by Lisa Reynolds Wolfe

Indigenous people of Cuba

This is the third post in a week long series on Religion in Cuba Today. Our next post in this series will provide information on the diverse nature of  Cuba’s religious life. You won’t want to miss it. Sign up for our e-mail list to have it delivered to your mailbox automatically.

The revitalization of religion in Cuba began in 1992, when — after three decades as a Marxist state — the constitution was revised and Cuba officially became a secular state.

The Cuban Constitution now recognizes the right of citizens to profess and practice any religious belief within the framework of respect for the law.

It’s important to note, however, that according to the US Department of State’s 2010 Report on International Religious Freedom, the Government actually places restrictions on freedom of religion in both law and in practice.

Still, it’s clear that in recent years, there has been a huge resurgence of religious practice in Cuba, not only among Christians, but also by Jews and practitioners of the various Afro-Cuban religions.

Pope John Paul II’s visit to the island in January 1998 was a visual symbol of this reawakening.

Of course, the church does not speak with one voice. Cuba’s religious communities have had different political, social and cultural experiences so, not surprisingly, they have diverse understandings of reality.

Here’s some background to help us understand where they’re coming from.

In 1492, when the Spanish first landed in Cuba, an estimated 50,000 indigenous people were living on the island. These included the Ciboneyes, the Guanahatabeyes, and the Tainos.

The Guanahatabeyes had been on the island the longest and have been described as a “shell” culture, or as nomadic societies of hunters and gatherers who use natural materials such as unpolished stones, seashells, and fish bones for tools.

Diego Velazquez, Cuba’s first Spanish governor, was openly shocked by the lifestyle of the Guanahatabeyes.

They’re savages, he said, without houses or towns and eating only the meat they are able to find in the forests as well as turtles and fish.

The other two cultures, the Ciboneyes and the Tainos, were part of the larger South American Arawak group, believed to have island hopped through the West Indies.

The Tainos were fishermen and hunters, but they also introduced agriculture to the island. Their staples included maize, beans, squash, peanuts, yucca, and tobacco. They also cultivated cotton. Tobacco was used for religious, medicinal, and ceremonial purposes.

The Taino created a variety of tools and artifacts by polishing stones and carving wood, and they were accomplished potters, crafting a variety of utilitarian pieces and small figurines of animal and human forms, male and female, which represented spirits considered sacred by each community.

It is speculated that the Taino tribes were forced westward some 200 years before the Spanish arrived by a bloodthirsty tribe known as the Caribs. (I’ve read that this is where the word cannibal comes from.)

The Caribs would raid a village, kill all of the adult men, and consume their flesh. The women were spared for slavery, as were the young men, who were castrated. You can learn more about them on the History of Cuba website.

The conquistadors set out to control all three cultures, killing those individuals who resisted and enslaving the rest. As one historian reports:

The indians that Columbus and his men encountered in Cuba were a simple and happy people, living in a peaceful and gentle world. They had no enemies, human or otherwise, and were therefore unused to combat. Their pathetic inablility to resist the Spanish invaders made their eventual submission in the hands of the conquistadores an inevitability.

By the mid-16th century, Cuba’s indigenous population had dropped to less than a few thousand as a result of disease, mass suicides, and Spanish exploitation.

So far as religion is concerned, the Roman Catholic Church arrived with the Spanish conquistadors and became the dominant religious institution in Cuba. Even so, it was not well thought of by the “locals.”

There’s a famous story about Chief Hatuey, an indigenous chieftain, who traveled from Hispaniola (now the Dominican Republic) to warn the Cubans about “what to expect from the Spaniards.”

His effort was in vain, however.

The Tainos of western and central Cuba just couldn’t believe the horrible message brought by Hatuey, and few joined the guerilla forces he was organizing.

Eventually, Hatuey was captured and burned at the stake.

As authorities were lighting the fire, a priest offered Hatuey spiritual comfort, showing him the cross and asking him to accept Jesus and go to heaven.

Are there people like you in Heaven? Hatuey asked.

There are many like me in heaven, answered the priest.

Then No quiero ir al cielo — I don’t want to go to heaven, Hatuey cried out.

Today, Hatuey is considered to be the first martyr in the struggle for Cuban independence, and for those of you who are beer lovers, there is a silver lining. Hatuey’s heritage persists in the form of Hatuey Beer — bottled in Santiago de Cuba since 1927.

Aside from Hatuey’s picture on a beer bottle, only slight traces of indigenous blood, language, and culture have survived.

Cuban Beer

You won’t want to miss our next post in this series. It’s going to provide information on the diversity of religion in Cuba today. Sign up for our e-mail list to have it delivered to your mailbox automatically.


{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Virginia Meagher April 16, 2015 at 2:50 pm

Please put me on your email list for religion in Cuba. Thank you. Virginia from Kentucky, USA


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