CARACAS, Venezuela — The man says he is possessed by a god. He shouts, his body trembles and he lifts a sacrificed lamb to his lips, drinking its blood from the jugular.
This initiation ceremony, seldom witnessed by outsiders, has become increasingly common in Venezuela, as the Afro-Cuban traditions of Santeria and other folk religions gain followers.
The rituals have become an attractive option for Venezuelans seeking a unique spiritual path, including healing ceremonies aimed at curing everything from illness to heartache. Some even believe certain gods will offer protection from Venezuela's rampant violent crime.
The surge in Santeria, which is practiced by many in Cuba, can partly be explained by the arrival of thousands of Cuban doctors in Venezuela. President Hugo Chavez has been providing Cuba with subsidized oil in exchange for thousands of physicians who come to the South American country to treat poor people.
Santeria priests are also making annual predictions for Venezuelans and issuing warnings — just like Cuban "santeros" do in Havana. Last month, one group of priests said the gods have indicated the twice-divorced Chavez would be a more effective leader with a woman at his side.
It's a familiar pattern. Santeria has grown in popularity in New York, Miami and Puerto Rico in the past following influxes of Cubans, according to Margarite Fernandez Olmos, a professor at City University of New York who has researched the religion.
In overwhelmingly Roman Catholic Venezuela, many shops have sprung up in recent years selling roosters, goats and other animals to be sacrificed in Caracas' working class barrios. In the city's churches, believers can be seen in head-to-toe white, praying to their gods before statues of Catholic saints.
Santeria was born in Cuba among Yoruba slaves from West Africa. They were forbidden to practice their own religion, so they fused their beliefs with the Catholicism of their masters, starting a tradition that has spread throughout the Americas. Catholic leaders consider the rituals idolatrous, but have come to tolerate the popular practice.
Existing religion now popularized
Santeria has been present in Venezuela for decades, though some experts say it is more out in the open now due to the political situation.
"The current political ambiance created by a populist government with its emphasis on nationalism has made Santeria more visible," said Leslie Desmangles, a religion and international studies professor at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn.
Along with Santeria, Venezuela is home to other folk religions, such as the sect surrounding the Indian goddess Maria Lionza, which has also been flourishing.
Believers in Maria Lionza make quick dashes through highway traffic in Caracas to reach a statue of the goddess in a highway divider. They lay offerings of flowers, liquor or coins at the foot of the statue, which depicts the naked goddess riding atop a tapir, a jungle animal.
The Santeria movement nowadays cuts across racial groups and class lines, and includes lawyers and other professionals as well as the unemployed among its adherents. In spite of rapid economic growth propelled by Venezuela's key oil industry, people here face problems from crime to inflation.
"Santeria is on the rise because there are many people who need the help of higher powers to overcome their problems," said Belkis, a 51-year-old "santera" who declined to give her last name, saying true followers prefer anonymity.
She was among hundreds of white-clad believers who recently crowded into a Catholic church, praying before a statue of the Virgen de Las Mercedes, a manifestation of the Virgin Mary, who they said represents Obatala, a patriarch in the pantheon of Yoruba gods.
'Babalaos' and offerings
Some pay up to $7,000 for the yearslong initiation process to become "babalaos," or Santeria priests. The Followers of Ifa, a Santeria association, says it objects to the practice of charging such sums, saying the religion is based on "humility, brotherhood and honesty."
The patchwork of other folk rituals in Venezuela includes lighting candles and leaving fruit and cups of liquor at makeshift altars among the tombstones at Caracas' largest cemetery. Others pray using idols that range from toy dolls to wooden statues of "malandros" — street hoodlums who serve as protector spirits on streets where killings are frequent.
One santero, a 40-year-old named Wilfredo who would not give his last name, said that while Santeria attracts many for positive reasons, there are those who use it for black magic "because they think they can go kill and rob and nothing will happen to them."
Black magic practitioners known as "paleros" are known to gather human bones from cemeteries in order to seal pacts with the dead, to call upon their spirits for vengeance. At least some of the grave-robbing that plagues Caracas' main cemetery is thought to be due to the paleros, who according to some Santeria followers offer up to $5,000 for a skull.
In contrast, those seeking enlightenment and healing often visit the mountains of Sorte in rural north-central Venezuela, a key site for followers of the Maria Lionza sect.
A poor 21-year-old woman, Andrea Gomez, came here to see a Maria Lionza priestess who leads healing rituals, hoping her wisdom could help improve a troubled relationship with her boyfriend and find a spiritual cure for what she called "psychological pregnancy" — uncomfortable abdominal swelling in spite of the fact she wasn't pregnant.
The ceremony began as the "curandera" priestess offered Gomez a tea-like drink made with anise, and then gave her a cigar and asked her to chew it. It wasn't long before Gomez spat it out and vomited — the first stage in the cleansing ritual.
Then she was led into a stream, where the priestess and her two helpers rubbed a concoction of herbs, stems and rum over her skin, and dunked her in the water.
Dressing her in a hospital robe, they led her to a large flat rock, on which they poured a trail of talcum powder to draw a door-like "portal" for spiritual healing. They asked her to lie inside the white lines on a bed of banana leaves, and lit candles around her.
The priestess prayed aloud, speaking in tongues for the spirit world. The healer closed her eyes and appeared to drift into a trance, then placed her hands on the woman's abdomen and forehead.
Afterward, Gomez was helped up by her brother and cousin, and she sat on a rock appearing tired and peaceful. The priestess told the woman not to speak, and announced to those who witnessed the hour-and-a-half ceremony that "the evil" was gone.
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