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A new cold war

A new cold war

Roseann Lake, The Economist’s Cuba correspondent, consults a fortune teller in Havana

Roseann Lake, The Economist’s Cuba correspondent, consults a fortune teller in Havana

Roseann Lake | December/January 2019

Magaly disappears into her kitchen and returns with six small containers, each a different size. Some are white, plastic pill bottles and others resemble glass, baby-food jars. “Ex-lovers, evil bosses, meddlesome mothers-in-law – they all live in my freezer,” she says: “We write their names on a small piece of paper, put the paper in the jar and we freeze them.” For exceptionally unpleasant people, she adds a few tablespoons of ground coffee beans. “I really need to start throwing out these jars. We freeze them and people forget all about them, but they pile up.” Freezing troublesome people is a central part of Magaly’s job as a Cuban cartomántica, or fortune-teller.

“Mueve,” (shuffle) she says, handing me a deck of beautiful tarot cards that are wilted from regular use. Unlike many women who whisper fortunes into the ears of tourists from the corners of old Havana’s most iconic squares, Magaly doesn’t wear a turban or surround herself with a small army of colourful cloth dolls. Instead, she is preparing to divine my future wearing a black baseball cap, yoga pants and a sparkly, Calvin Klein-logo T-shirt.

With her black cat splayed out on the table in front of us, Magaly examines my cards. After giving several sunny updates about different things happening in my life, she stops. “Someone is trying to do you harm,” she says. “They are behaving irrationally and accusing you of things that are untrue.” I nod. I hadn’t expected Magaly to pick up on this, but she’s right. “We’ll take care of it,” she says. She offers me a jar, but I decline. Cuba is short of basic goods, including vessels to store things in, so I didn’t want to contribute to the squeeze. Instead, promising to do as she said, when I was back in New York a few weeks later I dug out a small jar. The person who’d given me trouble now lives in it under a generous dusting of coffee beans, shelved between two packs of frozen broccoli. They have been quiet ever since.

My freezer is probably not the reason for the ensuing calm. Like many people, I enjoy the allure of rituals and the mystique of fate, luck and fortune, even in this age of scientific thinking and rational analysis. From the I Ching or the entrails of sacrificed animals to the Magic 8-Ball, the desire to divine the future has persisted for centuries.

World leaders from Adolf Hitler to Juan Perón and Hugo Chávez have famously sought the advice of soothsayers and mediums, often with tragic outcomes. The presidency of Park Geun-hye of South Korea nearly collapsed in 2016 after a person who local journalists described as a “shaman” was found to be influencing cabinet appointments and foreign-policy decisions (Park was impeached the following year). Ne Win, former dictator of Myanmar, was so obsessed with astrology that he issued currency in “lucky” denominations and withdrew notes in “unlucky” ones, an act that left millions of people in poverty and contributed to his ousting in 1988.

From Hong Kong to Wall Street, many feng shui masters and astrologers are paid handsomely to provide the kind of investment intelligence that some believe can’t be found in economic forecasts. Celebrities including Brad Pitt, Patrick Swayze and Cameron Diaz have also reportedly consulted fortune-tellers.

I continue to visit Magaly from time to time. Her other clients are a mix of Cubans and expats. I know at least one Google executive who has gone to see her too, inquiring about the fate of several bids the company had made in the hope of improving internet connectivity on the island. “Está complicado,” says Magaly. She suggested that he offer a generous serving of chicharritas to Yemayá, a water deity who is revered in Cuba. Magaly and the Google executive fried up some plantains in her enchanting kitchen full of frozen receptacles and took a taxi to the Malecón – Havana’s iconic seaside promenade – to scatter them into the water. If Cuba ever goes online, we’ll know why.