Years ago a group of us headed down from the Venezuelan capital, to visit a friend's ancestral home in the country's interior. Over aged rum and playing cards, one member of our group -- a very proper Caracas society girl -- headed into the kitchen to fetch more ice for the table: A scream. Shattered glass. When we found her she was deathly pale, and crossing herself. Upon a decorative silver platter, the decapitated head of a small goat had been positioned as if to stare up at one from the icebox. Its eyes had been gouged out. And a laurel crown had frozen fast to its head.
Our host was mortified. "I am so sorry," he explained sheepishly. "You see I have an aunt who's a Santera and she sometimes uses the house for ceremonies. You know how it is. Every family has them."
Folk religion has always held an important place in Venezuelan culture. As early as 1953, the Cult of Maria Lionza, a tradition which celebrates the country's European, African, and Indigenous roots was deemed important enough for a statue of her to be erected at a primary intersection of Caracas' main highway. From a tall pedestal the goddess looms proudly over speeding cars: Bare-breasted astride a tapir, as would-be worshipers dart dangerously through speeding traffic to lay wreathes and gifts upon her.
Yet, Santeria itself -- like much else in today's Venezuela -- is a Cuban import. Although often lumped together with the homegrown folk religion by outsiders and even many Venezuelans, the practices are in fact quite different. Santeria is rooted in the traditions of Yoruba plantation slaves, whose practices and rituals were fused with the Roman Catholic beliefs and imagery of their masters. Unlike the Maria Lionza Cult, whose sacrifices tend to be material, Santeria shamans -- or babalawos -- conduct ritualistic animal sacrifices that can seem jarring or cruel to outsiders.
Santeria has long been a part of Venezuelan life, and for many years it has been unremarkable to see santeros, clad head-to-toe in white, carrying beads or small statuary and congregating together. For all that, though, the specific practices involved have long been kept underground. Yet what was once an embarrassing family secret to folks like my friend has recently become more mainstream under the Chávez Regime. Nowadays, even high profile Venezuelan role models like Major League Baseball's 2012 Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera, can be unabashed about their side occupations as babalawos. In some circles the practices have grown so in vogue that ordinary Venezuelans pay thousands of dollars for the honor of being trained and inducted in its rites.
El Comandante's highly vocal support for Indigenous and African cultural traditions within Venezuela, and his sometimes hostile relationship with the Roman Catholic Church, have done much to push the practice more into the mainstream, particularly among his supporters. And over the last several years, the arrival of numerous Cuban doctors and specialists, brought to Venezuela by the regime -- so as to replace Venezuela's own fleeing educated class -- has likewise been instrumental.
Now, as a result of the distress caused to many by his illness, things have just gotten weird -- even by the standards of jaded Venezuelans acclimated to their country's seemingly unending supply of magical realism.
On January 27 a captive ocelot was found mutilated [Warning: Graphic Image] in its cage at the El Pinar Zoo in Caracas, its front feet having been cut off presumably for ritualistic purposes. Its mate was also killed. (In the latest news on the incident, the ocelot, Felipe, seems to be recovering.) A week earlier, an arrested man in the State of Táchira explained to police that he had ritually sacrificed his own elderly mother because God had assured him that such a sacrifice would heal President Chávez.
As for Chávez himself, while identifying as Roman Catholic, he has expressed support in the past for the Santeria movement during public speeches. Some of his opponents have likewise claimed that, in seeking to cure his cancer, the president secretly turned to Santeria or worse. Among the most conspiratorially minded, Chávez's 2010 exhumation of Simon Bolivar was deeply tied to Santeria, and the president has been a secret babalawo all along, the unholy fount of his dark power and charisma...
The only thing that is certain is that the past years have been a time of deep fear and insecurity for Venezuelans. Crime is everywhere. And now a formerly over-communicative government has gone strangely silent. Under these stresses, individuals of all religious preferences and ideologies have been acting out. And such excesses among the Santero population, already misunderstood and distrusted by many, have been particularly visible symptoms.
We can hope that someday soon, a little certainty will return, and Venezuelans can rest a little easier. Ocelots as well.
Transitions is the group blog of the Democracy Lab channel, a collaboration between Foreign Policy and the Legatum Institute.