PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) - Shaking bundles of pungent leaves and swaying to a frenzied drum beat, hundreds of Haitians flock to a temple to beg the spirits for U.S. visas and lucky lottery numbers.
At a time of deepening poverty and despair, many people in this Caribbean country see only one way out.
"Voodoo is Haiti's only hope," says Solange Patrice, a 19-year-old street vendor who took Wednesday off to make meager offerings of coins and candles at a voodoo temple. "We have nothing else — unless you're willing to risk your life to make it to the United States."
On Tuesday, more than 200 Haitians did just that, jumping from a ship that ran aground in Miami with the Coast Guard in pursuit.
The journey was one of hundreds each year by Haitians who brave the sea in rickety, overcrowded boats. Dozens have died in such attempts this year. And unlike Cubans who reach dry land, Haitian migrants usually are returned home.
"We are all desperate," said Marie Pierre, a 35-year-old vendor in Port-au-Prince's chaotic marketplace who sells leaves, candles and moonshine as offerings to the spirits.
The government blames the situation on the lack of international aid, suspended after the Lavalas Family party of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide swept flawed elections in 2000. Two years later, the country is locked in a political stalemate. Two-thirds of workers are unemployed and crime is on the rise.
Until foreign aid is restored, people will continue to flee to U.S. shores, said government spokesman Mario Dupuy.
But even in the best of times, Haiti is a country of scant resources, with much of its arable land ravaged by decades of deforestation.
For people who make do on less than a dollar a day, voodoo understandably has strong appeal.
"Voodoo has always been about survival when hope seems lost," said Laennec Hurbon, an anthropologist and author of several books on the religion that evolved in the 17th century when the French brought slaves to Haiti. "When people feel abandoned, that desperation manifests itself in voodoo."
On Tuesday at the Desermite temple, songs asking the gods for U.S. visas and lucky lottery numbers reverberated against the concrete blocks as believers stomped their feet. Some fell to the ground, believing they were possessed.
"Open the door for us if it is closed!" worshippers wearing brightly colored satin scarves sang in Creole as they waved white candles.
Practitioners believe in a supreme God and spirits who link the human with the divine, and who are petitioned by offerings that include everything from rum to roosters.
"Every day we make offerings and people come to see me," said Exilien Francois, 75, a voodoo priest or houngan. "Even though they don't have much to give me or the spirits, we will keep praying. We have to."
Voodoo, or Voudou, as preferrd by Haitians, only became recognized as a formal religion in 1987, under a new constitution that recognizes the rights of all religions. But this fusion of West African beliefs has long been seen as a path toward emancipation.
In 1791, an escaped slave named Boukman gathered thousands of followers in the forests of northern Haiti and sacrificed a wild boar. He pledged that with the spirits' help, he would liberate his people and free Haiti.
After 10 years of bloodshed, slavery ended and Haiti became the world's first black republic, making Boukman a hero and giving special prominence to the religion.
Slaves forced to practice Catholicism remained loyal to their African religions in secret by adopting Catholic saints to coincide with African spirits. The Virgin Mary became Erzulie, St. John became Ogun, a warrior spirit.
Still, voodoo worshippers were persecuted, with a church-led campaign in the 1940s leading to the destruction of temples and sacred objects. Voodoo only became recognized as a formal religion in 1987, under a new constitution that recognizes the rights of all religions.
Today, voodoo is an inseparable part of Haiti's rich culture of art, literature, music and film. Hymns are heard on the radio, and voodoo ceremonies are broadcast on television along with Christian services.