A Revolution of Santeros

Armando.info publishes an excerpt from the extended edition of “Los brujos de Chávez” (Chávez’s warlocks and witches), the lauded book by David Placer, a Venezuelan journalist based in Spain, published in Venezuela by the publishing company Editorial Dahbar. The chronicle shows what could be the highlight of the Chavista Santeria, the exhumation of the remains of Simón Bolívar, ordered by the late president commander because he was determined to prove that the Liberator had been poisoned in San Pedro Alejandrino. From there, Placer cites episodes and talks with witnesses in Miami and Caracas, who claim that Chávez became a santero (practitioner of Santeria) before assuming the presidency for the first time in 1999. With his research, Placer completed a deliberately hidden aspect of the volcanic life of the leader of the Bolivarian process.

24 September 2017
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Bolivar's face was behind him, shadowing him, as was often the case. He wore a red shirt and a dark blue jacket, which looked black before the intense spotlights of the cameras. His voice was not the usual, because it seemed calmer. He breathed each syllable softly, as if he were trying not to wake someone who sleeps. Despite his intimate communication, he was addressing the entire country.

Father Bolívar. Bolívar. We have seen Bolívar. His rests. (The camera made close up of the face of the Liberator, which the painter wanted to capture tousled from the wind). I have had some doubts, of course. I am not the first throughout these years. But last night, when seeing the remains of Bolívar, my heart said "yes, it is me". And I remembered Neruda, looking at the skeleton, looking at the skull, looking at the space where the eyes were. And I asked him in silence, praying, that question of Neruda, of the great Pablo Neruda. I asked him: «Father, are you, or are not you, or who are you?» And Neruda himself answered me from the heart: "Yes, it is me, but I wake up every hundred years when the people wake up."

The Ayacucho hall, in the Presidential Palace of Miraflores, burst into applause. At that moment, his ceremonial ended, almost in a prayerful tone. And he returned to his facet as a battler, to the attack before the cameras.

Of course, since last night when I made public the information via @chavezcandanga, and later on when I told the ministers to broadcast live as at around two to three in the morning (...)on Twitter and some media started to say «Chávez is leading an act of witchcraft». They are sick. It's a disease they have. «Witchcraft, it is witchcraft». However, 80% to 90% of the messages where mostly from people spiritually touched, who were saying, "¡Viva Bolívar!" and "retweeting" the message that I had the idea to send, because men like Bolívar do not die. Those remains that are there are not dead. It is something like that work by the great Venezuelan writer Isaac J. Pardo called “Fuego bajo el agua”, they are fire under water, or that work by Miguel Otero Silva, “La piedra que era Cristo” (The stone that was Christ). That stone is Bolívar alive, alive in us, and alive in those we are fighting today because men like Bolívar transcended time.

He said it himself, my anguish will live in the future.

That night Hugo Chávez had met the bones of Simón Bolívar during a visit with a delegation that lasted more than three hours, according to a forensic expert who participated in the team. The professionals could see at all times what was happening in the main room through screens, but Chávez's visit was private. The screens were dyed black. The president wanted an intimate moment with the remains of Bolívar.

The whole skeleton was joined by silver and lead threads and protected with varnish, a careful work prepared by Dr. José María Vargas in 1843. At first glance, it could be observed that the father of the country had its teeth separated (diastemas, according to the forensic reports) and bowed legs.

From the reports it was learned that Bolivar ground his teeth and that the right centerpiece was suffering wear and tear, probably because the Liberator had the habit of placing a straw between his teeth. Two frontal teeth, one canine and one premolar were removed for the investigations. A part of a phalanx of the left hand, a rib and a sample of the left coxal was also extracted.

The samples would go to the Public Prosecutor's Office and the laboratories of the Venezuelan Institute of Scientific Research (IVIC) for DNA tests, as reported by the government. But doubts about the correct custody of the pieces began to emerge in the team of professionals. Would someone be able to keep a piece of bone to use it in a Palero ritual?

The rumor that Hugo Chávez practiced acts of santeria and witchcraft in the Miraflores Palace persecuted him during the last years of his life. Despite the criticism aimed at those who accused him of these acts, the scenario, the words used and the images of the exhumation that had been transmitted the previous day by national television at three in the morning, expanded the belief that the president was looking for something more than scientific explanations.

-It was a moment of public confession, an allout Palo rite (a santeria branch that practices rituals with human bones), the climax of the worship of the ancestors, the natives. Night belongs to the dead. All the santeros know this and Chavez also knew it. That is why he does it at dawn. It is part of the common of Venezuelans, talking to the dead. And he followed the archetype —explains Santos López, a renowned Venezuelan santero, who received financial support from local and regional Chavez governments for the celebration of FITA, an international event of African-American traditions organized between 2003 and 2008.

