- By Daniel Lansberg-RodríguezDaniel Lansberg-Rodríguez teaches on Latin America at Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management and is a weekly columnist for the Venezuelan daily newspaper El Nacional. His Twitter handle is @Dlansberg.
The violence in Venezuela continues to escalate. Three fatalities on Wednesday have now raised the total death count to 25, with over 300 injuries. Yet after six weeks of massive street rallies around the country, the reality for protesters is that there is no clear end in sight. To date, President Nicolás Maduro’s regime shows no inclination of capitulating. There have been no high-level defections from the ruling United Socialist Party, neighboring countries have largely refrained from interfering, and the armed forces have remained loyal. With oil prices rising on the back of Ukrainian uncertainties, and renewed investment from China flowing in, the government seems to have gained enough breathing room to hold off economic collapse for a while longer. The mood among the opposition is becoming correspondingly grim.
As a result, some of the regime’s most fervent opponents are pinning their hopes on help from otherworldly sources.
For many, the focus of their yearnings is Reinaldo dos Santos, a Miami-based, Brazilian-born astrologer with well over a million Twitter followers, who styles himself "The Prophet of the Americas" and claims to have predicted Chávez’s 2013 death back in 2004. More recently, he has been predicting the imminent fall of President Maduro. He backs his claim with an astrological argument based on the notion that 2014 is the year of the "wood horse" in the Chinese horoscope. In 2002, the protests that triggered an abortive coup that briefly unseated Chávez took place during a year of the "water horse." According to Santos, the water doused the flames of citizen protest on that occasion, but wood is supposed to make them burn even brighter.
On Feb. 25, dos Santos explicitly predicted that Maduro would fall in five days if only the protesters held firm. Once the deadline had come and gone, he clarified the prophecy: not five days, but rather five events must come to pass prior to Maduro’s downfall (two of which have already happened.)
Some Venezuelans were disappointed with the prophet’s most recent showing. "That man [dos Santos] has turned out to be nothing but a fifth-tier jungle witch doctor," says Dalila Sosa, a Caracas-based business manager. "I doubt he could call out the numbers in a bingo game without getting them wrong." Yet while Ms. Sosa may be bearish regarding dos Santos’ psychic chops, she also makes a point of telling me that times are very hard. People need to believe in something, she notes.
Luckily, there remains a veritable buffet of prognosticating magicians, or brujos, to choose from. They include Mhoni Vidente of Mexico, whose tarot card readings last month portended a year-long civil war in Venezuela that the opposition would eventually win. The prediction went viral on social media, and has now been shared nearly 400,000 times. For those Venezuelans seeking a more homegrown flavor, local astrologer Adriana Azzi has even teamed up with dos Santos on Twitter to share their common view that the looming return of Saturn portends great dangers for President Maduro.
It’s precisely this sort of thing that recently prompted Venezuelan journalist Rafael Osío Cabrices to flatly declare that the country "is going mad."
And yet for Venezuelans too rational, or too devout in their Catholicism, to place stock in the brujos — there’s always the possibility of a miraculous earthquake (like the one that precipitated the end of Simon Bolivar’s First Venezuelan Republic in 1812). As tensions continue to rise, feverish public speculation about the imminent possibility of an earthquake reached such heights that the Venezuelan Foundation for Seismic Research (FUNVISIS), was moved to release a rare public statement last week explaining that "rumors of a looming earthquake currently circulating through social media lack any scientific validity." They go on to say that "predicting earthquakes is not even possible."
Not to be discouraged, some have instead sought out more subtle signs of supernatural support. Last week, when Cuban leader Raúl Castro, a close ally of the Maduro regime, arrived in Venezuela to attend festivities commemorating the one-year anniversary of Hugo Chávez’s death, the Cuban flag mysteriously fell from its post during the welcoming ceremony. Many Venezuelans were quick to seize upon this diplomatic glitch as a divine signal of support for the opposition.
And so the search continues for some kind of deus ex machina to save the country from its current quagmire: an inept, increasingly authoritarian regime, that seems to remain largely unassailable. (In the photo above, Venezuelan protesters stumble through a cloud of tear gas.)
Until recently, it was the ruling party itself that seemed to have the mystical market cornered. From the Santeria priests, or babalawos, that "nearly cured" Chavez’s cancer through magical means, to Maduro’s claim of having received spectral goodwill visits from his predecessor in the form of a small songbird, the ruling party’s reliance on mysticism was often a focal point for opposition ridicule.
And yet today it is the Venezuelan opposition that is increasingly desperate for miracles, and such supernatural elements are transcending the fringe to become an ever-greater part of the internal conversation. Uncertainty is facilitating the rise of individuals who gain fame by fomenting chaos and false hope, cynically praying on the beleaguered desperation of an exhausted people.
Daniel Lansberg-Rodríguez is a fellow at the Comparative Constitutions Project and is a weekly columnist for the Venezuelan daily newspaper El Universal. His Twitter handle is @Dlansberg.