What’s interesting about the said documentary, however, is the different context: Cuba. Cuba is in fact the island most neighbouring Jamaica, the most closest at about 100 km (90 miles). The colonial and other histories made them in some ways quite different though. I wrote on this on this blog before. What I wish to focus on now specifically is the Rastafari movement in Cuba. This because the documentary raised, I think, some intriguing questions and hinted toward interesting issues. See it here:
Slowly but surely, a Rastafari community has developed in Cuba. This started in the 1990s, and possibly even before. The documentary in that sense documents its development in Cuba: numbers of adherents, how many of “Rastas” are really Rastas in all senses, values, differences with Rastas elsewhere, internal differences etcetera etcetera.
I found interesting from my perspective that with this theme, several other themes I discussed on my (this) blog recur and are touched: Reggae, Rastafari, differences between Cuba and Jamaica, race relations, culture, history, international relations, and - not least – Africa. In what ways, will become clear in the course of this post.
Crucially, some Cuban Rastas in the aforementioned documentary 'Ras Cuba' pointed out that the arrival of a Nyabinghi House in Cuba (the oldest, somewhat “founding” branch within Rastafari) helped Cuba’s Rastafari movement to acquire proper information and appropriate knowledge on aspects of Rastafari, its way of life (Livity), ideas, and otherwise. Before this, information obtainable in Cuba was scarcer and at times flawed among even seriously aspiring adherents to Rastafari. Information seemed partly derived from Reggae and Bob Marley lyrics reaching Cuba. This was often also limited simply because of relatively little knowledge of the English language among most Cubans.
Beyond this – of course – the dictatorship played a role. Dictatorships usually come combined with censorship against both international and external “adversary” forces and information, ideologically and otherwise. Added to this is the fact that, along with other countries, marijuana use or cultivation was and is illegal in Cuba. Its association with Rastafari and Reggae is of course simplified and partly mistaken, yet that association is common, and used as motivation (or excuse?) to persecute those who seemingly associate with Rastafari. In authoritarian dictatorships – moreover – repression can be more total and strict, without limiting considerations of such things like civil and human rights.
Jamaica recently underwent a legal change, effectively decriminalizing the use of “ganja” (as marijuana is also known), while it was long illegal. When I went to Jamaica before this recent decriminalizing, Jamaicans told me that marijuana use in private, and when, as it was termed, “off the road”, was mostly condoned and “safe” in Jamaica. However, Jamaican government authorities regularly opportunistically wanted to make a repressive point by suddenly persecuting in cases also private use (e.g. on or close to private grounds, in one’s home or yard). Several Rastafari adherents argue that especially the “rebellious” and socially critical Rasta movement was targeted by this (including known reggae artsist like Peter Tosh, as the latter’s biography relates). Something similar - with the same opportunistic, repressive use of marijuana laws - occurred in Cuba.
As with many other phenomena in this world, the reasons for the belated and relatively limited spread in Cuba of Rastafari are complex and multifold.
What I will focus on here, however, is less superficial than merely a language barrier, or the predicatble fact that in Cuba marijuana is illegal and persecuted (as after all still in many countries in the world). No, I choose to go deeper to analyse these reasons. I will firstly focus hereby on the authoritarion, totalitarian character of the Cuban communist state. The fact that it is a dictatorship.
I am well aware that different ideas exist on the Cuban Revolution – victorious in 1959 and still ruling in Cuba (first as leader Fidel Castro, later taken over by his brother Raul). Some find the overall effects positive, particularly in relation to what was before 1959 in Cuba: huge class differences and poverty, racial discrimination, corruption, and the mafia cynically using Havana, Cuba as a playground since the 1940s. This last mafia influence came in part because of the alcohol prohibition in the US for a period. Added to racial inequalities stemming from a slavery past (as other countries in the region, of course), class inequalities, there was therefore corruption and crime. The 1959 Revolution led by Fidel Castro and Ernesto “Che” Guevara (and others) was therefore welcomed and applauded initially by many sectors of the Cuban population, especially the disadvantaged and many Afro-Cubans.
