Fire: T811115, 798561-69. Asistur: in the Casa del Científico hotel, Prado esq Trocadero, Old Havana, T625519, 638284, F338087, for medical and dental emergencies, repatriations, financial and legal problems, travel insurance claims, reservations.

  • Varadero- Immigration and Police: 39 y Av 1, T116. Immigration is open Mon-Fri 0800-1130, 1300-1600, Sat 0800-1130 for visa extensions.
  • Santiago de Cuba - Immigration: Inmigración y Extranjería on Av Raúl Pujol y 1, Reparto Santa Bárbara, open Mon, Fri 0900-1200, 1330-1630, Tue, Wed, Thu 0900-1200, in summer holiday mornings only. Go to Bandec on Parque Céspedes y Aguilera and buy special stamp (sello) for US$25, then return to Immigration for paper work (15 mins). Police: T116. The central police station is Unidad 2, Corona y San Gerónimo. Near to the hotels Santiago and Las Américas is Unidad 4, on Aguilera near the hospital and the market. Fire: Martí 517, T23242.

Hospitals:

Medical service is no longer free where there are international clinics that charge in dollars (credit cards accepted). Visitors requiring medical attention will be sent to them in Havana (Playas del Este), Santiago de Cuba, Varadero, Cienfuegos, Trinidad. Emergencies are handled on an ad hoc basis. Check with your national health service or health insurance on coverage in Cuba and take a copy of your insurance policy with you. Remember you can not dial any toll-free numbers abroad so make sure you have a contact number. Charges are generally lower than those charged in Western countries. According to latest reports, visitors are still treated free of charge in other parts of the country, with the exception of tourist enclaves with on-site medical services.

  • Havana - The Cira García Clinic, 20 4101 esquina 41, Miramar, T242811/14, F241633, payment in dollars, also the place to go for emergency dental treatment, the pharmacy (T24051, open 24 hrs) sells prescription and patent drugs and medical supplies that are often unavailable in other pharmacies, as does the Farmacia Internacional, Av 41, esq 20, Miramar (T245051, open Mon-Fri 0900-1700, Sat 0900-1200). Camilo Cienfuegos Pharmacy, L and 13, Vedado, T333599, open daily 0800-2000. Optica Miramar, 43 1803 entre 18 y 18A, T242590, ophthalmology consultants, contact lenses, photochromic brown and grey lenses, lightweight glasses, plastic and metal frames. Servimed (turismo de salud) is at 18 4304 entre 43 y 47, Playa, T332658, F332948, with information on special treatments, spas and health facilities around the country. All hotels have a doctor on permanent duty, US$25 per consultation.
  • Playas del Este- Clínica Internacional Habana del Este, Av de las Terrazas, between Aparthotel Las Terrazas and Hotel Tropicoco in Santa María del Mar, T06872689.
  • Pinar del Rio- Dentist, Martí 162, T3348. Open 0800-1700. Pharmacy, Camacho, Martí 62. Open daily 0800-2300. Piloto, under El Globo Hotel, open daily 0800-2400 with emergency service. Policlínico Turcios Lima, opposite Cathedral, Gerardo Medina 112, open Mon-Sat 0800-1700.
  • Matanzas - Facilities for foreigners are available in Varadero, but there is a pharmacy here, open 24 hrs, at 85 y 280.
  • Cienfuegos - International Clinic, Punta Gorda on C 37 202, opposite the Hotel Jagua, T/F8959, offering 24-hr emergency care, consultations, laboratory services, X-rays, pharmacy and other services. Pharmacy on Prado esq Av 60, open 24 hrs.
  • Santa Clara - The best hospital for foreigners is the Arnaldo Milián Castro Hospital, at Circunvalación and Av Escambray in the Residencial Escambray area to the south of the town, T72016, 71234. If you need a taxi to take you there, T26956. Ambulance T22259, 23965. There is a 24-hr pharmacy at Luis Estévez 8 on the corner with Boulevard.
  • Trinidad - The Clínica Internacional, run by Servimed, is on Lino Pérez 103 esq Anastasio Cárdenas, T3391, modern, with out-patient consultations, laboratory tests, X-rays, pharmacy, dentistry and 24-hr emergency care. A consultation fee is US$25, a call out fee US$40.
  • Sancti Spiritus - Pharmacy at Independencia Sur 15 opposite the Post Office.
  • Camaguey - There is a 24-hr pharmacy on the corner of Avellaneda y Primelles.
  • Santa Lucia - Clínica Internacional, T36203.
  • Holguin - The main hospital is west of the town centre on Av V I Lenin. There are medical services at the hotels Pernik and El Bosque.
  • Santiago de Cuba - Clínica Internacional, 13 y 14, Reparto Vista Alegre, T42589, along Av Raúl Pujol away from the city, opposite Motel San Juan, especially for tourists, has a dentist as well and pharmacy on site, everything payable in dollars, US$25 per consultation, the best clinic to visit to be sure of immediate treatment. There is a pharmacy next door to the Casa de la Trova on Heredia and another, open 24 hrs, on Victoriano Garzón y 10.
  • Bayamo - Farmacia Principal Municipal, 24-hr at Gen García 53.
  • Baracoa - Hospital Octavio de la Concepción y de la Pedraja, on Carretera Guantánamo. Policlínica in the small barrio next to Hotel Porto Santo, where you pay in pesos, there is also a dentist here. Clínica Dental in Barrio de la Punta, near the fort. 24-hr pharmacy on Maceo 132.
  • The Islands - Pharmacy at 39 y 24, open Mon-Fri 0800-2200, Sat 0800-1600. Take plenty of insect repellent, particularly for the Ciénaga or the Hotel Colony.

