Analysis:   Bolivar cult divided on Chavez
By UWE SIEMON-NETTO, UPI Religious Affairs Editor

PARIS, Aug. 24, 2004 (UPI) -- Although Venezuela's president Hugo Chavez has survived the referendum of whether he should be recalled from office, his nation's religious communities remain deeply divided about him. This includes "Maria Lionza," the syncretistic and growing sect whose members once revered him as the reincarnation of Simon Bolivar (1783-1830), South America's "Libertador" (liberator).

Many of Maria Lionza's "brujos" (mediums) have now removed Chavez's bust, which had adorned their altars at the time of this former army officer's election to the presidency in 1999. "A lot of brujos no longer believe he is Bolivar," says Klaus-Dieter Nassall, a German-Venezuelan healer often described as a warlock.

"I myself am still a Chavez supporter," Nassall told United Press International in a telephone interview Tuesday. When Chavez came to power, Nassall was reported to have flown in from Munich proclaiming him Bolivar incarnate. Now he said he was woefully misunderstood. "What I meant was that this president was the embodiment of Bolivarian ideals, and this I still believe."

After winning the referendum, Chavez described himself as a devoted "Roman, Apostolic and Catholic" Christian, according to the U.S. magazine, Christianity Today. This is not to say that the Catholic hierarchy is happy with him. There have been bitter disagreements between this left-wing president and his country's National Catholic Bishops' Conference, which he deeply offended by his left-wing politics and by communing at a Mass organized by a pro-communist priest.

His relationship with the expanding evangelical churches is much more relaxed. At one time, he even declared himself a member of one of the charismatic congregations that have become Christianity's fastest-growing branch in South America.

While some more traditionalist Protestant leaders oppose him, representatives from some 2,000 evangelical and Pentecostal churches prayed at a mass gathering in Caracas prior to the Aug. 15 referendum "that Chavez might receive 'divine protection' against being removed from office," Christianity Today reported.

Unlike the Catholic hierarchy and historical Protestant denominations, evangelicals in Venezuela are a predominantly working-class Chavez constituency. This applies even more to Maria Lionza, in whose pecking order Bolivar is the senior ghost, ranking just below God, Christ, the Virgin Mary and the familiar Catholic saints.

Maria Lionza is a curious religion that filtered down from the 19th-century Spiritism of the European, North and South American upper classes to the poorest of the poorest, mainly illegal Colombian immigrants and their offspring squatting in the crime-infested barrios around Caracas, the capital.

It was a French schoolteacher by the name of Leon Denizarth-Hippolyte Rivail (1804-1869) who developed the core beliefs that have become fashionable again among prosperous New Agers and poor Maria Lionza devotees alike.

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.

Rainer Mahlke, a German scholar, estimated that one-third of Venezuela's 22 million citizens is at least "passively involved" in Maria Lionza, a faith combining Kardec's doctrines with folk Catholicism and tribal religions.

Hundreds of thousands are actively engaged in this cult in whose temples the departed allegedly take possession of "brujas" puffing liturgical cigars and drinking astounding amounts of liquor, usually cheap rum but on rare occasions also fine cognac or sweet champagne.

The cognac is called for when Bolivar himself appears. The sweet champagne is the favorite tipple of Maria Lionza, who gave the cult its name.

As Venezuelan lore has it, Maria Lionza 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, for she would 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, which eventually gobbled the girl up. As a result, the reptile grew and grew, squeezing the water out of the lagoon. The water flooded the Indian settlement, drowning the tribe.

But then the anaconda burst, and out popped Maria Lionza, evidently looking precisely like Spanish-born empress Eugenie of France, the wife of Napoleon III. At least this is how Venezuelan artists have portrayed 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.

She now appears only seldom at séances giving advice to the faithful through a medium high on sweet champagne. But on one of these rare occasions she evidently gave sound counsel to a shop apprentice by the name of Eugenio Mendoza, Klaus-Dieter Nassall told UPI.

Mendoza is still a fervent Maria Lionza follower, but unlike many a "brujo" no follower of left-wing president Chavez. For, you see, Maria Lionza's counsel bore fruit. Industrialist Mendoza is now one of the richest men in Venezuela -- the nation's "king of concrete."