This popular support was especially due to the policies that Revolution espoused: it was a Left-wing, progressive (later called Communist) revolution specifically claiming to advance social equality, getting rid of class differences, and racial discrimination. Some policies were indeed advantagous to many poor Cubans and wealth got much more distributed. Education was strongly stimulated, even in rural areas, and illiteracy over time strongly diminished: at present Cuba has one of the highest literacy rates of all of Latin America. Black (or Afro-) Cubans could, for instance, more easily own houses, felt for a part included in society, while racial discrimation in public spaces was eliminated. Up to then, like in some states of the US, Afro-Cubans were in some places (popular beaches, important parks, some bars, restaurants or hotels) still banned from going in solely because of their race.
DEMOGRAPHICS AND RACE
The Afro-Cuban population of Cuba –relevant for this entire post of course, as Rastafari started as a Black, Afro-Jamaican movement - is oddly a matter of debate. Since the rise of DNA studies (in the 1950s) much more can be precisely known regarding ethnic origin. This matter was long “ideologically contaminated” however, and partly still is. Particularly, the percentage of White Cubans of the total Cuban population has been exaggerated. As elsewhere this is partly due to historically grown self-hate or inferiority complexes among a part of the Black or mixed/Mulatto population in Cuba, preferring to “pass as white”, even if having some (even visible) African blood. Elite/political maniplation of official figures also plays a large role, though.
In some way this is comparable to what occurred in the nearby Dominican Republic. For all intents and purposes, the Dominican Republic is, ethnically, a country with a mixed population: most Dominicans combine African and Spanish (and some other European) blood, which is mostly visible.. There was long a tendency – at least among the political caste – to emphasize the Hispanic origins of the Dominican population, the “Whiteness”, culturally and if possible physically. This helped to stimulate harsh, repressive treatment of “darker”, more African, poor Haitian immigrants in the Dominican Republic. The dictator Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic (roughly between 1930 and 1960), reputedly went as far to lighten his skin for public appearance and photos. Trujillo had some African features and ancestors, but had a similar anti-Black policy as some later Dominican presidents, like Joaquín Balaguer, who was indeed White and of European, Catalan-French, descent (via Puerto Rico). Trujillo looked however a bit more “Mulatto”, so he tried to hide this.
Such ridicule extremities were also present, but a bit less in Cuba: there has historically always been a current of Black and African pride among Afro-Cubans, even if dormant among some. In the same manner, by the way, many Dominicans made and make no fuss of the African part of their biological and cultural heritage, even in some forces in their country wanted this.
So, it’s for a large part an “elite thing” that the Afro-Cuban proportion of the Cuban population has been downplayed. This occurred up to even recent times (until the 1990s). Official (!) figures from around the 1980s tended to claim that about 26% of the Cuban population was of African descent. The rest presumably of European origins, with some percentages Chines and other blood. The truth is quite different. Even later adaptations like, okay about 45% are either Black or Mulatto , is not the reality, though a bit closer to the truth. Even the current (May, 2016) Wikipedia article states this (i.e. a White majority), though it can be questioned.
Most recent studies of a more objective, factual nature have concluded that a majority of at least about 65% of the Cuban population – now at somewhat over 11 million - is at least partly of African descent. Of this 65% at least half is probably of European descent (being mixed, lighter or darker “Mulattoes” so to speak). I personally have met in Cuba’s Eastern Oriente province Cubans who knew they had African, Chinese, and Spanish blood. A well-known Cuban to which this mix also applies is the painter Wilfredo Lam; he combined Chinese, African, and Spanish blood in him, with the surname Lam being of Chinese origin (meaning something like “wood”, I believe, in Cantonese).
About 25% of Cuban people are mostly Black or Afro-Cuban, concentrated more in some provinces than others (Santiago de Cuba and Guantánamo in the East/Oriente, for instance, parts of Matanzas and Havana regions). Probably about 40% of all Cubans are mostly European (“White”) in origin, many look mostly South European, as their mostly Spanish forebears, but even among many of them “racial purity” is debatable, with possibly some distant African connection. When I went to Cienfuegos, a town on Cuba’s south coast, the guide told that White people in Cienfuegos have more than elsewhere in Cuba blonde hair and blue eyes, because of French and German presence. French presence was also here and there elsewhere in Cuba, so not all that is “white” ethnically in Cuba is associated with Spain, though most is.
A large group of Spanish immigrants from early on in Cuba were furthermore from the Canary Islands. This partly has as reason that they were knowledgeable about the sugar cane industry that developed in Cuba: mainland Spain had less experience with this, despite experiments in warmer parts of Spain as the Valencia and Seville regions. Canarians historically have some North African Berber blood as well, by the way, and there were sub-Saharan African slaves in the Canary Islands even before this became widespread in the Americas.
