Can Santeria cure Hugo Chávez?

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.

Daniel Lansberg-Rodríguez is a fellow at the Comparative Constitutions Project and is a regular columnist for the Venezuelan daily newspaper El Universal. His Twitter handle is @Dlansberg.

Photo by STR/AFP/Getty Images


Hamada Saber and his daughter – the intergenerational politics of fear

What happens when you are the head of a poor household -- so poor that there is only a single room for you, your spouse, and your three children, ages 15 to 20 -- and suddenly, as you protest near the presidential palace, you become the victim of an abhorrent injustice that thrusts you into the national limelight? Or, to be precise, your naked body is being kicked by the police, hit with batons, and dragged from the limbs across the cold asphalt, all caught by a television camera and broadcast live to millions of homes.

The minister of interior expresses his regrets, promises an investigation, and you are transferred to a police hospital where you get arguably the best medical care you ever had. The police also promise, somehow, that they will help you find a job.

At the same time, senior officers hover above your head like malevolent angels of death, gently or not so gently pressuring you and your family to be quiescent. When your wife calls in on a widely-viewed TV-show, it's because she is "encouraged" by a police officer who works in the ministry's PR department. (When the show's producers try to call her back, they find the real owner of the phone to be a police officer.) Now it's your turn. From your Police Hospital bed, in presence of the same insignia that you saw, in a daze, when they pulled your trousers down the previous night and kicked you to the curb.

When they put a mic under your nose and stick a camera in your face, asking you to look at the blinking red light, what will you say?

And how will you be judged?

Hamada originally denied he had been assaulted by the police. He blamed protesters, saying that they attacked him in the belief (!!) that he was a policeman because he was dressed in black. His clothes were torn off, he said, as the police attempted to rescue him from the protesters. His wife, also interviewed at the hospital, spoke of the good care her husband had received in the police's care.

But the evidence was undeniable: After all, the video is clear. Those are policemen beating up the naked form crouching on the asphalt, right beside their armored vehicles.

It was so undeniable, in fact, that the police itself stopped issuing statements about the matter -- after having clumsily admitted guilt by expressing regret and promising to investigate the actions of some of their own -- and just let the victim read off their script.

Unfortunately, Hamada was mercilessly attacked by many protesters and members of the opposition, who accused him of selling out and urging him to stand for his rights. He nevertheless stood by his position -- and was soon followed by a prosecutor telling the same story.

More importantly, somebody else disagreed: Hamada's own daughter, Randa. 18-year old Randa decided to disagree with her father's position -- and very publicly. In a televised interview (Ar.), father and daughter argued violently, with his daughter denying his claims, accusing him of being under pressure, and exhorting him to say the truth. "Don't be afraid!" she repeated. "Say the truth! Who was beating you up, the government [i.e., the police] or the people? Isn't it the government?"

The next day it was the turn of his son Ahmed to contradict his father (Ar.), stressing that the family lived in dire conditions but ending on a different note: "My father is poorer than anyone could imagine... If you want him to tell the truth, get him out of the hands of the police."

Can we understand Hamada's fear? Undoubtedly, yes. Decades of instilled and deadly dread of uniforms, followed by such a traumatic event, are enough to make anyone compliant. It's important to remember that we do not know the extent of the threats or promises made to the man. We don't like it, but we should understand it.

The ray of hope in the story is that the next generation in his own family views things very differently. They do not fear the media, they do not fear pressure, and they do not fear the police. They've probably been bitten -- beaten? -- before. Perhaps they were close enough to the revolutionary burst of hopefulness that, like a nuclear explosion, it altered their citizen DNA, changing them into proactive, fearless people willing to stand up for their rights.

Hamada's fear of the police is proof that the revolution has not yet succeeded. Randa's courage is the reason it will.

As I finalize this post, I see on the news that Hamada Saber decided to retract his original testimony. Now he's going to accuse the police of beating him.

Mohamed El Dahshan is the Egypt blogger for Transitions. Read the rest of his posts here