Spirits, Spies and Lies in Havana: Unwitting and Paranoid Entanglements Between Ethnographer and Field

Diana Espirito Santo


In this article I argue that caution, suspicion and even paranoia are natural outcomes, as well as processes generative, of the behaviour of knowledge and of knowing in the Cuban religious cosmos, and beyond it. “Knowers”, here, may be variably absent, invisible, or immanent in the social plane, which implies necessary, if temporary, vacuums of knowledge and of certainty. I start with an anecdote from my fieldwork in Havana, Cuba, among spirit mediums, of being accused by one of my interlocutors of being a spy for the Cuban government. I then reason that this paranoid “intrusion” into my self-definition was less a case of what went wrong but of what went right. Spirits of the dead are master instigators of both relations and fracturing suspicion between people, and the economy of Afro-Cuban religious knowledge is one with many absences and invisibilities, generating pervasive doubt and spiritual insecurity. In order to come to grips with this distressing accusation I had to reflexively reconstitute my own forms of extreme proximity with practitioners and their muertos (spirits), the ontological uncertainties that were implied by this proximity, and the role of non-living entities in the equations of everyday life, including mine.


Afro-Cuban religion; spirits; witchcraft; paranoia and suspicion; fieldwork

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