Later, even after Cuba became independent from Spain in the early 20th c., Spaniards migrated to Cuba, as part of a deliberate, racist policy of the Cuban government to “Whiten” the population. Many people from Spain went to the former colony, as they were rewarded with land and privileges. While the earlier Spanish immigrants in the early 1500s – say directly after Columbus’arrival - were relatively more from South Western parts of Spain, close to where Columbus ships left from Spain (Andalusia, Extremadura, but in part also Basques from North Spain, who had a seafaring tradition), and shortly after that from the Canary Islands, the later immigrants from Spain after 1900 came often from other marginal regions in Spain: relatively many from rural Galicia.
The African population were forcibly brought from different parts of the African continent, as is the case for other Caribbean islands. Perhaps, in the context of this post, it is good to compare with Jamaica.
Jamaica has a population - with presently about 2,9 million inhabitants - of mainly African descent (over 90%), with less white people than in Cuba: Cuba is much more mixed or Mulatto than Jamaica, of course. Either way, the enslaved Africans brought to Cuba came from various parts of Africa, but with some relative concentrations: especially many slaves from the Yoruba part of Africa (now SW Nigeria, Benin) came to Cuba, as well as relatively many from the Congo region, the latter a bit more concentrated in the Eastern half of Cuba. Also many Africans from the Calabar region (now SE Nigeria, Cameroon) came to Cuba, and somewhat smaller percentages of Africans with Akan-speaking, Fon, Ewe, Mande/Senegambian or Moçambique origins.
Some similarities as well as differences with Jamaica: scholars estimate that in Jamaica about 25% of Africans came from the Congo/Angola region, in Cuba close to 40%. Interestingly, Congo cults and traditions in Cuba are known for folk medicine and herbal/natural knowledge, something of course valued among many Rastafari as well, and possibly consisting of a Congo influence in Jamaica too. A difference is further that the strong Twi/Akan presence among the enslaved Africans in Jamaica (about 45% of the Africans in Jamaica, is assumed) is not there in Cuba, while Yorubas were in turn less present (though not absent) in Jamaica. Igbo-speaking Africans were on the other hand quite present in Jamaica.
An important difference, however, beyond these intra-African differences, is that a main intellectual current that developed in Cuba is that it is “mixed” racially and culturally: Spanish-African. From some perspective this is partly true, but it is terribly simplified and often misused by politicians to hide persisiting racial inequalities within Cuba, by boasting about an unproblematic racial harmony, that everyone supposedly is Cuban, before Black or White.
The slave trade increased strongly in Cuba at a somewhat later date than in British, Dutch, French, or Porrtuguese colonies, that is after 1800. Cuban proponents of increasing the slave trade had these other slave trading nations as economic models. There was a fear among some Cuban planters that too much Africans in Cuba would cause another “Haiti-type” of Revolution against Whites, though Cuban planters argued that they had “milder” and “more enlightened” slave laws. Some non-Cuban or non-interested groups or even historians argue this as well: while still dehumanized and repressed, the slave population in Cuba had some laws that protected them, and gave them some (marginal) rights. Notably, the possibilty to buy one’s own freedom seemed to be larger than in British, Dutch, or French colonies. Africans were allowed some space for cultural expression, such as in Catholic Church-related but autonomous “cabildo” organizations. In cabildo’s, Africans of the same “nation” (ethnic origin in Africa: Yoruba, Congo, Calabar etc., including slaves and freed) joined for festivities and rituals. Such cultural space was much less allowed in stricter Protestant colonies, such as Jamaica, where even the playing of drums was fully outlawed. Perhaps the reason why African-based percussion instruments like the Conga’s or Bongos could develop in Cuba.
The Cuban slavery system in Spanish colonial times was nonetheless still dehumanizing, of course, and Africans had limited rights, even to a degree those that were free. Public places were segregated, and in colonial Cuba, Afro-Cubans - also those formally free - could not walk in central parts of parks, for instance, and were barred from several privileges or specific rights.
