Power, Politics and Sorcery in Latin America
By Scott Corrales (c) 2012
In July 2009, the notorious “Wonkette” blog published a story that made the rounds of the Internet with the speed of a stray neutrino: Mrs. Marian Robinson – better known to the whole world as President Barack Obama’s mother-in-law, was supposedly a practitioner of “Afro Hispanic magic” (Santería). The report, sourced to Jane Mayer of Townhall, indicated that the then newly-sworn-in head of state was livid at discovering that Mrs. Robinson was actively practicing her devotions within the hallowed halls of the White House.
“Wonkette” goes on to say that Mrs. Robinson turned to Santería in the 1980s in despair over her husband’s battle with multiple sclerosis. According to a friend of Michelle Obama, the future first lady “put her foot down when she heard that her mother took her dad to ceremonies where they did spells and trances and sacrificed animals, chickens and goats, I think. But Marian was desperate and kept going anyway, even when her husband was too sick to go with her. I don’t think the president knew anything about this earlier before they met.” It was made clear that neither the President nor the First Lady embraced these practices at any time. (1)
While lurid, the Santería practitioner in the White House story was nowhere near as compelling as Nancy Reagan’s consultation of astrologers in the ‘80s, or the Kennedys relying on the services of Jeanne Dixon in the ‘60s, and faded away. But perhaps it should have served as a reminder to many that the upper reaches of the political world have, over the years, availed themselves of magical means to both attain and retain power, influence others, and insure their health
A President Covered in Honey
One of the little-known chapters of Mexican paranormal history involves the story of the strange faith healer known as “el Niño Fidencio” – the Child Fidencio – whose amazing and gruesome healings created a sensation in the early years of the 20th century.
Born on 17 October 1898 in Yuriria, Guanajuato, Fidencio S. Constantino was the fourteenth of twenty children. At the tender age of six, his mother dropped him off in a nearby town with a single-classroom school and never returned. He was taken in by the parents of a classmate, Enrique López de la Fuente, in whose house he worked in exchange for room and board. Young Fidencio was said to “wander the roads with the faith of an enlightened one, healing the sick and seeking the holy earth, as God had commanded him to do.”
In the meantime, his friend Enrique López had made a name for himself as an officer in the Mexican Revolution and then – fleeing from Pancho Villa – found a haven at a ranch owned by a German émigré in the town of Espinazo. Remembering his friend Fidencio’s skill as a cook and housekeeper, he sent for him. Fidencio would live in this town for well over a decade, as his reputation as a curandero (faith healer) increased by leaps and bounds, particularly as a male midwife, using boiled shards of glass as his only implements in performing Caesarian sections and household threads and needles to suture wounds.
The curandero’s reputation spread far and wide, and much like in a fairy tale, stories of the living saint who performed miraculous healings reached the ears of the most powerful man in the land: Plutarco Elías Calles, President of Mexico at the time. Federal envoys were dispatched from the capital to the remote north to see exactly what was going on, and a report described Fidencio’s healings as nothing short of “miraculous”. (2)
The First Citizen’s entourage went to Espinazo in search of “spiritual healing”, but more importantly, a remedy for the “shameful disease” that afflicted him. On 8 February 1928, the presidential train pulled into the town, stunning the locals who never expected to see such august company in their midst. Nor did the presidential entourage, one must admit, expect to be greeted by a municipal band of lepers and hydrocephalic greeters waving tricolor flags.
Once inside Fidencio’s house, President Calles met privately with the healer and the subject of their discussion remains unknown to this day. The only fact is that the executive was closeted with the curandero for three hours.
After that time period elapsed, the presidential entourage saw Fidencio leave the room without addressing them. More hours passed, and General Almazán, Calle’s top aide, was getting nervous. What was going on in the room, and where was Niño Fidencio?
Unable to wait any longer, and in view of the fact that Fidencio hadn’t returned, the general barged into the room, only find the president sitting naked on a wooden chair, covered in a thick layer of honey from head to toe. Visibly upset, the general ordered his guards to find the faith healer. They found him soon enough, playing with some of his handicapped patients.