The main attraction of the celebration was the visit of some 500 public figures from around the world, santeria priests (babalawos), voodoos and witch doctors, who made spiritual consultations. And he received support from the mayor’s office of Maracay and the state government of Aragua, both under the chavista control. The injection of public money for the organization of this type of activity evidenced, at least, sympathy on the part of the government.

But rites and consultations can also be an excellent tool of political strategy. The military and security personnel close to the presidential circle attended the appointments of international santeros, attended their dances as public, but secret consultations were also held. From a hotel in the city of Maracay, in the center of the country, santeria priests gave political messages, interpreted the new national reality and dared to predict the future of the president. One of the predictions assumed that Chávez "would be very insecure."

The consequences were not long in coming. The close circle of the president asked López to explain that prediction and demanded clarification on the meaning of the term "insecurity." "Was it a coup, a conspiracy under way or security problems in the environment of the President?" López, a well-known santero even outside the borders of Venezuela, had to explain that it was simply a revelation of Ifa, the ancestral oracle of the Nigerian tribes to predict the future.

Hugo Chávez always knew how to join his personal life with that of the ancestors. After winning his first elections, on December 6, 1998, he decided that before the investiture, on February 2, 1999, he should start in Freemasonry. The great transformations that he had prepared for the country not only required all his effort and work, but spiritual help that, as he had heard, had also been used by Simón Bolívar.

The Santeros that were already in contact with Chávez had told him an extended historical version in the world of Santeria. According to this interpretation, when Simón Bolívar was in Haiti, hero Alexandre Pétion, ally of Bolívar and defender of the fundamental rights of slaves in America, initiated him in voodoo. There is no document or proof, only the oral tradition that Bolívar was bathed in the blood of a bull, an act that would have given him the strength to win in his battles. Many santeros rely on this story.

"Hugo Chávez wants to start in Freemasonry and has chosen this lodge to carry it out"

A few weeks before Hugo Chávez investiture ceremony, a group of soldiers approached a lodge of freemasons in area of Altamira, in Caracas. It was a small group headed by Hernán Grüber Odremán, emissary of the president elect and maximum leader of the second coup d'état against Carlos Andrés Pérez, on November 27, 1992. Grüber Odremán had made an appointment with the "venerable master" Fermín Vale, the spiritual leader of the lodge, to transmit a verbal request. "Hugo Chávez wants to start in Freemasonry and has chosen this lodge to carry it out."

Vale, a cousin of Chávez's former vice president and confidant, José Vicente Rangel, was "a master of early masonry" and had preserved the rules and rituals of the independence heroes. They were the first American leaders who had entered the spiritual paths to ask for help in their earthly wars. Hugo wanted to start in Freemasonry as similar as possible to how the liberators did it -according to that oral traditional story.

-Usually, the members of the lodge discuss the convenience or not of accepting a new member. But because of the investiture of the character, in that case there was little to discuss. The entrance was immediately accepted, says one of the former members of the lodge who prefers to remain anonymous.

But the group had strict rules to accept the applicant. And, among the conditions communicated to Grüber Odremán, was the isolation for a few hours of the president-elect from the military house guard who guarded him day and night. The rear admiral communicated the condition of the lodge but it was rejected by those who watched over the security of the future president. The surveillance ring was not willing to leave Hugo Chavez alone in the hands of four strangers. The lodge refused to allow the ritual to be witnessed by the military, so Chávez sought another option for initiation. The veteran masons are convinced that the chosen lodge was Sol de América, in the center of Caracas, to which the former mayor of Caracas and leader of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela, PSUV, Freddy Bernal belongs.

Bernal, ex-policeman and for many years a strong man of chavism, has left the front line of politics. Introverted, usually wears casual clothing: flannel and jeans. His body built shows that he participates in some sport or uses weight machines in gyms. He carries two cell phones attached to the belt and repeatedly checks for new messages or calls. Bernal's diction is peculiar. He pronounces the “s” in a similar way as the “c” and “z” is pronounced in Spain, which can confer him an innocent image that has little to do with the reality.

Bernal is a tough man, who shouldered the responsibility of organizing the Bolivarian circles during the years of greatest political tension in Venezuela, at the beginning of the last decade. Those groups were attributed the street handling of weapons, the intimidation of the opposition.

I approached Bernal in an act of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela, created as a support platform for Hugo Chávez. He accepted the questions. He does not place barriers, although he listens and observes with a cautious, almost of distrustful gesture. He does not deny his membership in the Mason group but does not confirm that Hugo Chávez requested an initiation ritual. Apart from the important decisions of the party, he avoids giving more information than necessary.

-I cannot assure or deny it. I do not know if he went there or not. I am a member of that lodge and what I can confirm is that we do not deal with political or religious matters, only philosophical issues -Bernal explains.

