Since the bearded ones claimed Havana, Arnaldo Correa has been penning stories of the mysteries of the Revolution and Fidel Castro’s diplomatic battles with the United States. Born in the Escambray mountains east of Havana in 1933, Correa spent his university years in Alabama and traveled throughout the U.S. After finishing his studies, he worked in Angola and Mozambique on economic development projects. All the while, he continued to write. His short stories have been lauded by Castro, and read throughout Latin America.
Deemed one of the founders of the Cuban crime-fiction genre, Correa’s first English translation, Spy’s Fate (Akashic, 2002), delved into the covert diplomatic wars that have ruptured US-Cuba relations. In Cold Havana Ground, his follow-up just published by Akashic, he changes his subject from diplomacy to a mystery involving Afro-Cuban religions. Crafting parallel stories that follow a police’s search for a missing Chinese cadaver and a Santera who discovers that a malignant spirit has taken hold of her brother, Correa offers a uniquely riveting mystery that offers a window into little-known Afro-Cuban traditions. I recently spoke to Correa at his home in Havana.
Nicholas Shumaker (Rail): Cold Havana Ground represents a large shift, at least in subject, from the topics you explored in Spy’s Fate. You shift from the relationship between the United States and Cuba to the relationship between Cubans and the private religions of Santeria, Palo Monte, and the Abukua Secret Society. Can you provide a bit of insight and explanation into these religions?
Arnaldo Correa: The most extended and widely practiced of the three religions is Santeria. It is a religion with many Gods—called Orishas. The process to become active is relatively straightforward. Someone becomes initiated in Santeria, then after a period of time, they are able to consult with their Orisha in their house. Soon they get a clientele composed of godsons and goddaughters who offer monetary donations to both the Santero and their Orishas for help in decision making and events in their life. In this sense, the religion itself is incredibly private and works similarly to an extended family. As you go out to different provinces in Cuba and spend time with different believers, you find out that the basic tenets throughout the country are the same. But there are slight differences among them, based on education, geography, and so on. This is no different than any world religion.
Many Cubans, even Santeros, also practice Palo Monte. The theology is similar, but it works differently. The witch doctor becomes the Santero. The Nganga, as he is called, has an iron pot where his or her magic is stored. His powers are held in the pot, and people pay him for his help. Unlike with Santeros, people often go to Palleros to do harm to others. If a woman wants to catch a man, she goes there and the Pallero helps for a price. This can be done in Santeria, but rarely happens. In this sense, Santeria and Palo Monte work under a similar principle of request. What is requested, how it is requested, and the motives behind the request—these are what separates the two religions.
Rail: How did you become interested in the Abakua?
Correa: Santeria and Palo Monte are widespread throughout Cuba. Every Cuban knows of them. The Abakua is something different altogether. It is a secret society. To become a member, you have to be initiated. The qualifications are extremely strenuous: you must be strong, loyal, and take quite seriously the rites of initiation. And, in theory, you are supposed to be a good son, a good worker. This, of course, is just theory.
We Cubans know of the Abakua because it is part of our history and culture. As far as the Abakua goes, it’s quite difficult to really learn about them. If you want to, you have to go east of Havana to Guanabacoa. But when you mention the society, people become scared and stop talking. The Abakua are a very rebellious people, machismos, and are really difficult to deal with. Many end up in prison. Any small issue with them becomes a gigantic offense. Abakuas have to act on these offenses.
During my research, I came upon an old man. He told me a story of the Abakua that he assured me was true. At the beginning of the Revolution, there was a man who was a devout revolutionary. But he was equally as devout to the Society. Shortly after Fidel took power, the man was in a park and someone cut his suspenders as a joke and his pants fell to the ground. The man was embarrassed, and abandoned his neighborhood. No one knew where he went. Five years later, he returned to a new section of town, and began looking for the man who cut off his suspenders. When he finally found out where he was, he took a cutting knife, and stabbed the man in the mouth. The blade broke when it hit the teeth. He took it as a sign. He returned to his house. He was going to kill the man, but the Gods changed his will because the blade of his knife broke. I believe that story—and it represents the Abakua pretty well.