The curandero’s charms must have worked, as President Calles rewarded his good services by building an aqueduct that brought water directly to Espinazo from a gorge twenty miles away, plus trainloads of supplies for his staff and patients.
We will never know the truth about President Calles’s miraculous healing from his intimate affliction or the nature of Niño Fidencio’s powers, if he indeed had any. But political interest in otherworldly assistance was not circumscribed to that particular moment in the early years of the 20th century, as we shall see.
While most Latin American societies are rigidly Catholic and witchcraft is condemned by church and state alike, a long list of shamans, brujos and clairvoyants have been at the service of powerful men (and more recently, women) since Colonial times.
Journalist José Gil Olmos entered this no-man’s-land of politics and witchery in his book Los Brujos del Poder (The Warlocks of Power), describing how practicitioners of the esoteric have influenced Mexican politics for over a hundred years. The ultimate goal remains unchanged since the time of the Old World kingdoms: secure greater power, avert jealousy, see the future and overcome adversaries.
“They want more power, making themselves untouchable during their tenure. It’s not legitimacy they’re after, it’s invincibility,” remarks Olmos in his book. “The succession of rulers who have heard the whisperings of magic is long and broad throughout Mexican history. Presidents, military men, governors, municipal leaders, social movement leaders and even minor party officials have sought assistance and protection from characters linked with the supernatural. There have even been politicians who have performed magical rituals, influenced by the power they see before them.” (3)
During the tumultuous six-year term of President Carlos Salinas, it emerged that the services of a witch known as La Paca (Francisca Zetina) had been retained by a prosecutor to find out the culprits behind the assassination of José Francisco Ruiz Massieu in 1994. Massieu, a leader of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), had been gunned down in broad daylight on Mexico City’s majestic Paseo de la Reforma.
Aspects of the esoteric, says Gil Olmos, have also gone on to become part of official policy. In 1994, Manuel Cavazos, governor of the state of Tamaulipas, on the Mexican side of the border with Texas, declared his unflagging belief in transcendental meditation (TM) and pyramidology, always carrying a tiny pyramid with him to “foster positive energy flows”. TM became mandatory at every level in the state bureaucracy, and was even included in the statewide school curriculum. All this accentuating of the positive, however, did not keep him from being implicated with the Mexican drug cartels, and he has been advised not to leave the country until investigations are complete. (4)
An even more recent case of politics and the supernatural is evident in Mexican politics. Marta Sahagún, former president Vicente Fox’s wife, allegedly engaged in sorcerous activities at the official state residence – Los Pinos – with some of her close associates. Even though media described her as a woman “brought up in a conservative religious environment”, she did not hesitate to employ black magic to attain her goals. This particular ritual was supposedly aimed at binding the affections of her husband, feeling threatened by the presence of his ex-wife, Lilian de la Concha.
According to a report in Saltillo’s “El Zocalo” newspaper (5) an unnamed witch was brought in from the city of Salamanca to perform a ritual aimed at allaying Sahagún’s fears and dispelling the influence of Fox’s former spouse and members of his entourage. Photographs of the main players were obtained and set on fire. “Marta’s enemies,” says the newspaper report, “died off one by one, or fell by the wayside along the road that would lead Fox to the presidency of the Republic.
The situation, according to El Zócalo, didn’t end there. President Fox’s children wrote their father a letter explaining the nature and frequency of the magic rituals being conducted at the presidential dwelling, but the letter was never delivered: senior officials told them that “their father would surely not believe” such allegations.
Sahagún entertained greater ambitions. Not content with being first lady, she began to think of a way of running for president, surrounding herself with plutocrats and members of Mexico’s elite. Among them was the General Secretary of the PRI National Executive Council, Elba Esther Gordillo, leader of the Partido Nueva Alianza (PANAL) party and a practitioner of brujería, who accompanied Marta Sahagún to Morroco in search of a black magician who would make her aspirations come true, but according to the article: “Fox’s term proved to be a failure. Change never arrived, structural reforms were never approved, and his aphorisms, which had been an asset as a candidate, became a handicap to his presidency. This lady may have done her things, her witchery, but she obviously lacked the level of perception or strength that Elba Esther Gordillo had for such evil things, and it all went bust.”