Health

  • Disease Risks: Cuba has a high quality national health service and is one of the healthiest countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. Travel in Cuba poses no health risk to the average visitor provided sensible precautions are taken. Visit your GP before you travel to get the latest up to date advice and information. Medical service is no longer free for foreign visitors in Havana, Santiago de Cuba and Varadero, where there are international clinics that charge in dollars (credit cards accepted). Visitors requiring medical attention will be sent to them. Emergencies are handled on an ad hoc basis. Check with your national health service or health insurance on coverage in Cuba and take a copy of your insurance policy with you. Remember you cannot dial any toll-free numbers abroad so make sure you have a contact number. Charges are generally lower than those in Western countries. According to latest reports, visitors are still treated free of charge in other parts of the country, with the exception of tourist enclaves with on-site medical services. The most common affliction of travellers to any country is probably diarrhoea and the same is true of Cuba. Tap water is safe in most areas of the country, but bottled water is widely available if you prefer. Doctors will advise you to get hepatitis A and typhoid inoculations. Always carry toilet paper with you, it is not often available in public toilets and even some hotels do not have it. The climate is hot; Cuba is a tropical country and protection against the sun will be needed. Take a high factor sun screen, apply it regularly and stay out of the midday sun. Children need to be particularly well protected and wear a hat. The breeze at the beach is deceptive, you may not feel hot, but the sun will burn very quickly. Between May and October, the risk of sunburn is high, sun blocks are recommended when walking around the city as well as on the beach. In the cooler months, limit beach sessions to two hours.
  • What to Take: Bring all medicines you might need as they can be difficult to find. You might not be offered even a painkiller if you have an accident, as they are in very short supply. Many other things are scarce or unobtainable in Cuba, so take in everything you are likely to need other than food: razor blades; medicines and pills; heavy duty insect repellent; strong sun protection and after-sun preparations; toilet paper; tampons; disposable nappies; materials; photographic supplies; torch and batteries.
  • Between May and October, the risk of sunburn is high, sun blocks are recommended when walking around the city as well as on the beach. In the cooler months, limit beach sessions to two hours.
  • Always carry toilet paper with you, it is not available in public toilets and even some hotels do not have it or ration it.

Official Time:

Eastern Standard Time, five hours behind GMT; Daylight Saving Time, four hours behind GMT.

Voltage:

110 Volts, 3 phase 60 cycles, AC. Plugs are usually of the American type.

Weights & Measures:

The metric system is compulsory, but exists side by side with American and old Spanish systems.