The relatively many free Black Cubans (while others were still enslaved) in Cuban cities like Havana and Santiago made the society gradually more mixed. Some historians contend that also Spanish (and Portuguese) attitudes toward race mixing were more lax than among the tighter Anglo-Saxons or Dutch, relating this to the ethnically varied Moorish past of Iberia. Though in Moorish Spain (8th c. to 15th c.) unfortunately race also played a role (lighter-skinned Arabs , Berbers, or converted Iberians had higher positions, while the sub-Saharan Africans present were mostly slaves or servants), it also knew ethnic variety or flexibility.
Anyway, Cuban society became a bit more racially mixed and flexible when compared to other slaveholding areas. In the US South, for instance, the Black and White worlds remained largely separate (up to today!), with laws that even forbade formal interracial relations. Rape by White masters and overseers of African enslaved women was however, as in other slaveholding parts (including Cuba and Jamaica), common, but was not known or reported as rape (slaves were, cynically, “property” after all). Especially among lower-class Whites in Cuba, however, formal, more equal relationships with (part) Afro-Cuban people became more accepted. This made society more mixed, along with the fact that there were relatively more Whites alongside Blacks in Cuba historically.
Certainly relevant for this post is the fact that with a sugar industry boom after 1900 – when Cuba was under strong US influence – many migrants from other Caribbean islands, like Haiti and Jamaica, went to Cuba, especially the Eastern part of the island around Santiago de Cuba and Guantánamo, to work as labourers in the sugar industry. A quite sizable Jamaican and British Caribbean community developed there at that time.
This in part explains why Marcus Garvey’s UNIA movement had many chapters in Cuba, in fact relatively the most in number after the US. Historians state, however, that Marcus Garvey’s popularity in Cuba lied with the English-speaking population, mostly the Jamaicans and British Caribbeans that lived in Cuba. According to these historians, the Back To Africa notion of Garvey attracted the Jamaicans more than e.g. the Afro-Cubans supposedly sensing they belonged more in their respective nation Cuba. A Garvey-ite influence on Afro-Cubans seemed probable, nonetheless, and in light of the founding role of Marcus Garvey within Rastafari, this is of course interesting. Moreover, while many Jamaicans left Cuba after a period again, a part of them have remained and became integrated within the Cuban population. In Santiago de Cuba, for instance, there are still quite some people with family ties to British Caribean islands like Jamaica.
Despite all this, inequality remained certainly there throughout, and Afro-Cubans were kept in a lower, disadvantaged position, even after the quite late date of formal abolition of slavery in Cuba (1898). Racial discrimination remained also common, along with a general socioeconomic disadvantage for historical reasons.
All this background is relevant, I argue, to understand the way the Rastafari movement spread in Cuba in more recent times.
Culturally, either way, it synthesized in an interesting culture in Cuba. Cuba is Spanish-speaking, but the Spanish of Cuba is of the so-called Caribbean variant, with differences per island. Largely the Cuban type of Spanish is a mixture of Southern Spanish (of many early South-Spanish, Andalusian and other settlers), there is a noticeable influence from Canary Island Spanish as well, and also influences from African languages. Loanwords from African languages (Yoruba, Efik, or Bantu) are commonly used in especially popular Cuban Spanish, but African languages themselves survived also in Afro-Cuban religious contexts: in Santería, the Yoruba language is partly used, in the Abakuá societies, a creolized variant of the Efik-Ibibio language (now spoken in SE Nigeria, SW Cameroon), and in the Palo Monte religion, partly a KiKongo-based language, mixed with Spanish.
These Afro-Caribbean religions survived up to this day and are widely practised among a part of the Cubans, of course a relevant point in the context of this post.
Cuban music eventually got world fame, and East Cuban Son (with partly Congo/Bantu musical origins) largely shaped what would become known in the US by 1980 as “Salsa” music. Rumba (formed around Havana and Matanzas) is also internationally known. Spanish and some French influences are more dominant in other genres that developed in Cuba, the Danzón, and the rural Punta Guajira, the latter betraying Canarian and Andalusian (Flamenco) influences. Even in these latter genres African influences and percussion are not absent, by the way. Music in Cuba became also largely mixed.
The classical Spanish guitar (as such arising in Andalusia, Spain, under local, Moorish, Persian, and Gipsy influences) soon came to Cuba, as well as Canarian folk instruments. Despite later Galician and Asturian migrations, I haven’t heard about a Spanish bagpipe (“Gaita”) being used in Cuba, being a folk instrument still used in these Northwestern parts of Spain. Some Andalusian and Extremaduran instruments seemed to have reached the Americas, though.
