Afro-Cuban Religions and Social Welfare: Consequences of Commercial Development in Havana
Hearn, Adrian H., Human Organization
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, the government of Fidel Castro has struggled to provide Cubans with health care, adequate housing, and social security. Decision making about these issues has been decentralized to involve the public activity of community self-help groups, especially in Havana's most marginal zones. Many such groups are rooted in Afro-Cuban religions, which since slavery times have operated as underground hubs of mutual support. Based on 18 months of fieldwork, three religious communities are examined as they build tentative relationships with state development institutions. Resulting projects set out to improve the quality of life of participants, but these aspirations become obscured as the projects seek quick returns from the burgeoning tourist market. The case studies show the strong impact of "informal religion" on specific projects and suggest that responsibility for balancing commercial and community interests lies both with state and civil society actors in their capacity to build collaborative projects.
Key words: tourism, development, religion, community organizations, Cuba
One of Latin America's most significant ongoing challenges is the effective delivery of basic welfare services to urban communities. Since the 1980s, neo-liberal decentralization has shifted responsibility for social welfare away from national governments to local administrative branches, private service providers, and transnational nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) (Cisneros 1996:7). Driven by economic globalization, this process has fragmented national development strategies through the delegation and commercialization of government services, which in many regions have prompted the formation of grassroots self-help associations committed to small-scale community welfare (Fernandez Soriano 1999:168). While some of these groups have subsisted independently through networks of black market exchange, others have collaborated in neighborhood support projects in symbiosis with local governments. In this way, state activity has proven indispensable in some contexts, albeit with increased sensitivity to local interests in the design and implementation of economically viable social welfare strategies.
Cuba's centrally administrated system of basic social services began to erode in 1989, resulting in the growth of locally based neighborhood welfare projects built on the collaboration of decentralized state development institutions with a diverse range of community self-help groups. Government initiatives in Havana during the past decade have relied heavily on the participation of informal community organizations and their social networks to confront problems like drug use, prostitution, and housing decay. Small profits are often generated for project maintenance through limited commercial production of pottery, art, and gardens for nutritional and medicinal plants.
Some projects have sought to involve leaders of Afro-Cuban religions to enlist the support of their extensive networks of social support and for their capacity to capture U.S. dollars from tourists interested in religious folklore. This has mainly occurred in Havana's poorest urban neighborhoods, where Afro-Cuban religions have historically matured and responded to community needs, often much more so than the Catholic Church (Dominguez 1989:46). Haroldo Dilla Alfonso (1999:33) notes the tremendous potential for collaboration between state development initiatives and Afro-Cuban religious communities given that these popular religions: serve as very effective informal networks for passing along information and for socialization at the community level. Today there is a tendency to involve Afro-Cuban religious authorities in cultural promotion and other aspects of local development in certain neighborhoods. These religious assemblies clearly possess a considerable ability to mobilize people, an ability that is bound to increase in the future. …