Money

  • Currency: The monetary unit is the peso Cubano. The official exchange rate is US$1=1 peso. Watch out for pre-1962 peso notes, which are no longer valid. There are notes for 3, 5, 10 and 20 pesos, and coins for 5, 20 and 40 centavos and 1 peso. You must have a supply of 5 centavo coins if you want to use the local town buses (20 or 40 centavos) or pay phones (very few work). The 20 centavo coin is called a peseta. In 1995 the government introduced a new freely ‘convertible peso’ on a par with the US dollar, with a new set of notes and coins. It is fully exchangeable with authorized hard currencies circulating in the economy. Remember to spend or exchange any pesos convertibles before you leave the country as they are worthless outside Cuba.
  • Exchange: As a result of currency reforms the black/street exchange rate fell from 130 pesos Cubanos = US$1 in May 1994 to 20 pesos = US$1 in May 1997 and it has stayed at around that level since then. Official Casas de Cambio (CADECA) rates fluctuate between 19-23 pesos to the dollar and there is now virtually no black market. The ‘peso convertible’ is equal to the dollar and can be used freely in the country. Cubans are allowed to hold US$ and to have a bank account. There will be very little opportunity for you to spend pesos Cubanos unless you are self-catering or travelling off the beaten track. Food in the markets (agromercados), at street stalls, on trains, books, popular cigarettes, but not in every shop, can be bought in pesos. You will need pesos for the toilet, rural trains, trucks, food at roadside cafeterías during a journey and drinks and snacks for a bus or train journey. Away from tourist hotels, in smaller towns there are very few dollar facilities and you will need pesos for everything. Visitors on pre-paid package tours are best advised not to acquire any pesos at all. Bring US$ in small denominations for spending money. US dollars are the only currency accepted in all tourist establishments.
  • Travellers’ Cheques: Expressed in US or Canadian dollars or sterling are valid in Cuba. Travellers’ cheques issued on US bank paper are not accepted so it is best to take Thomas Cook or Visa. Commission ranges from 2-4%. Don’t enter the place or date when signing cheques, or they may be refused. There are banks and CADECAS (exchange houses) for changing money legally. Non-dollar currencies can be changed into dollars. Commission charges vary widely between banks and can be different from one town to the next, or even on different days of the week. Visitors have difficulties using torn or tatty US dollar notes.
  • Credit Cards: The following credit cards are acceptable in most places: Visa, MasterCard, Access, Diners, Banamex (Mexican) and Carnet. No US credit cards are accepted so a Visa card issued in the USA will not be accepted. American Express, no matter where issued, is unacceptable. A master list of stolen and rogue cards is kept at the Habana Libre and any transaction over US$50 must be checked there; this can take up to three hours. You can obtain cash advances with a credit card at branches of the Banco Financiero Internacional and several other banks, but it is best to bring plenty of cash as there will often be no other way of paying for what you need. For Visa or MasterCard problems go to Av 23 entre L y M, Vedado, or phone the credit card centre on T344444, F334001. If you get really stuck and need money sent urgently to Cuba, you can get money transferred from any major commercial bank abroad direct to Asistur (see Tourist Information) immediately for a 10% commission.
  • Departure Tax: It is advisable to book your flight out of Cuba before actually going there as arranging it there can be time-consuming. Furthermore, it is essential to reconfirm onward flights as soon as you arrive in Cuba and certainly 48 hours prior to departure, otherwise you will lose your reservation. Independent travellers should have tickets stamped in person, not by an agent and, for Mexico, should make sure they have a Mexican tourist card and that Cuban departure tax is collected. Departure tax is US$20 from Havana and Varadero airports, US$15 from others. Limited shops at Havana airport, lots of rum, coffee, a few books and magazines. Poor selection of cigars and overpriced. The Cubita coffee on the other hand was marginally cheaper than in the dollar shops in town.

Banks:

There are branches of the Banco Financiero Internacional and CADECAS (exchange houses) for changing money legally. Non-dollar currencies can be changed into dollars. The BFI charges a three percent commission to change Travellers’ cheques into dollars cash, but not to change sterling. The cambio in the Hotel Nacional charges three percent commission to change any currency. Visitors have difficulties using torn or tatty US dollar notes.

