Cuban Rastafarians high on their religion and marijuana

Past the potholes and puddles, the skinny dogs and scampering children, a stone stairway snaked its way through an ancient apartment building. Near the top, a woman sat in her living room collecting the cover charge: 19 cents for Cuban women, 38 cents for men, $1 for foreigners.

It was a clandestine party organized by those who say they're the most persecuted members of Cuba's counterculture: Rastafarians.

"A great many Rastas are in jail," said Eligio Flores Ruiz, 32. "The government doesn't accept us. They say we're a threat to the revolution. They're bothered by the fact that we're free thinkers."

Government supporters deny that and say what bothers them is that Rastas break the law -- they smoke marijuana.

The Rastafarian movement began in the Jamaican slums in the 1930s. Believers say there's only one true God, the late Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie, formerly known as Ras Tafari. And they say marijuana, or ganja as they call it, helps them get closer to their inner spirit.

Cuban authorities don't tolerate marijuana and other illegal drugs. And traffickers can be sentenced to death in extreme cases.

Such perils don't stop some Rastas from lighting up at underground reggae parties.

These gatherings aren't advertised. Nor are they held at the same place every week. The sites are kept secret until the last minute to keep the authorities at bay. But police sometimes find out about them and raid the parties.

Rastas couldn't say how many there are in the country. There's no leader and no regular meeting place.

Instead, Rastas find each other on the street, where many struggle to survive.

Ruiz makes bead necklaces for a living, selling them for $2 and $3 each to tourists.

Asked why he became a Rasta, he shrugged. "I don't know -- a way to feel freer, I guess."

Still, he and others complain there isn't much tolerance for their way of life.

Some believe they're discriminated against because they have dark skin and wear their hair in dreadlocks. Others say the police just have trouble accepting people who are different.

What Cuba needs is to open up, said one Rasta, sipping a mojito in Old Havana.

"If Cuba had just a breath of freedom, it would take off in a fraction of a second," he said.

Fed up with the pace of change, some Rastas only want to leave.

Ruiz did get off the island once. By chance, he and three Rasta friends were aboard a ferry that was hijacked in April 2003.

He said he hadn't planned to leave, but quickly accepted his circumstances and was ready to start a new life in South Florida.

Fate intervened. The ferry ran out of fuel, and Cuban authorities captured the hijackers. Three were executed after summary trials.

Ruiz wasn't charged.