April 4, 2000

The Mystical Power of Elian

By Roberto Cespedes. April 4, 2000. The New York Times.

MEXICO CITY -- In Cuba, religions of African origin, like Regla de Ocha, Palo Monte and cults practiced by the secret Abbakuá societies, are taken seriously. Called Santería, they can be admired or feared, but not permanently ignored. The practitioners of Afro-Cuban religions claim that people may remain distant from these beliefs until the day they are overcome by despair, and then they come knocking at the santero's door.

The religions brought over more than 500 years ago by African slaves, who made the sign of the cross in Catholic churches and continued to worship their orishas, or gods, in the darkness of their shacks, still hold sway in Cuba.

Ricardo Guerra, a short, robust man who left a bureaucratic position 10 years ago to devote himself full time to Santería, interrupts a ritual ceremony with a young initiate into the Yoruba religion to answer the telephone in his old, shored-up house in the humble Havana neighborhood of Lawton. "Elián a predestined one?" he says. "Maybe, but what is clear is that the boy brings well-being wherever he goes."

Fifteen minutes away by car, in Central Havana, Victor Betancourt, a babalawo, or priest, of the oracle Ifá, makes a bold prophecy. He states that Elián Gonzalez symbolizes the child who, in the santero oracle for the year 2000, conquered death when he discovered that the representative of evil owed his power to the suit he always wore. Therefore, whoever possesses Elián possesses good protection against sickness and death. "He is the chosen one, I'm sure about that," Mr. Betancourt concludes emphatically.

But Natalia Bolívar, a scholar of African religions, the author of "The Orishas of Cuba" and other books, and also a follower of the Palo Monte rite, denies that the shipwrecked boy has any theological connotations. "People have tried to impose symbolism on Elián that is simply unwarranted," she says.

In Cuba, a racially mixed country where 70 percent of the people believe in the Virgin of Charity most of the time -- but also scrupulously observe African rites when the Catholic priest, science and secular argument fail to promptly cure a disease, rein in a wayward husband or keep a job paid in dollars -- the situation of the shipwrecked boy Elián Gonzalez is of special interest to the santeros. (The interest is rather quiet, it is true, and respectful of political limits.)

Elián is not just an ordinary boy; for months he has been the No. 1 priority of the Cuban leadership. And governmental circles have always kept their ears open for what the santeros are prophesying with their seashells and pieces of coconut.

Although the custody case has been cast as a cold war dispute, the truth is that Elián has become a potent religious symbol -- both in Cuba and in Miami.

His rescue, after seeing his mother and nine others drown when their boat capsized trying to get to Florida, was itself a miracle. He survived 48 hours on an inner tube. The fishermen who rescued him spoke of swordfish leaping around the boy; but Elián repeated over and over that they were dolphins. The legend began to circulate that dolphins, mythical animals since the time of the ancient Greeks, had saved the little boy from the jaws of sharks.

In Miami, where his great uncle and other family members are waging their tenacious battle to retain custody of the boy against the expressed desires of his father, Juan Miguel González, the appearance of Elián has unleashed an epidemic of prophecies, most indicating that his arrival signals an imminent political change in Cuba -- the end of Fidel Castro's regime.

Beyond the familial, political and legal arguments being made publicly, an awareness of this line of thinking among its enemies may explain the Cuban government's obsession with repatriating the shipwrecked boy, going so far as to compare him to Ché Guevara and allowing the country to be paralyzed, day after day, by huge popular demonstrations.

But it is on the terrain of Santería where the greatest theological battle is being waged. In the santero bastions of exiled Cubans, they say that Fidel Castro is having problems with Elegguá, the leading orisha in the Yoruba pantheon, the one who "opens and closes" roads and often appears as a child. Guillermo Cabrera Infante, the well-known exiled Cuban writer, who is viscerally opposed to Fidel Castro, claims that Elián is a divine Elegguá, and if the boy remains in Miami, Mr. Castro will fall from power.

Ms. Bolivar does not agree. "The boy is a victim of circumstances, of a mother who took him away to find another kind of life," she says. "But he and his family have nothing to do with Fidel or the revolution."

Mr. Betancourt, who is president of the Ifá Iranlowo Society, one of the five houses of prophecy that produce annual predictions, says he does not believe in the association of Elián with Elegguá but does view the child as a redeemer. "We are almost certain, not to say categorically certain, that the boy does have a symbolic value," he said, "particularly when certain writings of Ifá affirm that the child-saviors from universal chaos always arrived by sea."

Whether or not Elián returns to Cuba, Mr. Betancourt said, the final result of his appearance will be positive "from a human point of view."

Mr. Guerra, while saying that Elián's remaining in Miami is a violation of international law, also insists that the boy "generates well-being wherever he goes."

Whether because of mystical power or considerations of political advantage, the fact is that after the uproar about Elián's case, the houses on the block where he lived in the impoverished city of Cárdenas, in the north of Cuba, were quickly painted, and his school, which had been in state of near ruin, was repaired. Some reports say that his relatives were moved to the nearby resort town of Varadero. His father, Juan Miguel, a cashier at a tourist center who lived better than the average Cuban, now rubs elbows with Fidel Castro and the island's ruling elite.

And in Miami, the members of the González family have become celebrities overnight. Politicians visit them regularly, an army of reporters has set up camp outside their modest house in Little Havana, and neighbors and sympathizers come with donations of toys, clothing, money and food. In only one week the Elián González Defense Trust Fund, organized to cover the boy's legal expenses, reportedly collected more than $240,000.

A sked if the boy is a predestined one, Mr. Guerra answers: "He may be, but that would be known more clearly after training to accentuate his powers. Without the required training a talent can be lost."

And what will happen to Elián?

"We would have to consult the oracle to give an opinion," Mr. Guerra said. "And that must be done in response to a request we have not yet received."

Roberto Cespedes is international editor of the Mexican newspaper La Reforma. Edith Grossman translated this article from the Spanish.

Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company



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