Should you have any doubt that Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez is in serious decline, consider this: His bust is being removed from the altars of his country's popular religion, a renowned anthropologist told United Press International on Monday.
Less than four years ago, the syncretistic Maria Lionza cult celebrated Chavez as the reincarnation of Simon Bolivar, (1783-1830), South America's "Libertador" (liberator).
"Today he has Venezuela, tomorrow he'll rule South America, and ultimately the whole world," prophesied Antonio Osuna, leader and medium of a Spiritist temple in El Carpintero in a hillside slum near Caracas.
To this correspondent, this was a disconcerting statement because it sounded much like the Nazis' chant: "Heute gehoert uns Deutschland, morgen die ganze Welt" (Today we own Germany, tomorrow we'll own the whole world).
But now the same Osuna who once puffed ceremonial cigar smoke around a wooden image of this "Bolivar incarnate" adorning an altar made from molten candle wax, proclaims: "Bolivar is angry with Chavez."
Clearly, the underclass, once Chavez's power base, is as upset over the country's economic decline as the rest of the population. And the poor are the ones who frequent Maria Lionza sanctuaries such as Osuna's in El Carpintero.
Angelica Pollak-Eltz, a Viennese ethnologist teaching at the Catholic University of Caracas, told UPI she had not seen a Chavez bust in any of the esoteric "boutiques" she has visited recently. Yet they used to be the hottest items on sale.
"As for Maria Lionza altars, I haven't seen any with a Chavez bust, either," the scientist added.
That's ominous, given that perhaps one-third of Venezuela's population of 22 million is "passively linked" to this peculiar faith, according to a study by Rainer Mahlke, a German scholar. "And hundreds of thousands are actively involved," Mahlke said.
Another German, a warlock by the name of Hans-Dieter Nassall, had officially proclaimed Chavez as Bolivar's reincarnation. Nassall had flown in all the way from Munich and caused a sensation when he prophesied that Chavez alias Bolivar would do great things for his country.
This seemed like the fulfillment of an oracle by Beatriz Veit-Tané, the self-proclaimed high priestess of Maria Lionza. In 1967, she predicted that in the year 2000 a "messenger of light will rise from the humble classes" to resurrect Gran Colombia, Bolivar's short-lived creation.
Gran Colombia consisted of present-day Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Panama and Bolivia but lasted only 10 years; it collapsed shortly before Bolivar's death in 1830.
But it lives on, at least in the dreams of Colombia's largest left-wing guerilla movement, the FARC. In one of its Internet publications, the FARC named the new empire it intends to create Sarare -- after a river straddling the border between Colombia and Venezuela.
The rebels praised Chavez, a friend of Cuba's dictator Fidel Castro, as a "Bolivarian officer." Beatritz Veit-Tané saw Chavez as a South American messiah of sorts and became a prominent activist in his political movement.
How do we know, though, that Bolivar has had it with Chavez, who is supposed to be his re-embodiment? Well, only a powerful medium, such as Osuna, can tell.
Maria Lionza followers believe that the souls of the departed slip into a medium's body during a séance, get drunk, usually on rum, and then prophesy.
Bolivar is a very senior ghost in the Maria Lionza pecking order; he ranks just below God, Christ, the Virgin Mary and the familiar saints. "Bolivar does not appear that often anymore," Osuna told this correspondent.
"He will only use a prominent medium and drink unfailingly fine Cognac, not some cheap local hootch," explained Pollak-Eltz, who has studied this phenomenon for some 30 years.
This taste for cognac may be something Bolivar has had in common with his contgemporary Léon-Dénizarth-Hippolyte Rivail (1804-1869), a French teacher, who had sowed the seed of today's multicultural Maria Lionza religion.
In mystical circles Rivail is revered under his nom de plume of Allan Kardec; New Age has rescued him from oblivion.
In Europe, Australia, North and South America societies bearing his name are thriving; his standard work, The Spirits' Book, can be downloaded from the internet.
Kardec taught that souls, while in transit from one incarnation to the next, could be appealed to for guidance. This became fashionable among Venezuela's elite in the second half of the nineteenth century; now mixed with folk Catholicism and tribal religions, it has filtered down to the poor and crime-infested barrios, long Hugo Chavez' constituency.
Maria Lionza bears the name of a fair maiden, whose appearances in a medium are even rarer than those of Bolivar. When he shows up he is celebrated with sacrifices of cigars, perfume, flowers, and sweet champagne, her favorite tipple.
According to local lore, Maria Lionza was the daughter of a Jirajara Indian chief centuries ago. Her skin was light, green her eyes.
This did not augur well for her tribe, which had been foretold that a princess with these properties would unleash calamity upon her people. So the shaman advised the chief to kill his child.
Instead, the chief ordered his best warriors to raise her away from the tribe near a lagoon guarded by an anaconda. One day the girl stood by the water admiring her reflection. So did the snake -- who gobbled her up.
Then it grew and grew, squeezing the water out of the lagoon; it flooded the Jirajara settlement. As the braves fled, the beast burst, and out popped Maria Lionza who now became the queen of all nature, of game and fish, forests and rivers, agriculture and ranches, coffee and tobacco plantations.
Maria Lionza images sold in Venezuela's 5,000 esoteric "boutiques" look suspiciously like Empress Eugénie, the Spanish wife of Napoleon III. Says Angelina Pollak-Eltz, "An artist fell in love with a photograph of Eugénie, and patterned his Maria Lionza busts after her."
All other sculptors have followed his example, and so now the staunchly Catholic empress's features grace thousands of Spiritist altars around 21st-century Venezuela.
As for Chavez, he seems to have moved on in his religious journey. Four years ago, Osuna said the President was as a "marialionzisa."
Lately, Chavez declared himself a member of a charismatic congregation, thus allegedly belonging to his country's fastest-growing branch of Christianity.
But then he angered the country's National Catholic Bishops Conference by communing at a Mass organized by a priest of pro-Communist leanings.
Mused a Catholic theologian on condition of having his name kept out of print, "That's wasn't good -- not good at all. But at least he was nobody's reincarnation there."