After performing rituals in places like rivers, forests, hills and sacred trees, Cuba's babalawos lock themselves into a sacred room on Dec. 31.
They include leaders of the two main groups representing Afro Cuban religions: the government-recognized Yoruba Cultural Association of Cuba, which supplies the room, and the independent Organizing Commission for the “Letter” — an annual forecast — headed by Miguel Febles Padron.
Using the Ifá system of divination — 16 kola nut palm seeds — the babalawos obtain the “Letter of the Year,” in effect predictions and warnings for the coming year that are then made public.
The Cuban Letter, and another divined by babalawos in Miami, have been gaining importance in both places. Accustomed to reading between the lines, Cubans on the island speculate on what the island babalawos don't dare say publicly in their Letter.
But in Miami, Oba Ernesto Pichardo, president of the Lukumí Babalú Ayé church in Hialeah, said he helps to interpret the Letter, putting it within the island's “analytical context.”
“You have to take the country's social and political conditions into account, because in Cuba everything is politics,” Pichardo told el Nuevo Herald. “They must be analyzed within their context, not from our perspective. We have to understand that over there, some things are omitted or must be said differently.
“The function of our church is to describe them coherently for those who live here,” he added.
That's why Pichardo tried to explain one of the most intriguing parts of the 2018 Letter, the phrase “the son follows the father’s tradition.”
“That phrase can be really manipulated in the Cuban context,” he said. “If the father is a sociopath, must the child be a sociopath as well?”
In a sociopathic culture, to say that the son has no options is “a very convenient phrase,” he added.
Pichardo, who in 1993 won a U.S. Supreme Court ruling ratifying the right of his religion to practices such as animal sacrifice, said that some people may perceive a reference to conspiracies in the 2018 Letter. Another of its phrases is “We must not reveal secrets entrusted to us.”
But he disagreed with that interpretation: “Our religion is sworn to the values of health, peace and development. That is for all of humanity, for all of the world.”
The Cuban Letter for 2018, published in Cuba's official news media, was criticized by the Cuban Association of Free Yorubas. Its leader, Jonniel Rodríguez Riverol, called on Cubans on the island to reject that forecast because the babalawos who write it are “an extension of State Security Headquarters,” according to a Martinoticias.com report.
Rodríguez Riverol also complained that members of his organization have been subjected to religious persecution.
Pichardo, who came to the United States when he was five years old and speaks English, said the Letters are meant for everyone and not just followers of Afro Cuban religions or people in Cuba or Miami.
He used the example of one part of the Letter, in the “Events of Social Interest” section, that refers to agriculture.
The text predicts “problems in the agricultural sector, especially in the production of vegetables, fruit and grains as a result of the lack of fertilizers and human resources in this sector.”
In Cuba, that refers to the impact those negative conditions will have on the Cubans' nutrition and the country's economy, Pichardo said. But in the United States, that line refers to pollution of lands, the production of less nutritious food items and a pharmaceutical industry that supplies those nutrients.
“The United States, of course, has the ability to overcome those difficulties,” he added.
Pichardo said that one of the most dangerous aspects of the 2018 Letter are in the part of the political section that mentions “narcissistic attitudes.”
Political leaders are entrenched in the points of view and don't accept criticism.
“There's no alternative views here. Both countries are suffering from the same dynamics,” he said, referring to Cuban and U.S. political leaders
That narcissist attitude extends to other social behaviors reflected in the Letter, such as violence and the abuse of minors, which have been growing every year, he noted.
“Polarizing attitudes lead us to a dead end,” Pichardo warned, interpreting the section of the Letter that reads, “We should not continue resenting things that happened in the past. We must learn to forgive. Forgiving does not remove the blame from the person who hurt us, but does remove our suffering.”
“We must put aside our resentment, but that does not mean ‘forgetting,’” he added.
For Julio Benítez, art director in Pichardo's Lukumí Babalú Ayé Church, narcissism is affecting all of humanity and manifesting itself in evil. “That's why there's so much destruction, unnecessary wars,” he said.
Instability in several areas, from jobs to families, are especially affecting the young people in Cuba.
“People are not using their intellect. They are locked into vices that affect young people,” said Benitez.
A native of the central Cuba city of Cienfuegos, he has become a missionary from Miami to the island, working with Afro Cuban religious groups in that city.
The vagaries of politics affect all young people, he added, who have limited options for travel.
“They can only share a bottle of rum on Havana's Malecon,” he said referring to the popular seaside boulevard. “We have to maintain our center, conduct ourselves according to the basic ethic principles of society.”
Benitez insisted that people must remain firm and hopeful and avoid falling into the “evils” that the Letter warns about.
“You can ask the saints, but it is you who has to maintain the possibilities,” he concluded.
Follow Sarah Moreno on Twitter: @SarahMorenoENH
Recommendations from the Cuban Letter for 2018
We should not continue to resent things that happened in the past. We must learn to forgive. Forgiving does not remove the blame from the person who hurt us, but does remove our suffering.
We must conduct ourselves in a proper social and moral way.
Control the excess of alcoholic drinks.
We must not reveal secrets entrusted to us.
Care for and protect the ecosystem and the environment.
Parents must control and watch over the conduct of their children.
Avoid domestic violence in all its forms.
We must be organized in all efforts, social as well as religious.
Lower limb injuries as a result of accidents.
Parents must set the example of good behavior for the benefit of their children.
We recommend that people seek guidance in the home of their godparents.
Review the educational system.