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FAITH MATTERS: Hugo Chávez, Simon Bolivar and the 'cult' of Maria Lionza

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By Uwe Siemon-Netto

In the late 1970s, Princeton historian Bernard Lewis came across Ayatollah  Khomeini’s short book, “Islamic Government,” which later became known as the Islamic cleric’s “Mein Kampf.” It detailed what Khomeini planned  to do with his country once he came to power. “I tried to bring this to the attention of people here. The New York Times wouldn’t touch it,” Lewis told the The Wall Street Journal. Underestimating long-term strategies of sinister leaders seems endemic in the Western media. The quasi-religious fervor with which Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez pursues his plan to resurrect Simon Bolívar’s empire, Grand Colombia, is largely overlooked.

When in 1999 Venezuelans elected left-winger Hugo Chávez as their new president, word spread among the wizards of the syncretistic Maria Lionza cult that the revered Bavarian warlock Klaus-Dieter Nassall had proclaimed him Simon Bolívar reincarnate who would do wondrous things for his nation.

Hugo Chavez is often photographed with the portrait of Simon Boliva in the background.

Soon Chavez’s busts began adorning the altars of Maria Lionza temples in the barrios of Caracas and other major cities, alongside images of the Holy Trinity, the Virgin Mary, the archangel Michael assorted Catholic saints, Viking warriors and other idols nobody else has ever heard of, such as some peculiar figures wearing top hats and post-Victorian attire.

The victory of this former lieutenant-colonel seemed to confirm a prophecy by Beatriz Veit-Tané, a self-proclaimed high priestess of Maria Lionza.  She predicted in 1967 that in the year 2000 “a messenger of light will rise from the humble classes” to resurrect Gran Colombia, Bolivar’s short-lived creation. It consisted of present-day Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Panama and Bolivia, but collapsed shortly before Bolivar’s death in 1830. To restore Gran Colombia was also one of the political goals of the FARC, Colombia’s lethal, kidnapping, cocaine-trafficking Communist guerilla movement whose leaders proclaimed Chávez as the quintessential “Bolivarian officer.” It seems fitting that before he came to power, Chávez always kept an empty chair for Bolívar at board meetings of his Socialist Party.

In the last dozen years Chávez has craftily cobbled together a left-wing alliance of Latin American countries that might well became the base of a future, much larger Gran Colombia. It includes Bolivia, Argentina and Nicaragua, lending some credence to the sinister statement by Antonio Osuña, the “brujo” (medium) of a Spiritist temple in El Carpintero outside Carácas, “Today he’ll own Venezuela, tomorrow the entire world,” reminding me eerily of a Nazi slogan I had heard in my childhood: “Heute gehört uns Deutschland, morgen die ganze Welt” (today we own Germany, tomorrow the whole world).

Osuña later became “quite angry with Chávez,” according to Angelina Pollack-Eltz, an Austrian ethnologist and Maria Lionza authority who had lived in Carácas for decades; this month she returned to her native Vienna for good. Life in Venezuela was now “zu ungemütlich,” too uncomfortable, she explained. In the last few years it had become too dangerous for her to enter the barrios for research; “Maria Lionza is now a wholly evil cult.”

Yet a powerful cult it is. According to Rainer Mahlke, another German scholar, one-third of Venezuela’s 22 million citizens is at least “passively involved” with this religion, which is based on the teachings of the 19th-century French schoolteacher Léon Dénizarth-Hippolyte Rivail (1804-1869). Writing under the nom de plume of Allan Kardec, Rivail taught that souls, while in transit from one body to the next, could be appealed to for guidance.

Since the late 19th century, Rivail has had a significant influence on mystical circles in Europe, Australia and the Americas, where members of the bourgeoisie conducted séances in darkened rooms making spirits opine on contemporary affairs. If this superstition calmed down a trifle during World War II and its aftermath, it returned with a vengeance after the 1960s when New Age rescued Kardec from oblivion. Societies bearing his name sprang up in every western country where his standard work, The Spirits’ Book, can be downloaded from the Internet in many languages.

In Venezuela, Kardec-style spiritualism filtered down to the poor and crime-infested slums where it mixed with folk Catholicism and tribal religions. Hundreds of thousands are now actively engaged in this cult in whose temples the departed allegedly take possession of mediums puffing liturgical cigars and drinking astounding amounts of liquor, usually cheap rum but on rare occasions also fine cognac or sweet champagne.