  • Havana - Banco Nacional and its branches. For dollar services, credit card withdrawals, TCs and exchange, Banco Financiero Internacional, Línea esq O, T333003/333148, F333006, open Mon-Fri 0800-1500, last day of the month until 1200, branch in Habana Libre complex, T333429, F333795, same times, and another branch in Miramar, 18 111 entre 1 y 3, T332058, F332458, charges 3% commission for foreign exchange deals. Exchange bureau in Hotel Nacional, open 0800-1200, 1230-1930, credit card cash advances. Buró de Turismo in Tryp Habana Libre also gives credit card cash advances. Banco Metropolitano, Línea 63 y O, T5531168, open Mon-Fri 0830-1500, cheapest (2%) for changing TCs, most hotels and airport cambios charge 4% for changing TCs.
  • Pinar del Rio - Banco Financiero Internacional (BFI), Gerardo Medina, opposite Coppelia, T78183, F78213. Open Mon-Fri 0800-1500. Cadeca, Gerardo Medina, next to Coppelia. Open 0830-1800. Banco Popular de Ahorro, Martí 113, opposite the chess academy. Mon-Fri 0800-1700, cash on credit cards.
  • Vinales - Bandec does not do card transactions, but next door is Banco Popular de Ahorro, which does, open Mon-Fri 0800-1200, 1330-1630.
  • Matanzas - Banco Financiero Internacional at Calle 85 y 298.
  • Varadero - Banco Financiero Internacional, Av Playa y 32, cash advance service with credit cards, open 0900-1900 daily.
  • Cienfuegos - The Banco Financiero Internacional is on Av 54 esq 29, T/F335603, open 0800-1500 Mon-Fri, 3% commission on TCs. Cash advances on credit cards.
  • Santa Clara - The Cadeca office for changing currency and TCs (4% commission) is at Parque Vidal on the corner of Rafael Tristá and Cuba, T5690. Bandec, on the corner of Vidal and Tristá and Cuba, Visa and MC, open Mon-Fri 0800-1400, Sat 0800-1100. Banco Financiero Internacional, on Cuba just down from Parque Vidal, is open Mon-Fri 0800-1500, also Visa and MC.
  • Trinidad - Bandec is on José Martí 264 entre Zerquera y Colón, open Mon-Fri 0800-1700, Sat 0800-1600, will change TCs for dollars and cash advances on credit cards. Cadeca on Martí 164, half a block east of Parque Céspedes, open weekdays 0830-1800, Sun 0830-1200. There are cambios in Hotel Las Cuevas, Hotel Ancón and Hotel Costa Sur, where you can change TCs for dollars.
  • Sancti Spiritus - Banco de Crédito on the plaza, cash advance on credit cards, open Mon-Fri 0800-1500. Cadeca, Independencia 31, just off plaza, for TCs and currency exchange, open Mon-Sat 0830-1800, Sun 0830-1230, commission on TCs is 3% weekdays and 4% at weekends.
  • Camaguey - Banco Financiero Internacional is on Plaza Maceo. There is a cadeca on República entre Primelles y Santa Rita.
  • Holguin - Bandec, Arias 159, open Mon-Fri 0800-1500.
  • Santiago de Cuba - Banco Financiero Internacional, Parque Céspedes at Santo Tomás y Aguilera, T22101, open Mon-Fri 0800-1600, dollar cash on Visa, change foreign currency and TCs. BICSA, Enramada opposite Plaza Dolores, for changing foreign currency and TCs. Banco Popular de Ahorro, Plaza Dolores, 0800-1500, Visa and Mastercard, prompt service. TCs can be changed in any hotel except those in the Islazul chain; commission is usually 2-3%. Hotel Santiago will change virtually any cash currency into dollars. TCs can be changed in the Havanatur office in Casa Granda. In the Asistur office under Casa Granda you can get cash advance on all major credit cards including American Express and Diners Club; they will also change American Express TCs, the only place who will do so in all Cuba.
  • Bayamo - Banco Nacional de Cuba, Saco y Gen García. Bandec, Gen García 101. Visa and MC, open Mon-Fri 0800-1500.
  • Guantanamo - Banco de Crédito at Calixto García esquina Carretera, changes TCs into dollars.
  • Baracoa - Banco Nacional de Cuba is on Maceo but will change only TCs, you can not get cash advance on credit cards. Porto Santo and El Castillo hotels both change TCs.
  • The Islands - Banco Nacional, 39 y 18, open Mon-Fri 0800-1400, Sat 1300-1500; Caja Popular de Ahorro, 39 y 26, open Mon-Fri 0800-1700. Best to bring enough cash from the mainland.

Hours of Business:

Government offices: 0830-1230 and 1330-1730 Monday to Friday. Some offices open on Saturday morning. Banks: 0830-1200, 1330-1500 Monday to Friday. Shops: 0830-1800 Monday to Saturday, 0900-1400 Sunday. Hotel tourist (hard currency) shops generally open 1000-1800 or 1900.

