Thursday, June 12, 2008

High Strangeness in High Office: Paranormal Politics

High Strangeness in High Office: Paranormal Politics
By Scott Corrales
(c) 2003

The popular mind has always imagined that kings, dictators and other men and women of great power achieved their status and fame through means not available to most mortals, or if not, that they have availed themselves of the dark arts to remain ensconced in their lofty positions. Our personal vanity cannot conceive, in many cases, that our fellows may have achieved their stations through personal effort and merit, so the thought that they may have had a little assistance in getting there is always suggested.

In Greek legend, King Gyges's superiority was owed to a magic ring that granted him invisibility and thus the ability to detect conspiracies and spy on his adversaries; King Solomon's own ring enabled him to understand the language of birds, and receive messages unknowable to humans; Egyptian pharaohs and Aztec monarchs were surrounded by powerful court wizards. More recently, Napoleon Bonaparte and Charles XII of Sweden were rumored to have similar paranormal aid in furthering their imperial aims. Elected leaders have resorted to dealing with soothsayers, fortune tellers and spiritists, ranging from the séances held by Mexican president Francisco I. Madero to President Reagan's involvement with astrology.

Yet in our age of spaceflight, computers and virtual reality, can we still believe in such things?

The Dictator's Sorceror

An Associated Press story which appeared in August 2003 ("Saddam's Wizard tells of a man obsessed with magic") told the world that Middle Eastern strongman Saddam Hussein, whose twenty year rule over Iraq came to a crashing end in April of this year, had been known to consult a "wizard" on a regular basis -- a practice forbidden by Islam, as is involvement with any type of witchery.

Living in the desert town of Heet, the wizard, who refused to have his name used in the AP story and "would not even pronounce the name of the man he once served" was merely one of apparently thousands of such magic-users in Iraq, and had provided aid not only to the strongman but to his relatives and hangers-on.

Hussein was "a firm believer in magic" in the words of the nameless wizard who went far beyond being the passive client that such political dabblers in the occult tend to be: the Butcher of Baghdad "studied the sands" and was able to summon up genies. Nor was the nameless wizard his sole advisor: the article mentions that Hussein had a considerable "bullpen" of sorcerers living India, Turkey and as far west as Morocco (where a woman described as "a beautiful Jewish witch" offered her expertise). It may be surmised that Hussein was not overly concerned with flouting the strict religious ban on sorcery: after all, didn't the holy Qur'an say that Sulayman (Solomon) had used genies and other spirits on a regular basis to build not only the Temple in Jerusalem but other structures?

At this point in the story the reader may well do a double-take, but the strangeness quotient is still on the rise.

The reason that Allied forces have been unable to capture Saddam Hussein, despite earlier successes with the dictator's sons Uday and Qusay, resides in the fact that the deposed dictator keeps with him two "magic-infused golden statues" and the fact that Hussein has daily conferences with the "king and queen of genies" The belief in genies, and the availability of spellbooks to bind them and gain service from them, is widespread throughout Iraq, where half of its twenty-four million citizens are believed to practice some sort of magic. One magician quoted in the Associated Press story noted that it was more convenient to obtain the services of angels, since genies "lie 75 per cent of the time".

Did such lying genies inform the dictator incorrectly about the outcome of the U.S.-led invasion and the end of his regime? No matter. Saddam has a powerful talisman implant under the skin of his right arm--described as either a potent stone or "the bone of a parrot" to protect him against bullets and inspire feelings of love in others.

Hussein appears not to have limited his interest in the occult to his sorcerous advisors: Baghdad University has a parapsychology department whose creation was ordered by the dictator himself "to help him wage psychological warfare during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war and later to mind-read U.N. inspectors searching for weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq.

Caribbean Magic and Mystery

Fidel Castro's association with the supernatural has been mentioned in a number of works, both pro and con. An illuminating article entitled Power Games: Fidel Castro and Cuba's Secret Societies by Mexico's Dr. Rafael A. Lara states that Castro was consecrated at an early age to the African deity who saved him from certain death at the age of six. A servant in the Castro household told the ailing Fidel's mother that if she really wanted to save young her son's life, the boy had to be rayado en palo (consecrated to the Palo Mayombe cult). During the course of the child's initiation ceremony, the mother was told that lines on the boy's palm marked him with the destiny of a person who would change the world, and who would not die. Castro was consecrated to Ayaguna, one of the sixteen manifestations of the supreme god Obatalá.

During their stay in Sierra Maestra, Fidel and his brother Raúl were resguardados (magically protected) by means of talismans created out of local plants and products made by the native women known as "serranas." One condition imposed by this sorcerous protection was that after they had triumphed, the talismans had to be given back. Afro-Cuban cults have never been considered troublesome by the Cuban regime--what is more, the figure of Fidel and the Cuban Revolution relied from the start on the "blessing" of the Orishas. The Revolution's victory, on January 1st, 1959 coincided with San Manuel's Day, which is sacred to santeros.