Cognac must be fed to a medium by anyone hoping to be possessed by Bolivar himself. The faithful call upon him for advice on political and legal matters, though Mahlke informs us that when you try to invoke the “libertador” you can never know who might show up. It could be John F. Kennedy, or Hitler, or Stalin rather than Bolívar.

As for the sweet champagne, well, that’s the favorite tipple of Maria Lionza who gave the cult its name. As Venezuelan lore has it, she was the fair-skinned, green-eyed daughter of a Jirajara Indian chief centuries ago. At her birth, a shaman advised the chief to kill this child at once, lest she unleash calamity upon her people.

Instead, the chief ordered his best braves to raise his daughter away from the tribe near a lagoon guarded by an anaconda. Alas, the reptile fell in love with the girl and gobbled her up when she resisted its advances. As a result, the snake grew and grew, squeezing the water out of the lagoon. The water flooded the Indian settlement and drowned the tribe, fulfilling the shaman’s warning.

Then the anaconda burst. Out popped Maria Lionza. It seems that she looked just like – centuries later — Spanish-born empress Eugenie of France, the wife of Napoleon III. At least this is how Venezuelan artists have been portraying her ever since Kardec’s teachings became the rage of Venezuela’s elite just about the time when Napoleon III and Eugenie were sent into exile after losing the Franco-Prussian War in 1871.

To her worshipers, Maria Lionza, Eugenie’s look-alike, is of course still in power as queen of all nature, of game and fish, forests and rivers, ranches, coffee and tobacco plantations. With a crown glistening in her luscious brown hair, she is the Madre Reina, the queen mother heading a trinity called “Las Tres Potencias,” or three powers.

Her partners are Guaicaipuro, the ferocious Indian chief who fought the Spanish conquerors in the 16th century, and Pedro Camejo, Bolívar’s faithful general also called Negro Primero. Each represents the principal races in Venezuela. Guaicaipuro is brown, Camejo black, and Maria Lionza, though allegedly the daughter of an Indian chief, has nevertheless the alabaster skin of a Spanish noblewoman – for that’s what Empress Eugénie was born as.

This is not to say that these three outrank Christianity’s triune God. Angelina Pollack-Eltz saw Maria Lionza rather as a “utilitarian cult” that does not presume to be an alternative to Catholicism but rather a supplement. The God of Christianity is the master of the universe to be worshiped in church, no question about that.

But the other trinity – Maria Lionza, her two colleagues and their entire pantheon – used to help in sickness, affairs of love, and matters of terrestrial power. It is before these ghosts that the faithful brought sinister desires they dared not bother to trouble God with, such as their lust for affluence on earth and even their dark wish to wreak misfortune on an adversary. “Now I understand that they are only approached with evil wishes.”

Maria Lionza appears seldom at séances, giving advice to the faithful through a medium intoxicated with sweet champagne. On one of these rare occasions she evidently counseled a shop apprentice by the name of Eugenio Mendoza, Klaus-Dieter Nassall related. “The Madre Reina’s counsel bore fruit. It made Mendoza an industrialist and one of Venezuela’s richest men – the nation’s ‘king of concrete.’” Not surprisingly, he remained a fervent Maria Lionza follower until his death in 1979.

Here of course ends the analogy with Hugo Chávez, who in a confusing spiritual role-swapping exercise sometimes appealed to Simon Bolivar’s guidance, and sometimes proclaimed that he was Bolívar incarnate himself, according to Maria Lionza students interviewed in Caracas a few years ago. Now, says Angelina Pollack-Eltz, it seems that this left-wing opponent of free enterprise has lost his passion for a cult that made people rich. Though his busts can still be found on Maria Lionza altars, a chair held empty for Simon Bolívar no longer seems a feature of the Chávez regime whose ideological models are Fidel Castro and Ché Guevara and whose international friends include Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Libya’s Muammar Gadhafi.

Uwe Siemon-Netto, the former religious affairs editor of United Press International, has been an international journalist for 54 years, covering North America, Vietnam, the Middle East and Europe for German publications. Dr. Siemon-Netto currently directs the League of Faithful Masks and Center for Lutheran Theology and Public Life in Irvine, California.

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