Of course, Afro-Cuban culture also gave the world a few well-known percussion instruments, notably the Conga and Bongos drums (both originating in Cuba but based on Central African/Congo models), the Guïro rasp/grater, and the Timbales, though the latter was also French-influenced.
The more total ban on drumming in historical Jamaica, made that drumming was even more hidden among Afro-Jamaicans, though also among Afro-Jamaicans drumming and percussive traditions survived in the Burru, Myal, Pocamania, and Kumina traditions, including own drums. The common Cuban instruments (conga’s, guïro’s a.o.) are however also used in Jamaica, as I related before on my blog. There is even some Cuban musical influence on Jamaican music genres, such as Reggae, alongside predominant creolized African, and some British influences.
That is the culture that was left in Cuba, because of its history, and a large part of the social situation. Yet, then came the 1959 Revolution, led by Fidel Castro and others. As the word “revolution” implies, this meant a radical change. Or did it?
Apologists or adherents of Castro’s rule might argue that after 1959, poverty and inequality diminished strongly in Cuba, that Blacks regained their dignity as an equal and contributive part of the Cuban nation (yes, nothing less than this!). Everything changed for the better, in short, when compared to the corruption- and inequality-ridden era before 1959 when Present Fulgencio Batista was president (since the 1940s).
Ironically, Batista was, unlike Castro, not a White man (Fidel Castro being of Spanish, Galician and Canarian, descent), but Batista was of mixed African, Chinese, European, and even Amerindian descent. Not uncommon such a mix in Cuba, and moreover Batista came from a poor family. Batista, though, – after some initial progressive policies - later became a corrupt end repressive leader, befriending US mafiosos in order to become rich, and a puppet of US influence in Cuba. So the history is often related by Batista’s opponents. Some truth to these accusations of corruption and repression seems to be there.
However.. did everything improve to such a degree, in particular for the poor Afro-Cuban population of Cuba, under Castro’s rule?
For ideological and partisan reasons some might want to believe this. Antagonists/opponents of Castro, such as those from the elite who went into exile, or some anti-Communist people in the US, take an opposed, yet often also ideological and partisan view, claiming that everything got worse and unbearable in Cuba after 1959.
Others still, luckily, try to analyse more objectively and academically, and have more nuanced, moderate views on this, not so much blinded by simplifying ideologies, and just trying to grasp how ordinary, e.g. poor, Afro-Cuban people lived in Cuba since 1959.
One of these latter views, I argue can be attributed to the author Carlos Moore. Some may beg to differ, though. His opponents argue that Moore is not imparcial at all and exaggerates. Carlos Moore is a Black Cuban (of British Caribbean descent, part Jamaican..hence the surname), and was at first sympathetic toward the Revolution of 1959, and even worked with Fidel Castro himself (as interpreter, for instance). In time he got disillusioned. He also left Cuba and ended up living in Brazil. Moore relates his disillusion not least to Castro policies regarding the Afro-Cubans. Moore argues that Castro in the end did not do so much for Afro-Cuban improvement as he or the Revolution promised, and even stifled them through his paternalistic, undemocratic approach to the race issue.
In his 1988 book ‘Castro, the Blacks, and Africa’ Carlos Moore elaborates on his critique, by reviewing Castro’s policies regarding race and Blacks in Cuba, but also Castro’s foreign policy regarding Africa, being the motherland of Afro-Cubans. Cuba under Castro engaged in several aiding policies and military operations on the African continent, precisely because the Cuban population was for a large part of African origin. At least that is what Fidel Castro espoused openly as motivation. Moore argues however that Fidel Castro, as a Hispanic White man, could only think in White Hispanic terms, rendering his policies both regarding Afro-Cubans and Africa, inevitably, paternalistic and condescending: not trusting Black or African people to decide for themselves. The latter was of course also hindered because of the authoritarian government.
Thus, while from the outset in 1959, Fidel Castro and Ernesto Guevara stated to support Afro-Cubans and help them progress, this approach was reverted soon after, and turned out – Moore contends – not to be sincere, but rather opportunistic.