Rail: Given the secret nature of the Abakua, how did they react to your research?
Correa: Before the book, I was writing a script for a television show. The story I was dealing with, the same story in Cold Havana Ground, was a true story of Abakua bandits. You can imagine that the Society wasn’t too happy about this. If this story went on television, they thought that they would be displayed as thieves. They resented that.
At the time, I had a Pallero who was the highest Pallero in Cuba—he still is—and he called me when he heard about their plans. He said, “Look, I am a Santero, I am a Pallero, and I am an Abakua. I don’t want to have any problems with these people. They said, though, that they will kill you if you continue on with your work.” So I knew it was serious. It was difficult to believe. How come? It was a story for a television show based on actual police files. It seemed absurd.
But I spoke with the police and the Ministry of the Interior and told them that these people were setting out to kill me. I went to the head of the police who had much prestige in Guanabacoa and had been trying to make peace with the Abakua for years. He was trying to improve relations. I told him my problem and he arranged a meeting with the director of the film and the heads of the Abakua. He said we would tell them as a good gesture that we’re not asking for permission. I stayed for a whole afternoon trying to convince these men who wanted to kill me that we were not trying to insult their religion. When I was finished I promised to show it them. Luckily, they enjoyed it.
Rail: For some time, religion wasn’t approved by the Revolution. How did these religions survive during the early years of the Revolution?
Correa: Cuba is a rare case with regard to religion, especially when you compare it to the rest of Latin America. If you go to Mexico, Central America, and most countries in South America, Catholicism is deeply entrenched in the lower class. It has always been different in Cuba. Catholicism remained in the upper class, in schools, in nice churches, in the aristocracy. This is before the Revolution. It didn’t penetrate the lower classes.
When the slaves initially came to Cuba, they tried to preserve their religions, their dances, their beliefs. To save it, they gave their Orishas, their Gods, identities derived from the Saints. So there was always a strange relationship between Catholicism and Santeria. It also became a way for priests to attract the lower classes. When you go to a Cuban cathedral, you will see sets of statues representing the Saints—one will be white and displayed prominently and the other black and set to the side. Many people say their prayers to the black ones at cathedrals, to honor their saints. That is Santeria. They exist together.
Before the Revolution, the Church was so dominant that they didn’t classify Santeria or Palo as religion. It wasn’t something to belong to in the eyes of the upper class. The Revolution didn’t change this. The Marxist ethos avoided religion, forbid it. But life is stronger than rules. As time went on, the Revolution had to accept these religions. Many, many high-ranking members of the Party practice both Catholicism and Santeria. They had to concede.
When I finished the show, the Minister of Interior said that it could not air because it dealt with religion. I approached a high-ranking Party official and he scheduled a meeting. We watched the show and it was agreed that the show had to be categorized—it had to be shown. We cannot think these things as secrets. We had to show it. It is part of our country. Many people believe it. This was 1989. When it was aired, it lifted the public ban on these religions. It shows how the scope of the Revolution has broadened. Remember the strength of religions in Latin America. Fidel is quite pragmatic.
Rail: What’s your view of current relations between the US and Cuba?
Correa: I believe that the United States feels that Cuba is not really a threat. Many people there say we exert no military threat, not anymore, whereas Castro and company are quite concerned with a giant migration to the United States after the fall of the blockade. From an economic perspective, the US government has a much different perspective. I believe that many business leaders and politicians think that Cuba holds the key to the future of Latin America. This is from an economic and social perspective. The United States has to look at the future. They are looking at economic integration with Latin and South America. In the last five years, there has been growing resentment to the liberal policies the US has instilled in countries like Brazil, Venezuela, Ecuador, Argentina. As a result, a new left is developing.
In general, I think that there are many things to learn in Cuba. We have 45 years of experience removed from US policies. We have made mistakes, everyone does, and we have done certain things incorrectly. But we have also done many things correctly. And in my view the US can’t look at the future of Latin America without looking at the advances and autonomy in Cuba.
Nicholas Shumaker is a writer and documentary filmmaker based in Washington DC. For the last five months, he has been working in Havana and Miami, producing a project that contrasts the lives of Cuban and Cuban-American boxers and ballerinas.