The colors black and red, used by the Movimiento 26 de Julio, are the colors of Eleguá, the God of Destiny whom, according to Santería, opens and closes the gates of happiness and misfortune. When the Revolution triumphed, a white pigeon landed on Castro's shoulder as he was delivering a victory speech. Santeros considered this a clear sign from the gods: Fidel had been chosen to lead Cuba.

It is important to bear in mind that Castro visited Nigeria during the 1970s, where he was initiated by Nigerian leader Sekou Touré. Castro returned to Cuba with a number of prendas (objects of power) from Nigerian shamans. The sacrifice of animals sent from Africa by Sekou Touré for magical purposes was commonplace. When these were not available, Holstein bulls imported from Canada were used to "nourish" Castro's prendas in order to both preserve and augment their power. René Vallejo--Castro's physician and a dedicated spiritualist who became a santero before his death--was a predominant influence on Castro's life. This influence manifested itself in the tolerance of Afro-Cuban cults and protection given to both santeros and "paleros".

The Cuban leader's life appears to revolve around the number 13. No fewer than 10 fundamental events in his life are linked to this number: he was born on a 13th; his entry into politics came about at age 26 (13 + 13); he was born in 1926 (13 + 13); his assault on the Moncada barracks took place on July 26 (13 + 13); his movement was known as the "July 26 (13 + 13) Movement".

What the Witch Doctor said...

Any mention of witch doctors conjures up visions of rather frightening masks available in curio shops and slapstick movies in which the protagonists must elude these magic-users in some jungle. But "witch doctors" exist and in some countries are closely allied to those having political power. In describing the powers wielded by these sorcerers, Jacques Bergier noted that they "have access to medicines unknown to us, such as a product that cures diabetes; an antidote against snakebite,...and the knowledge of very efficient poisons which work on contact".

In his book La guerre secrete de l'occulte (Paris: J'ai Lu, 1978), this French scientist and student of the esoteric relates a conversation he sustained with President Tombalaye of the Saharan republic of Chad. Bergier describes Tombalaye as an elderly professor and a firm rationalist whose belief system began to change shortly after ascending to his country's highest office.

On his first day in the presidency, a committee of witch doctors brought him a strange liquid product which would supposedly heighten the president's telepathic abilities. The wizards' potion was never analyzed, but was believed to be "a mixture of alkaloids with some other mineral product". Tombalaye was pleased to demonstrate to Bergier the liquid's efficacy by reading a document that was contained within a sealed envelope, which was small stuff compared to the ability to ferret out his political adversaries' hiding places. The former academic considered the witch doctors to be an authentic source of political power.

It must be noted, however, that Tombalaye's sorcerous allies weren't quite as good as the other coterie of magicians who overthrew the president's government -- something that for all of his foresight, he had been unable to predict.

Nor should the reader be lulled into thinking that the role of witchcraft in Africa's political scene is diminishing: quite to the contrary, Peter Geschiere, author of The Modernity of Witchcraft ?? Politics and the Occult in Postcolonial Africa (Univ. Press of Virginia, 1997) discovered that politicians in Cameroon were relying even more heavily on the sorcerers known as ngangas than ever before; the knowledge that local strongmen were aided by such supernatural puissance caused a sense of apathy toward the political process among the average man, who realized that there was no way to defeat an oligarchy so well "protected".

But the perception, as this anthropologist would discover, is reciprocated by Cameroonian bureaucrats, who felt that government initiatives were thwarted by village sorcerers displeased with the notion of change, whether in the form of highways or new waterworks.

There are times when the paranormal, rather than merely being at the service of the political, seeks to acquire its powers. In 1960, a Brazilian radio personality by the name Moab Caldas decided to seek the aid of that nation's burgeoning spiritist community in attaining elected office. Thousands of believers in Spiritism gladly gave Caldas their vote, and would have appeared at his swearing-in ceremony wearing the white garb of a practitioner of Umbanda, had he not been sternly admonished not to do so. Caldas became famous for invoking his spirit guides during parliamentary sessions, but even this otherworldly assistance didn't serve him well. Like Tombalaye in Africa, he was removed from office by a military junta.

Rusty Knives and the Executive Branch

When a prominent Brazilian politician visited "the surgeon of the rusty knife" -- Zé Arigó, one of the most astonishing psychic healers of the 19th century -- eschewing the advice of his own physicians, the story spread around the world. Politicians have never been averse to employing the services of faith healers for themselves or their relatives (could there be a more vivid example than that of the Russian monarchy's support of Rasputin?), although some of these accounts are little-known and must be rescued from oblivion.

One of the most startling involved Mexican president Plutarco Elías Calles, who governed our neighbor to the south in the 1920s. There is a curious footnote to the life of this post-Mexican Revolution president: Calles was the son of Elías Calles, one of three camel-drivers recruited by the U.S. Army during its abortive experiment involving the creation of the "U.S. Camel Corps" in the 19th century.

Even more curious than his pedigree would be his involvement with one of Mexico's most revered and powerful faith healers: Fidencio S. Constantino, better known as Niño Fidencio ("the child Fidencio"), venerated as a true saint throughout the southern U.S., Mexico and as far south as Colombia. Readers interested in the life of this healer will find ample sources of material on the Internet.