For me it is hard to evaluate or judge Moore’s objectivity, but I get the idea from this book that he might be correct, partly because he does not take a one-dimensional approach, looks at history and events from all sides, while pointing at successes and positive aspects as well. Moore’s overall balance is however that Castro’s policy regarding Afro-Cubans and Africa was too socially and culturally “White”, and paternalistic, and too opportunistic as well, for it to be really genuine or effective.
Moore attributes this to a lack of cultural connection of Castro with Afro-Cuban culture, as well as of the other, mainly White leadership of the Revolution. For a vanguard group aiming to uplift Afro-Cuban, the Cuban revolutionaries remained remarkably White (about 40% of the population, as mentioned), especially in higher positions. This smells of hypocrisy, of course. Something which, by the way, Malcolm X also thought to “smell”, when he was first approached by Castro for an alliance against the both “racist and capitalist” US. Malcolm X after hesitation, also for strategic reasons, did tighten contacts with Castro, though, as did other Black Power advocates in the US, though most temporarily and several later came into conflict with Castro. This also made Moore suspect opportunistic insincerity on the part of Castro, seeking only strategic alliances for his own gain, funnily a bit mirrored by Malcolm X, who sought strategic alliances as well.
Moore further discusses how Guevara, Castro, and other White Cuban revolutionaries had some difficulties with African culture in Africa itself (“tribalism”, Guevara complained about some African societies), yet also with Afro-Cuban culture in Cuba. The Revolutionary government actually repressed Afro-Cuban religions and traditions like Santería and Abakuá. It even criminalized these, as in the Spanish colonial past. On a personal note, Moore even seemed to know that Castro disliked music by drums, as a further illustration of his European, non-Black cultural outlook. The repressive policies regarding Afro-Cuban religions and culture under Castro’s and Revolutionary rule of course more cynically demonstrated that.
Practising those religions was allowed mostly under strict, limiting conditions. Only in recent times these limiting ties were relaxed. Santería was therefore practiced quite secretly for decades, but continued to thrive nonetheless.
Thus, Blacks/Afro-Cubans had to be emancipated on Castro’s/the governent’s terms and not their own. In addition to this, the economy in Cuba got worse in time, making many Afro-Cubans feel more and more dissatisfied with the socioeconomic situation in Cuba by the 1980s and 1990s. Some say racial tensions increased because of this. Some gains were made, but some racial inequalities definitely remained in Cuba, throughout and up to today.
Even if Carlos Moore exaggerated or was partisan/subjective, other sources and studies confirmed this too. In such a context of discontent and “hidden inequality”, a rebellious and cultural pride movement in favour of “truths and rights” like Rastafari would – one would assume – find fertile ground.
BACK TO THE DOCUMENTARY
Returning to the documentary ('Ras Cuba', 2003) on Rastafari adherents in Cuba then. Indeed, Rastafari as a movement increased its influence in Cuba, as the documentary showed: slowly but steadily over the last decades. The reasons and explanations the adherents give in the documentary often somehow relate to the historically shaped context I sketched above.
Sista Benji, a pioneering Rastafari adherent (a female “elder”, as Rastas call it) in the Netherlands, this year (2016) told me that she just came back from Cuba, and was surprised to find a quite developed Rastafari scene and movement.
A pity it was not translated/subtitled to English to reach a larger audience, but I saw an interesting episode in the Spanish language, of a tv programme (broadcasted in 2014), apparently by and for Cuban Americans (Cubans in the US), that commented on the rising Rastafari movement in Cuba. It was partly based on this same documentary. Interestingly, the guests associate the rise not so much with decreased active persecution in Cuba since about 2000 (giving e.g. also other religious/cultural groups in Cuba more free space than before), but also with persisting inequalities, also socially. As can be expected, these US Cubans are anti-Castro and anti-Communism, yet also criticize the persisting racial inequalities in Cuba, the disadvantaged position of Afro-Cubans, to which Rastafari’s rise in Cuba seemed to respond. Some arguments stated by the guests and invited experts were comparable to those of Carlos Moore, such as on Castro’s “paternalistic, White” approach to helping Africa and Afro-Cubans, but not on their own terms.
As explained before, Reggae lyrics played a role in this rise, and became an important conduit for Rastafari ideas to Cuba, though not the only one. As in Jamaica itself and elsewhere, Reggae and Rastafari, while separate things, partly spread in tandem, and recently more Rastafari-themed or conscious Reggae songs appeared in Cuba as well, sung by seemingly sincerely Rastafari-adhering singers or bands. Singer/artist Arubo (Alugbo Eliazar Achanti) is an interesting example of this, as he is a relative veteran (active in Cuban Reggae since at least the 1990s).