Gifts:

If you are planning to stay with Cubans, whether with friends or in private rented accommodation, there are some items in short supply in Cuba which they may appreciate: T-shirts (preferably with something written on them), household medicines, cosmetics, cotton wool, washing up or kitchen cloths, neutral shoe polish, refillable cigarette lighters, and for children, pens and pencils. The list of items in short supply changes according to whether foreign exchange is available to pay for imports.

Tipping:

Tip a small amount (not a percentage) in the same currency as you pay for the bill (typically US$1-2 on a US$25 meal). At times taxi drivers will expect (or demand) a tip. Turistaxis are not tipped, but the drivers still appreciate a tip. Musicians in bars and restaurants depend on your tips, give generously, they are worth it. If you want to express gratitude, offer a packet of American cigarettes. Leaving basic items in your room, like toothpaste, deodorant, paper, pens, is recommended. Tourism workers regularly donate tips to the national health service (US$1mn in 1997), for the purchase of equipment for cancer treatment in children et cetera. However, any malpractice should be reported to the management.

Clothing:

Generally informal. Summer calls for the very lightest clothing. Sunglasses, sun factor and some kind of head cover recommended for those with fair complexions. A jersey and light raincoat or umbrella are needed in the cooler months; a jersey is also needed if you plan to travel on a/c internal flights or trains, which are very cold.

Tobacco:

Tobacco is of course excellent, but remember that all the best leaves go into cigar making rather than cigarettes. Make sure you buy the best to take home and don’t get tricked into buying fakes, you may not get them through customs. Buying cigars on the street is not legal, but they are often not genuine and may be confiscated at customs if you cannot produce an official receipt of purchase.

Public Holidays:

Liberation Day (1 January), Labour Day (1 May), Revolution Day (26 July and the day either side), Beginning of War of Independence (10 October) and Christmas Day (25 December).

Religion

The major characteristic of Cuban culture is its combination of the African and European. Black African traditions persist, inevitably mingled with Hispanic influence, in religion: for instance santería, a cult which blends popular Catholicism with the Yoruba belief in the spirits which inhabit all plant life. This now has a greater hold than orthodox Catholicism. Church and State were separated at the beginning of the 20th century. The domination of the USA after that time encouraged the spread of Protestantism, although Catholicism remained the religion of the majority. Nevertheless, Catholicism was not as well supported as in some other Latin American countries. After the Revolution relations between the Catholic Church and Castro were frosty. Most priests left the country. By the late 1970s the Vatican’s condemnation of the US embargo helped towards a gradual reconciliation. A ban on religious believers joining the Communist Party has been lifted and Protestant, Catholic and other Church leaders have reported rising congregations. In 1996 Fidel visited Pope John Paul II at the Vatican and the Pope visited Cuba in January 1998. Castro has stated in the past that there is no conflict between Marxism and Christianity and has been sympathetic towards supporters of liberation theology in their quest for equality and a just distribution of social wealth.

Afro Cuban Religion: From the mid-16th century to the late 19th, hundreds of thousands of African slaves were brought to Cuba. The most numerous and culturally most influential group were the Yoruba-speaking agriculturalists from of Southeast Nigeria, Dahomey and Togo, who became known collectively in Cuba as lucumí. It is their pantheon of deities or orishas, and the legends (pwatakis) and customs surrounding these, which form the basis of the syncretic Regla de Ocha cult, better known as Santería. Though slaves were ostensibly obliged to become Christians, their owners turned a blind eye to their rituals. The Catholic saints thus spontaneously merged or syncretised in the lucumí mind with the orishas whose imagined attributes they shared. Some two dozen regularly receive tribute at the rites known as toques de santo. Santería is non-sectarian and non-proselytizing, co-existing peacefully with both Christianity and the Regla Conga or Palo Monte cult brought to Cuba by congos, slaves from various Bantu-speaking regions of the Congo basin. Indeed many people are practising believers in both or all three. The Abakuá Secret Society is not a religion but a closed sect. Open to men only, and upholding traditional macho virtues, it has been described as an Afro-Cuban freemasonry, though it claims many non-black devotees. Also known as ñañiguismo, the sect originated among slaves brought from the Calabar region of southern Nigeria and Cameroon, whose Cuban descendants are called carabalí.

Working in Cuba:

Those interested in joining International Work Brigades should contact Cuba Solidarity Campaign, c/o The Red Rose, 129 Seven Sisters Road, London N7 7QG, or 119 Burton Road, London SW9 6TG.


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