Since Hugo Chávez came into power in 1999, relations between Venezuela and Cuba began to strengthen. The military frequently travels to Havana to be trained and qualified, and trade and passenger numbers grow. The defunct Venezuelan airline Aeropostal had inaugurated two weekly flights to Havana on those days, Tuesdays and Thursdays. And since then, the airline management began receiving requests from high-ranking military.

-They wanted to travel to Havana for free. All received some type of training course: military intelligence and internal security, among many others. They asked me for free passages every time. And to avoid having problems with the government, we had to give them - explains Ramón Barrios, former vice president of Aeropostal , who accompanied Hugo Chávez during his first trips to Havana.

Helpful, respectful and even fearful of Santeria's reach, Barrios knew very well the operation of the air terminal and the government itself. He had also been one of the observers of Hugo Chávez's first party, Movimiento Quinta República (Fifth Republic Movement), MVR, in the 1998 presidential elections.   

Hugo Chávez had become the saint, i.e. he started in santeria in Cuba.

With the first years of Chávez in power, the boom in passenger traffic caused the airline to open an office in Cuba with six workers; three of them were practitioners of Santeria. When establishing a relationship of trust with the team, Barrios began to discover that the supposed training courses of the Venezuelan senior military had, in fact, a hidden purpose.

-I was told that the Venezuelan delegations were going to Pinar del Río for spiritual cleansing and to get start in santeria. Then they returned to Caracas with their necklaces and did not hide them; quite the opposite. The belief that if you had the Babalu Ayé bracelet (deity of the Yoruba religion) you were more attached to the revolution and you were better considered by your superiors spread, he explains.

When Hugo Chávez faced the first months of government, Aeropostal organized a meeting of businessmen in Cuba attended by the president. The event was held at the El Nacional hotel, next to the Habana Libre hotel. Barrios, a lawyer, criminologist and doctor of Law, assures that this trip was the one that tended the bridges between the Cuban santeros and Hugo Chávez and that it would transform the way of doing politics in the country.

-Six military men went there to became santeros (get started in santeria. I could say that Luis Miquilena and José Vicente Rangel also went there because the head of the Military House at that time had told me they were going to a secret meeting -he adds.

In a short time, a rumor permanently and insistently circulated among the elite as well as among popular classes. Hugo Chávez had become a santero, i.e. he started in santeria in Cuba. The Cuban santero Carlos Valdés, who fled in 1994 in a raft to Miami, claims to have witnessed the ceremony that initiated Chávez in Santeria in Cojimar, a town seven kilometers from Havana. He says he attended as an assistant in the ritual in which Chávez fed the saints, i.e. he made animal sacrifices for the Orishas.

The first approach of Hugo Chávez to the Cuban santeros occurred in a visit of the then candidate to the hotel Habana Libre where, according to Valdés, Hugo was invited to a meal.

- He loved the chicken that was served and asked to speak with the cook, named Apito, who was a homosexual and extremely gago (difficulty to articulate consonants). They had a connection and went from talking about food to spiritual topics. Apito, son of Eleguá, was babalawo -explains Valdés in a telephone interview from Miami.

The santero, known in South Florida among the Cuban community, explains that Chávez's initiation into that religion is no secret among the priests of Santeria from Eastern Havana. "It's an open secret," he says.

But another Cuban babalawo, residing in Miami, who was related to the chavism, says that the commander was initiated in the Palo branch (rituals with human bones) in the Military Academy of Caracas. «A goat was sacrificed for Eleguá, a goat for Obatalá, a goat for Ochún and also a ram, a hen and a duck», explains José Medina, Cuban babalawo who shows the first campaign poster of 1998 signed by Hugo Chávez, who referred to him as "a compatriot and a friend".

Medina agrees that the Babalawo Apito was the one who initiated Chavez in Santeria and assures that, after him, other senior leaders of Venezuelan politics like General Manuel Rosendo, former Defense Minister Lucas Rincon, and former Vice President Luis Miquilena followed.

In those days Aeropostal had 400 workers at the Simón Bolívar airport, and in less than a year, half began to wear completely white clothes and show without shame santero necklaces. It was the attire of initiation in this religion, inherited from the African slaves, but transformed in Cuba after five centuries of colonization and miscegenation. Employees began to refuse to wear the company's uniform and claimed to be able to dress according to their new beliefs. It was a religious subversion, or maybe a revolution.

Then Barrios, who had also practiced santeria years ago, showed his necklaces.

-If they see that you are a santero, they respect you much more as a boss.

It did not matter when and where. For the followers of the new religion that was powerfully spreading in Venezuela, there was no doubt about it. No refutation or official version was able to deny the forcefulness of the metamessages, the evidence of clothing and speech. It was irrelevant whether it was in Caracas or Havana, whether it was in 1994 or 1999. Everyone was convinced that Hugo Chávez had already become a santero.

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