The Chicago Tribune
At the beginning of each year, Afro-Cuban religious leaders gather to forecast the events of the next 12 months, the Tribune’s Gary Marx finds
Gary Marx is the Tribune’s Havana correspondent

HAVANA — President Bush may be leading all his would-be challengers in the polls, but a prominent Afro-Cuban religious leader says the Republican is likely to lose his re-election bid this autumn.

That’s only one of a handful of bold predictions made by Victor Betancourt as part of an annual event in which Afro-Cuban priests divine what’s in store over the next 12 months.

Betancourt said 2004 could find President Fidel Castro stepping aside after 45 years in power. He sees the risk of a sharp drop in the U.S. stock market, trouble for the world economy, a strong possibility of a terrorist strike in the U.S. and continued bloodshed in Iraq.

He also said there is a “tremendous possibility” that the 4-decade-old U.S. trade embargo against Cuba could be lifted or rendered ineffective.

“This is a year to be very, very careful because it is possible that great chaos could be unleashed on a universal level,” Betancourt warned.

Just before each new year, Betancourt and scores of the island’s most senior Afro-Cuban religious leaders gather to sacrifice chickens, goats and other animals and read sacred seeds to help forecast the upcoming year’s events.

The secret, three-day ceremony ends in the Letter of the Year, a terse, typewritten document that lays out the pluses and minuses of the next 12 months and explains the conduct, prayers and sacrifices needed to please the Afro-Cuban divinities.

Some of the suggestions this year make good moral sense, such as avoiding “indecorous conduct with the goal of acquiring money.” Other recommendations are a little more esoteric to those who do not follow Santeria and other Afro-Cuban religions with a wide following.

The 2004 letter calls for praying to Elegua, the god of destiny, with a roasted sweet potato smeared in palm oil. It also recommends that heads of households participate in a cleansing ceremony using blood and feathers of white guinea fowl.

“The letter is always very accurate,” said Natalia Bolivar, a scholar of Afro-Cuban religions who has tracked each year’s predictions since 1955. “When the religious leaders tell people to do sacrifices, they do them so that they will have a very good year.”

Bolivar said the 1957 letter foretold that Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista would face assassination. Upon hearing the news, Batista built a secret escape door in the Presidential Palace and slipped through it several months later when armed revolutionaries stormed the building and narrowly missed him, she said.

“The people who reached his office said his coffee was still hot,” Bolivar recalled.

She also said the 1994 letter predicted that “the dead would not be buried.” Later that year, tens of thousands of desperate Cubans tried to float on rafts to U.S. shores. Many of them drowned, and their bodies never were recovered.

Skeptics say the predictions contained in the annual letter are often so vague and universal that they are likely to be realized no matter what happens during the year.

The letter said 2004 will bring an “increase in the struggle for power,” the “removal of officials from office” and the “deaths of elderly religious and public personalities.”

The letter does not mention Bush’s political fate, Iraq or any leader or nation by name. Betancourt gave his own spin in a separate interview.

Still, even Cubans who are not strong believers in Santeria pay close attention to the letter, especially for any sign of what it may mean for their Maximum Leader.

A buzz rippled through the island last year after the letter predicted that “the king will turn in his crown before he dies.”

“Every year it seems people interpret the letter as if this is the year Fidel will die,” one believer said. But other Cubans believe Castro has remained in power so long because he has the protection of the Afro-Cuban deities.

Bolivar said the annual letter began at the end of the 19th Century, but in recent years the island’s Santeria priests–known as babalawos–have split into two rival groups, each announcing its own set of annual predictions each January.

“I read the letter to see what the year is going to be like,” said Alfredo Serrano, 55, a telephone worker who had just finished skimming the document. “If you follow the letter’s advice, you won’t have any problems.”

Copyright © 2004, Chicago Tribune

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