Cuba Santeria priests mum on Castro, warn on climate

Havana, Cuba - Priests offering New Year's prophecies from Cuba's Afro-Cuban religion on Wednesday gave few hints on the future of convalescing leader Fidel Castro and instead warned about dangerous climate change and epidemics.

Many Cubans eagerly await annual predictions from the Santeria religion, which is practised by 3 million people in Cuba and uses animal sacrifices to contact Yoruba deities originally worshiped by slaves brought from Africa.

Santeria priests, known as babalawos, steered clear of politics in this year's prophecies, instead warning about an environmental crisis, disease and crime.

They noted an improving economy and said they planned sacrifices to better the lives of the majority of Cubans.

"The challenge at this historic moment is not a political challenge ... It is not a social challenge, but the challenge of nature," Victor Betancourt, a Havana priest, said at a news conference.

Fidel Castro has not appeared in public since handing power to his brother Raul after undergoing emergency stomach surgery more than 17 months ago.

While there was no direct reference to Castro in the Santeria priests' cryptic forecasts, many Cubans traditionally scan over the "letter of the year" for interpretations of how the government might develop.

Raul Castro's call for a review of the island's problems has fueled speculation about possible economic reforms to ease Cubans' struggle with high food costs and low wages.

Fidel Castro has only appeared in official photographs and pre-taped videos and it is not clear whether he will resume office. Most analysts say a smooth transition of power has already taken place.

His brother says Castro is recovering, consulted on key decisions and that Communist Party delegates back his nomination to run again for a National Assembly seat, a requirement for the presidency.

But in letters and statements, the older Castro has hinted he might not cling on to his posts but instead "contribute ideas" from his experience.

Santeria experts say the New Year predictions offer a glimpse into popular sentiment. This year's batch came after a meeting of more than 1,000 priests, including babalawos visiting from Venezuela, Peru and Italy. (Reporting by Patrick Markey in Havana; Editing by Kieran Murray)