Experienced “reggae author” David Katz wrote this quite recent, 2012 article on the Reggae scene in Cuba, noting its marginality, but that is the case in many countries. It is often harder to find than other musical genres, even if there are quite some Rastafari adherents in a country, so that does not say all. It is interesting to read, though. See:
In the documentary, personal reasons for adhering to Rastafari are given, but often indirectly or directly related to inequalities in Cuba. Of course, the choice for Rastafari is often the result of a complex, individual trayectory, and not all adherents solely or directly want to make a one-dimensional, activist point. Rastafari is perhaps more “individualistic” in character, when compared to religions like Christianity or Islam, and furthermore tends to eschew “politics” as such. I argue, however, that the broader social, political as well as cultural context can influence its relative appeal, such as in this case Cuban society.
Differences with Rastas in Jamaica, or elsewhere, were also elaborated upon in the documentary. These can be explained I think.
The widespread Afro-Cuban religions like Santería (with mainly Yoruba roots) or Palo Monte (with mainly Congo roots, mainly found in Eastern Cuba) also remain valued by many Cuban Rastafari adherents as somehow shaping thair identity, alongside Rastafari. That’s a difference with Jamaica. “Vodou”-like, spirit possession religions survived somewhat in Jamaica as well, found in traditions like Burru, Obeah, Pocomania, Myal, and Kumina (the latter also largely Congo-based, like Palo Monte). These were however criticized by many early Rastas, deeming these devilish or at least backward and/or divisive, even if they were culturally connected to ancestral Africa. Most Rastas chose instead a more Biblical approach: albeit rereading the Bible from a Black, African and Ethiopian perspective. Kumina and Burru traditions influenced Rastafari, but mostly musically (drums, drum patterns) and organizationally: not so much spiritually.
I think that this centrality of the Bible stems partly from the fact that Jamaica was the colony of a Protestant nation, namely Britain, and the resulting influence from Baptist and other churches. While some local, Black churches in Jamaica adopted African ideas on spirituality, the traditional condemnation of “spirit-based” religions (still called “witchcraft” within Protestantism), influenced Jamaican Christians as well. The same Protestant influence is noticeable in Africa itself, such as in Ghanaian and Nigerian Christianity. Much older Christianity in another part of Africa, though, the Ethiopian Orthodox faith, adopted relatively more African ideas and aspects (such as drums during church services). Ethiopia is of course important for Rastafari adherents.
Rastafari in Jamaica used and uses drums as part of its spirituality as well, so it seems overall a bit between the Euro-Protestant “purity” and Biblical, textual values on the one hand, and African “spiritual” retentions on the other. Also other Rastafari values and ideas, such as the important “I and I”-notion of connection with other beings, have more in common with traditional African spiritual beliefs than with European ones.
The Rastafari in Cuba seem, according to statements in the documentary, to tip the balance relatively more toward such “spirit religions” than those in Jamaica. They at least show more acceptance of it, while still upholding the same core values as other Rastafari, in Jamaica and elsewhere: pride of an African, Black identity, an overall focus on Africa and Ethiopia, the importance of Haile Selassie and Marcus Garvey, a “natural” vegetarian-based way of living, self-sufficiency, dreadlocks, and for many the use of marijuana as a sacrament. Not totally surprising, many like Reggae music too, but many Cuban Rastas also play Nyabinghi drums and songs. If possible even with the same drums: I heard Kete drums used for Nyabinghi in Jamaica, are not always available in Cuba, so local drums are used instead, and Cuba has indeed relatively many own African-based drum types.
The documentary, and other sources, by the way, showed that as Rastafari rose as a movement in Cuba, it (like the Afro-Cuban religions) faced repression by the Cuban authorities, up to the present. The same occurred (and partly still occurs) in Jamaica, by the way.
Overall, I would say that there seem to be many similarities with the Jamaican Rastafari "mainstream" (if there is such a thing), but with different accents. If one goes back to to the origins of the Rastafari movement since the 1930s, the reasons for its origination (pride of an own African identity, self-worth against colonial indoctrination and oppression), those different “accents” are in my opinion just marginal.