By PAUL HAVEN
Associated Press Writer
HAVANA - A panel of Afro-Cuban priests are predicting a year of social and political unrest, struggles for power, treachery and coups d'etat, and they say the world will see the death of an inordinate number of political leaders in 2010.
In the forecast announced Saturday, they recommended older leaders move aside and make room for the young, a politically delicate statement in a country that has been led by brothers Fidel and Raul Castro for more than half a century.
"The older generations should pass their experience on to young people because times change, and the younger generation is better prepared," said Victor Bentancourt, one of the island's leading Santeria priests, or babalawos. "Time is growing short" for such a change.
The priests announced their forecast following a secretive New Year's Eve ritual in which they performed religious chants and sacrificed chickens, goats and other animals.
A rival Santeria group, which enjoys official sanction from the government, came out with its own predictions later Saturday, saying 2010 would be a year of improving health.
Santeria, which mixes Catholicism with the traditional African Yoruba faith, is followed by many people in Cuba, where about a third of the 11.2 million population is of African descent.
The ceremony in Cuba is one of several New Year's religious traditions in Latin America. Indigenous shamans in Peru last week performed good-luck rituals for peace in 2010, asking for eased tensions between Venezuela and Colombia and for President Barack Obama to normalize U.S.-Cuba relations.
Mexico's "Brujo Mayor" or "Great Witch" is scheduled to announce his predictions on world events and celebrity affairs on Monday, and Venezuela's Santeria priests are expected to make their own New Year's predictions.
Cuba's communist government has tolerated Santeria and other religious practices for years, though it long denied religious leaders official recognition. In the 1990s the government began to allow greater religious freedoms, and today even some members of the Communist Party openly practice Santeria.
As the priests discussed their findings in a crumbling building on the outskirts of Havana, dozens of passers-by came to the front porch to examine a sign posted outside that announced the forecast - known as the "Letter of the Year."
As in past years, Betancourt and the other spiritual leaders declined to say what their predictions meant for the Castro brothers specifically, but their 2010 forecast for "Cuba and the world" would seem ominous for any octogenarian leader.
In their prediction for New Year's 2008, however, the priests warned of forest fires, war and an increased threat of robbery - but did not mention that the ailing Fidel Castro would step down as president.
Fidel Castro, 83, handed power over to Raul, 78. The elder Castro remains head of the Communist Party, and often comments on current events in essays published in the state-run media.
The priests said 2010 would bring "dramatic changes in the social order" and "an increase in the fight for power," as well as a "high number of deaths" of political, intellectual and religious leaders. To highlight their point, the priests wrote the word "POLITICAL" in all capital letters in a statement they read out.
They said the year could be summed up with the saying: "The King is dead; long live the King" the traditional shout announcing a monarchical succession.
The priests also warned that the year would bring "treachery and usurpation" at the highest levels of governments, and that there could be coups d'etat or other sudden political changes. They also warned of the threat of climate change, disease and war, among other things.
The priests said their religious ceremony revealed 2010 to be the year of Baba Eyiobe, a Santeria sign that means "double salvation," as well as the divinities Obatala and Oya.
According to Santeria teachings, Obatala is a female divinity responsible for the creation of human beings, as well as the patron of reason and intelligence. Oya is the goddess of storms and wind, as well as ancestral spirits.
In 2009, the priests predicted a year of conflict between neighboring countries and warned of the necessity to foment respect within families.
Another priest, Lazaro Cuesta, stressed that Santeria does not teach that the year end predictions are fated to occur, and that there is still time for the world to avoid the unrest and conflict forecast in the ceremony.
"The future is in all of our hands, from the youngest child to the most powerful leaders," he said.