BY Dalia Acosta
HAVANA, - Long dreadlocks stuffed into trademark red, black, green and yellow tams (knitted caps), which sometimes carry a symbol of an Afro-Cuban religion or even a U.S. flag, Bob Marley t-shirts and camouflage pants -- that is the typical look of Cuba's young Rastafarians, a growing urban presence.
The rastas of this socialist island nation are mainly found in Havana and tend to be young Afro-Cuban men from poor neighbourhoods, who seem to carry reggae music in their blood.
''People don't look on us kindly,'' Yosvany Reyes, a 27-year-old craftsman, told IPS. ''In Cuba people don't know very much about what being a Rastafarian means. They generally think we're dirty drug addicts or bums who just wander around the streets not doing anything.''
''They think we're like rock 'n rollers or rappers, people who just have a different look or have adopted different cultural codes. But being a Rastafarian is a way of thinking, a philosophy, another way of looking at life,'' he said.
Reyes can be seen just about every afternoon chatting with his girlfriend and three or four ''brothers'' on a bench in Parque Central, a busy park in Old Havana. He defines himself as a ''pure Rastafarian'', but says not all of the local rastas are like that.
''It's true that evil can be found in many people. There are young people who adopt the Rastafarian symbols as a way to make a living. They know that young black men who look like us are a great attraction for the tourists,'' he said.
Reyes complained that these ''false'' Rastafarians, who he said are often involved in prostitution and drug -- including cocaine -- rackets, are responsible for society's distorted image of the movement.
Rastafarianism is defined as a religion, philosophy, or world view. Since it emerged in the slums of another Caribbean island nation, Jamaica, in the 1930s, the movement has become truly international, winning followers throughout the Caribbean and the entire world.
Rastafarian communities believe that Haile Selassie I, emperor of Ethiopia from 1930 until his downfall in 1974 (he died the following year), was the incarnation of God on earth, the second messiah.
The Bible is their gospel, and they see Africa as the mother of life and birthplace of humanity. Their basic dogma includes black empowerment and a rejection of ''Babylon'' -- the white power structure.
Rastas also believe that Jah (God) can be found in every person, and they identify with reggae music as a symbol of spirituality and protest, especially since the days of legendary Jamaican Rastafarian singer-songwriter Bob Marley (1945-1981).
Rastas neither cut their hair nor comb it, based on an interpretation of the Bible, nor do they eat meat or consume drugs -- legal or illegal -- with the exception of marijuana, which they consider sacred. They reject homosexuality, abortion and birth control, and in traditional Rastafarian belief, women are subservient to men.
According to Katrin Hansing, an anthropologist at Florida International University in Miami, ''Not only is (Rastafarianism) now recognised as one of the leading Afro-Caribbean religions but also as one of the most popular cultural trends in the world.''
She points out that ''Rastafari communities and dreadlocked inspired youth'' can be found in Central America and Brazil, North America and Europe, many parts of Africa, and among the Maoris in New Zealand, Native Americans in the United States, and young people in Japan.
''The movement has been diffused in very unguided and haphazard ways through the medium of culture, particularly music, mediated via technology and consumer capitalism,'' says Hansing in her study 'Rasta, race and revolution: transnational connections in socialist Cuba'.
Hansing describes how Rastafarianism has been adapted, redefined and ''reinvented'' in Cuba in accordance with local circumstances.
As a cultural phenomenon, she adds, Rastafarianism is caught up in an ongoing process of 'Cubanisation'. According to the researcher, there are three manifestations of the movement in Cuba: the religious rastas, the philosophical rastas, and the rastas who are making a fashion statement.
Practically unknown a decade ago, Cuba's Rastafarians began to grow in number and visibility in the mid-1990s.
That decade witnessed a severe economic crisis in Cuba triggered by the loss of the country's main trading partners, the Soviet Union and east European socialist bloc; an opening up of the island to foreign tourism; and growing religious tolerance.
In a survey of Cuban Rastafarians headed by sociologist Angie Alejandra Larena, respondents complained of racial discrimination in Cuba, in the shape of stereotypes and prejudice towards blacks.
The rastas interviewed by Larena, a researcher with the government Centre for Psychological and Sociological Research, said they have no leaders, and are opposed to the monolithic character of the socialist system.
However, ''the heterogeneity, the different positions, the fact that they do not recognise internal leaders, and their scant weight in society in both quantitative and qualitative terms'' make it very unlikely that rastas will act in favour of social change, adds the researcher.
By smoking marijuana, the ''pure'' rastas are breaking the law. But what most worries Reyes is not the possibility of being arrested for smoking ganja, but the ''people who hang around, pretending to be rastas, to get money from the European'' tourists.
''They are responsible for the bad reputation we have in Cuba, and also for the lack of information. Sometimes, even among us we find people who don't really know what it's all about. They think it's just a question of not combing their hair,'' he complained.