It was said that President Calles suffered of "a shameful disease" and that the faith healer was his last best hope. On February 8, 1928, the presidential train arrived at the dusty town of Espinazo in the state of Nuevo León, where Niño Fidencio treated hundreds of patients on a daily basis. Although Calles traveled with a small retinue, an ocean of well-wishers awaited him at his destination. Brass bands made up of madmen and lepers--Fidencio's patients--played martial airs while the Mexican flag was waved by others who would more than likely not live to see the next day, but would die contented with having seen their corner of Mexico visited by the president.

After a cordial greeting, the healer and the first citizen vanished into a room. Details of the treatment are still unknown, but all reports of this singular occasion agree that Niño Fidencio walked out of the room, ignoring the presidential retinue, to lose himself among his other patients. Hours passed. The president's chief of staff, Gen. Andrew Almazán, angrily dispatched an aide to find the faith healer and decided to open the door to see exactly what kind of treatment the president had been prescribed.

"The President of the Republic, General Plutarco Elías Calles," writes María Luz Bernal in Mitos y Magos Mexicanos, "was completely nude, sitting on a chair in a corner of the room, and was unrecognizable: his entire body was covered by a dense layer of honey." Almazan's aide and his guards brought Fidencio back, who apologized profusely for having forgotten about his illustrious patient--he had stopped to play with some retarded children.

The treatment prescribed by Niño Fidencio appeared to have been successful. In gratitude, the president ordered the construction of a water line directly to Espinazo from a mountain spring thirty kilometers away and which remains in service to this day. Railcars full of supplies for the faith healer's patients were part of the presidential bounty.

Sufferage and Saucermen

In the Mexico: Special Report 1997 issue of the Samizdat newsletter, Dr. Rafael A. Lara once again delved into the intriguing nexus between politics and the paranormal, but this time from the UFO angle. The senior Mexican political party--the Partido Revolucionario Institucional or PRI--had shown an uncharacteristic interest in the UFO phenomenon and other manifestations of the paranormal, to the extent of hosting its own UFO conferences featuring distinguished ufologist Pedro Ferriz Santacruz as the main lecturer, all the while supporting the PRI's political platform...despite the fact that Ferriz was himself running for political office under the Frente Cardenista de Reconstrucción Nacional for the regencia of Mexico City itself.

Lara notes that the PRI's "Revolutionary Youth Movement" began to sponsor these UFO symposia half a year prior to the critical mid-summer elections of 1997, featuring the country's best and brightest researchers: Rubén Manrique in San Luis Potosí, Oscar Zapién in Puebla, Santiago Yturria in Monterrey and Jaime Maussán in Mexico City. Lara notes that he himself was approached by the party to hold similar lectures in his state of Veracruz, but he turned down the offer.

"All indications," wrote Lara at the time, "point to the fact that this subject is believed to attract younger voters, in hopes of making them participate in the July 6, 1997 elections, in which a governor shall be chosen for Mexico City along with senatorial and congressional races for the rest of the country. One particular case involved Alvaro Mota, who is currently municipal president of the city of Misantla (2 hrs. away from Jalapa, Ver.) and a PRI flag-waver. During the course of his political campaign, he held a number of presentations on paranormal and UFO phenomena, handing out magazines, t-shirts and other largesse [...] However, the most important facet of this political infiltration into the UFO enigma is the participation of its members in small esoteric sects (note that these individuals join after having joined the PRI), as is the case of the "Gnostic Anthropology" group led by Frank Barrios Gómez and the pseudorreligious "Light of the World" sect led by Samuel Joaquín, which has been accused of perversion of minors and sexual abuse (not uncommon in these esoteric sects). A hitherto unknown activity by this cult was promoting extraterrestrial contact with its most affluent members."

It should be noted that the PRI's efforts were in vain: it lost the governorship of Mexico to its rival PAN party, and would later go on to lose nationwide elections for the first time in 70 years.

Sometimes the paranormal does not directly involve a world leader but a close relative: Art Gatti, author of UFO Encounters of the Fourth Kind (NY: Zebra, 1978), mentions an interesting conversation he held with D.W. Hauck, a fellow editor of UFO/paranormal magazines. When discussing the subject of the 1977 Acapulco World UFO Conference, it was suggested that the sister of then Mexican president José López Portillo would deliver a keynote address, but there seemed to be a problem: the rumors circulating at the time suggested that the president's sister had fallen in love with a world-famous psychic whose exploits were the rage at the time, an "it would become likely that the President of Mexico would prohibit any further support by members of his family of anything that smacked of the paranormal or psychic."

The more glaring cases involving political involvement in the occult--Hitler and his sorcerers, ranging from Krafft to the enigmatic "Green-Gloved Man"; Stalin and his involvement with a number of psychics; the notorious Papa Doc Duvalier in Haiti -- merit entire articles of their own, being too complex for a single feature. The paranormal in its many manifestations, from faith healing to astrology to ufology, has proven useful in subverting the political process, keeping opposition parties in line or even killing one's adversaries through spells or charms, in countries where occult beliefs form part and parcel of their cultural identity.