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, 5/19/02

Rastas in Cuba, AfroCubaWeb


Ariel Diaz Garcia

Ariel Diaz is a rasta painter who lives in Havana.

If you want to be the first, you must suffer.  10/13/2009 The ARC: "Ariel Diaz Garcia, have you heard of him? If not, keep him in mind because someday he will be a household name. So who is this Ariel Diaz Garcia anyways? Positive, Lovable, Cuban, Rasta, are just a few of the many words needed to describe Ariel. Deep and full of energy, Ariel is a force to be reckoned with in the world of Art."


Rastafarianism Attracts Followers

Havana - It was a balmy night on a beachfront lot, and a salty breeze mingled with whiffs of ganja.  Hundreds of young Rastafarians, many in dreadlocks or Bob Marley T-shirts, rocked to the steady lilt of live reggae.

"A new generation of black youth is finding its identity, and it is filled with love," cooed singer Consureto, a dark, thin man in flowing African robes.  "Yah, man," listeners shouted.

It felt like Kingston or Montego Bay, but the concert took place this month on the outskirts of Havana and was attended by local Afro-Cubans, not rum-sipping tourists.  Reggae concerts are increasingly common here, the most visible sign that Rastafarianism, the religion formed in Jamaican slums in the 1930s, is attracting a wave of black followers in officially atheist Cuba.

For some Afro-Cubans, Rastafarianism is a means of individual expression in a society that places a premium on conformity.  For others, growing dreadlocks and smoking - or selling - marijuana is a way to attract the attention of dollar-toting tourists.  For most, the movement offers spiritual comfort during an economic crisis that has disproportionately hurt Afro-Cubans, already the country's poorest people.

"There is a lot of racial discrimination here.  Rastafarianism is a way to create a black identity and build a message of unity," said dreadlocked Elijio Flores.  A Rasta who left his low-paying job as an agronomist at a state-run tobacco cooperative in Villa Clara, in the center of the country, Flores, 30, sells bead necklaces in the plazas of Old Havana.

With his 1959 revolution, President Fidel Castro sought to end the racism that has existed since colonial times in Cuba, where a majority of residents are black or of mixed race.  But despite advances, blacks remain at the bottom of the economic ladder, and they were hit hardest when the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early '90s stopped the flow of aid from Moscow.

"Young blacks who are products of the revolution have grown up with the message that 'We are all Cubans,' " said Katrin Hansing, an anthropologist at Florida International University in Miami who has studied Rastafarianism in Cuba.  "But the economic problems have led them to realize that some Cubans are more Cuban than others, and those Cubans are white.  Rastafarianism offers a way to express their frustrations and provides an alternative view of blackness."

The state has shown increased tolerance toward Rastafarianism in recent years as it has eased controls on Catholic and Protestant churches.  Still, it doesn't recognize Rastafarianism as a religion or movement.  "There are only a few isolated individuals who call themselves Rastas," said Raul Montes of the state Office of Religious Affairs.

Cuban Rastas say they number in the thousands, concentrated in Havana and in Santiago de Cuba, which faces Jamaica from the southeast coast.  Though some Rastas meet for weekly Bible study and discussion, and many congregate in specific neighborhoods or parks, most consider themselves part of a free-floating community rather than an organized group.

In the mid-'80s, when Rastas were few, police routinely stopped or briefly jailed them.  These days, Rastas say, they are still stopped, particularly if they are seen with white tourists, but further action is rare.

"When I first started to grow dreads, the police would approach me, photograph me and make me pay fines," said Manolo Mayeta, 45, who is one of Cuba's Rasta pioneers.  Now Mayeta bundles his dreads beneath a towering tam bearing stripes of red, black and green - the colors of the Jamaican flag - and yellow.

Jamaican students studying medicine here, as well as sailors returning from Caribbean ports, brought Rastafarianism and reggae to Cuba as early as 1979.  But they mostly kept to themselves and reggae wasn't - and still isn't - played on state-run radio, which dictates that 80 percent of all music on the airwaves be Cuban.  It took until the mid-'80s for small groups of Cubans to adopt Rastafarianism's basic tenets.

These include black empowerment, a rejection of Babylon - the term Rastas use for the white power structure that they believe has subjugated blacks - and a belief that Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I, who died in 1975, was the second messiah.

The movement grew rapidly in the late '90s amid the economic crisis, when Cuba opened the nation to foreign investment in tourism.

Many foreign companies favored fair-skinned Cubans for jobs in hotels, restaurants and elsewhere, according to Alejandro de la Fuente, a University of Pittsburgh professor and author of the book "A Nation for All: Race, Inequality and Politics in 20th Century Cuba."

Blacks' frustrations have led to various cultural and religious expressions of what it means to be Afro-Cuban, from paintings and sculpture to Rastafarianism and hip-hop.  "Blacks are saying, 'We may have lost ground in the economy and in the tourist industry, but we ...cannot be ignored," de la Fuente said.

Many artists and rap groups explore the dynamics of being black in Cuba through overt references to police brutality or racial discrimination.  Cuba's half-dozen reggae groups tend to focus on the Rasta goal of togetherness.

"My message is peace, love, one unity, one God," said Luis Alberto Figueras, who in 1990 founded Cocoman, the first reggae band here, and now fronts the group Paso Firme, or Steady Step.

Cuban Rastas have added homegrown elements to the movement.  Many, like the Havana-based painter Ariel Diaz Garcia, practice Santeria, the religion African slaves brought to Cuba that remains a mainstay of Afro-Cuban life.

"Rastafarianism is my personal philosophy, while Santeria is my religion," explained Diaz, 38, who has used elements of both in his paintings.

The soft-spoken, bearded Diaz also sees no contradiction between the atheist teachings of communist Cuba and the religious tenets of either Rastafarianism or Santeria.  "While socialism is an important step in my life, it is not enough to feed the spirit," he said.

Other Rastas, however, see Rastafarianism as an alternative to communism.  "I studied Marxism in school but it is lies.  Where are the opportunities for all Cubans that we were taught about?" asked Carlos, 23, a Rasta who works as a salsa dancer.  Like many here, he didn't want his full name used for fear of reprisals from the state.

Some Cuban Rastas consider themselves purer than their Jamaican counterparts, who they say have been corrupted by gangs.  "The Rastas of Kingston accept Babylon.  They have been involved in drugs and violence," Mayeta said.

Rastas in Cuba, which imposes stiff fines and jail time for drug use, also are far less open about smoking marijuana than their counterparts in Jamaica.

As Cuba's Rastafarianism grows, some worry it is being reduced to a fashion statement.  However it evolves, the movement signals that after four decades of strict party rule here, the will to be different is thriving. 



If you want to be the first, you must suffer.  10/13/2009 The ARC: "Ariel Diaz Garcia, have you heard of him? If not, keep him in mind because someday he will be a household name. So who is this Ariel Diaz Garcia anyways? Positive, Lovable, Cuban, Rasta, are just a few of the many words needed to describe Ariel. Deep and full of energy, Ariel is a force to be reckoned with in the world of Art."

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