One wonders what this “strength for such evil things” actually means. Perhaps it is a veiled reference to a 1996 incident mentioned in José Gil Olmos’s book: President Ernesto Zedillo had asked Gordillo to leave the country. Faced with her refusal, he threatened to audit her seemingly endless personal wealth.
It was then that Gordillo boarded a plane to Nigeria, where she allegedly took part in a black magic ritual said to be one of the most dreadful in that country’s sorcerous practices – the slaying of a lion, making the animal’s death as gruesome as possible, so that its rage and pain could be conveyed to politician. Covering her in blood and testicular matter, an elderly warlock traced magical symbols on her body with the feline’s claws, chanting all the while, as those accompanying her could hear the sound of animals howling in the darkness – supposedly mandrills, possibly demons. Sitting for hours under a fetid layer of offal, facing an enlarged photograph of President Zedillo, the politician and her retinue were later astonished to receive a phone call from the chief executive over a satellite phone, asking her to return to Mexico for negotiations.
According to those present at the ritual, and who refuse to be named for obvious reasons, the total cost of the ceremony came to Forty-Five Thousand U.S. Dollars. But the warlock “laughed mockingly, saying that the true price of the ritual would be the life of one of her relatives.” Shortly after the trip, one of Gordillo’s grandsons had his head crushed by an elevator door while playing with other children. (6)
The Argentinean Warlock
Cosmopolitan and worldly Buenos Aires, “the Paris of the Americas”, found its political fortunes bound with the rise and fall of a singular individual whose name is likely unknown to English-reading audiences outside of academe.
José López Rega (1916-1989) was variously known as “the Creole Warlock” or “the Rasputin of the Pampas” for his extensive occult background and involvement with the Brazilian Umbanda religion. In political circles he is best remembered as the private secretary of the strongman Juan Domingo Perón, over whom he exerted a powerful influence, similar to that of the Russian mystic over the tsar of all Russia.
López Rega had evinced an interest in spiritual affairs since his youth, and reputedly had an extensive library for one so young. In the 1950s, he would cross the path of clairvoyant Victoria Montero, who initiated into Spiritism, but with a cautionary note: she told him that if he worked for the good, his personal gifts would be a boon to others, making him able to heal the sick and soothe the soul. If he chose to abuse his powers – much as with the dark side of the Force – he would become blight upon the Earth, leading to his own ruin. Posterity can attest that he did not listen to her words.
Moving in these circles, he became involved with Freemasonry and practitioners of Umbanda. Lopez Rega saw himself as the chosen one to further the aims of the Brazilian faith, and his political involvement was simply another tool to achieve this. He would eventually become part of Perón’s security detail during his exile in Spain, advancing to the position of Minister of Social Welfare when the strongman returned to power in 1973 after being twenty years in exile.
According to historian Marcelo Larraqui, who wrote a biography on the “Rasputin of the Pampas” Lopez Rega saw Perón’s return to power as a spiritual endeavor, saying as much in a speech: “The General’s return is an eminently spiritual mission that shines under a political surface. We must overcome the forces that have left him in helpless exile, in the same way that Rosas and San Martín [heroic Argetinean figures] were deserted. Our sole mission is to bring Perón back to Argentina, to redeem his image along with that of Evita. His return shall be our spiritual victory.” (7)
This talk of spirituality did not keep the Minister of Social Welfare from embarking on a bloodstained trajectory: from the 1973 Ezeiza Massacre (in which snipers concealed beneath a platform opened fire against members of the left-wing of the Peronist party) to his role in the deaths and disapperances of thousands of his fellow citizens, the “Creole Warlock” fulfilled the prophecy uttered by the clairvoyant decades in the past.
“Simon Bolivar Has Been Reincarnated”
When Hugo Rafael Chávez came to power in Venezuela in 1998, no one outside his country had heard of the career military officer from the village of Sabaneta. Perhaps some readers of the international press noticed the article about an attempted overthrow of the elected government of Carlos Andrés Pérez 1992, a plot mastered by Chávez’s MBR-2000 (Bolivarian Revolutionary Movement). But within months of his election, Venezuela found its name changed to the “Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela” and Chávez’s anti-imperialist, populist regime would begin in earnest. A friend to all of South America’s nascent left-wing movements, the Venezuelan leader is media-savvy and self-involved, known to break into song during broadcasts of his own television program, Aló Presidente.
