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Santeria priests decline Castro prediction

By Anthony BoadleTue Jan 2, 3:40 PM ET

High priests of Cuba's dominant Afro-Cuban religion declined on Tuesday to venture any predictions regarding the health of ailing leader Fidel Castro but recommended the sacrifice of a goat to contribute to social peace on the island.

Cuba began the year in a climate of uncertainty due to the prolonged absence of Castro, who has not been seen in public for five months.

The bearded leader, 80 and in power since a 1959 revolution, handed over the reins of government to his brother Raul Castro July 31 following emergency surgery to stop intestinal bleeding.

In their annual prognostications, the priests of the Santeria religion, known as babalawos, saw heightened danger of epidemics, military intervention and increased espionage in 2007.

But they also predicted improved economic health for the communist-run nation and saw reforms in agriculture that would improve deficient food supplies for the average Cuban household. They urged more oil explorations.

"The outlook for the year is pretty gloomy," Lazaro Cuesta, a babalawo who organizes the annual predictions, said at a news conference. "We are appealing for common sense to prevail."

Many Cubans hope the younger Castro, 75, will introduce economic reforms to deal with day-to-day hardships they have faced since Cuba lost billions of dollars in subsidies when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

Raul Castro, a low-key defence minister who has long lived in the shadow of his brother, has set about dealing with the main problems Cuban complain about: high food prices, poor public transport and dilapidated housing.

"Change is coming whether this government is there or not. The changes we see do not depend on political change," said Victor Betancourt, a babalawo from central Havana who sees a relaxing of state controls over small private businesses.

Betancourt recommended that Castro's doctors be very careful to avoid complications in his condition through infection, "so that his recovery may have a happy ending."

Santeria uses animal sacrifice to communicate with Yoruba deities worshiped by slaves who were brought from Africa. As many as 3 million people are believed to be involved in Santeria in Cuba, according to religious experts.

The annual predictions offer an insight into popular sentiment in Cuba, said anthropologist Natalia Bolivar, the country's leading expert on Santeria.

"This is a very critical moment of change in our country, and we have to have faith in our ability to build a better future," she said.
 
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