The goddess and the president
By Mike Ceaser
When opponents of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez succeeded on 3 June in triggering a recall vote on his rule, many saw it as a sign of trouble for the controversial leader.
But for some, the real warning for Mr Chavez - and the nation - came three days later when the statue of goddess Maria Lionza collapsed in Caracas.
"To my way of seeing, it's a warning to her followers that there will be blood, that what's to come is ugly," says Albert Zerpa, a medium who helps Maria Lionza's believers communicate with otherworldly spirits.
He works in the rear of a "spiritualist" shop selling incense, candles and images of occult figures.
Venezuela is sharply divided over the rule of Mr Chavez, a fiery populist leader loved by many in the poor majority, who see in him a hope to share the nation's oil riches, but is despised by most of the wealthy, who accuse him of ruining the economy and steering the nation toward communism.
A shadow of her former self: Broken at the waist
Venezuela is to hold a recall vote on his presidency on 15 August, but many fear that, whatever the outcome, the losers will react violently.
Particularly popular among the nation's poor majority, the folk religion of Maria Lionza combines African, Native American and Catholic influences.
In rites saturated with cigar smoke and incense, believers seek to communicate with the afterworld through the mediation of dozens of deities, ranging from African Gods to Vikings, and from a famed Venezuelan doctor to local criminals who stole from the rich and gave to the poor.
Even Mr Chavez himself has been incorporated into Maria Lionza rites, joining the figures of Latin American independence heroes such as Simon Bolivar.
The varied group of spirits is headed by Maria Lionza herself, said to have been a green-eyed Indian princess who was carried away by a love-struck anaconda and later became the protectoress of nature.
In 1956, Venezuela's final dictator, Marcos Perez Jimenez, placed a 6.7 metre-tall concrete statue of a nude Lionza astride a tapir in the median of the freeway which bisects Caracas.
Over the years, the statue became a shrine for the goddess's followers, called "marialionceros", who dash across five lanes of traffic to place flowers on her pedestal.
However, through the years the freeway's vibrations and pollution have deteriorated the goddess, generating a politically-charged controversy over how to help her.
A pro-Chavez borough mayor wants to move her to a nearby plaza, where an empty pedestal sits waiting. But the anti-Chavez leadership of the neighbouring public university, which claims to own the statue, says she should be restored where she stands.
When Venezuelans awoke on 6 June to find Maria Lionza broken at the waist and fallen backward, interpretations and conspiracy theories abounded.
Some said the goddess had broken in two deliberately in order to warn Venezuelans about the danger of their deeply-divided nation.
Others recalled that the goddess had also cracked just days before Jimenez fell from power, and said she was warning Mr Chavez of his fate. Many fearfully pointed out that by adding up digits of the year, the date 6-6-2004 turns into 666 - the Biblical number of the beast.
'Peace for the world'
An exclusive interview with the Goddess herself was inconclusive.
In his incense-filled office three blocks from the parliament building, Priest Rafael Albis dons a shiny white robe, scents his hands with magical perfume, and, with a paroxysm of shuddering, is miraculously transformed into the goddess herself.
"What message does her fall hold for the nation?" asks a reporter present at the event.
"If the people want violence, there will be violence; if they want peace, there will be peace," replies a feminine voice from Albis' huge torso.
"I want peace for the world."
Whatever the message, nobody interprets the goddess's crisis as positive for Venezuela.
Her statue's deterioration has drawn attention to the decay of much of the capital's infrastructure. And, with a surging crime rate, the popularity of the criminal spirits in Maria Lionza's entourage adds another troubling sign.
"People ask the criminal (spirits) for protection from other criminals," explains medium Zerpa.
It is widely rumoured that Mr Chavez himself is a believer in Maria Lionza and that he calls on her for advice and guidance.
Francisco Maya, owner,of the Moonbeam occult shop, where Zerpa works, cites the president's almost superhuman career as evidence that he has harnessed some otherworldly force.
Mr Chavez led a failed coup in 1992, was imprisoned and pardoned, won a landslide election victory in 1998 and has since survived a coup and a devastating strike against the nation's key petroleum industry.
"(Chavez) must have a pact with the devil to be where he is," says Mr Maya.
"A normal person couldn't withstand all the pressures he has."