Even fewer knew that there was a paranormal side to the mercurial military man. Pubic statements made by radio personality Rafael Sanchez, an important figure in Venezuelan Spiritism, imply that Chávez is a practitioner of Spiritism. “He is the reincarnation of [Venezuelan revolutionary leader Antonio José] Sucre, hence his constant references to Bolivar, of whom he was a close friend.”
Or is Hugo Chávez a reincarnation of Bolivar himself? Uwe Siemon-Netto, a Lutheran theologian and former religion editor for United Press International, mentioned that worshippers of the indigenous deity “María Lionza” hold that Simón Bolivar, the “Liberator of the Americas”, no longer appears in their rituals, since he now lives within the contentious person of Chávez. It would even seem that Chávez ascent from obscurity to world prominence was foretold. Siemon-Netto writes: “The victory of this former lieutenant-colonel seemed to confirm a prophecy by Beatriz Veit-Tané, a self-proclaimed high priestess of María 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 Chavez 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. (8)
El Señor Presidente, like any self-respecting leader in history, also has a personal oracle. Tarot reader (and journalist) Esmeralda Queen had a 1996 session with Chavez in which she foretold his upcoming political role. Ms.Queen has spoken openly of the fact that Chávez has dealings with Santería practitioners, making periodic visitors to Havana not just to chew the fat with Fidel Castro, but also to undergo Santería “cleansing rituals”. This is all hearsay, of course, but the average citizen in Venezuela ascribes his apparent immunity to a number of assassinations and coup attempts.
Flying south from Venezuela over jungles and mountains we come to Bolivia, where Juan Evo Morales has been president since the year 2006. Born to an Aymara family in the village of Issallawi, Morales went from a conscript in the Bolivian army to coca farmer, championing the rights of the cocaleros and other peasants, eventually starting his own political movement and rising to the highest office in the land. Named “World Hero of Mother Earth” by the U.N. General Assembly in October 2009, his name has become synonymous with pro-indigenous movements throughout the continent. (9)
This populist champion, however, traded Socialist atheism for the “faith of his fathers” during a 2006 ceremony held in the ancient ruins of Tiahuanaco, where Aymara elders anointed him in the manner of ancient kings. Morales would repeat the ceremony in 2010 with considerable media coverage. On this occasion, a centenarian Aymara priestess would accompany the president, bedecked by coca garlands and wearing a garment made of llama skin. Chamalú, a Bolivian shaman, says that Morales’s native religious inclinations were stirred after many years in the Socialist tradition. “He is now recovering the traditions of the Inca peoples, as was evident in his investiture.” (10)
Obtaining power and keeping it are urges as primitive as mankind. We can effortlessly conjure up the image of a stone-age chieftain worried about betrayal from within the clan, or the outcome of a raid against a neighboring one, and demanding the right answer from a witch or shaman.
Perhaps it is the uncertainty of higher office – elected, hereditary or taken by force – that prompts those in authority to question the rock-steadiness of their position. Uneasy lies the head upon which rests the crown, we have been told for centuries. It isn’t a one-way street, either. The magic user or warlock gains power by being seated beside the throne or presidential chair, whispering obscure warnings into the politician’s ear. This ancient and uneasy relationship causes us to wonder if we are indeed as advanced, rational and skeptical as we claim to be at the dawn of the 21st century.
(2) Bernal, Maria Luz. Mitos y Magos Mexicanos (Mexico: Editorial Gaceta, S.A., 1982)
(3) Olmos, Jose Gil. Los Brujos del Poder (Mexico: Mondadori, 2007)
(7) Larraqui, Marcelo. Lopez Rega, el Peronismo y la Triple A (Buenos Aires: Punto de Lectura, 2008)
[Note: This article was featured in issue #53 of Paranoia Magazine]