The Man with God in His Mouth

In tiny Miraflores Viejo, in Cuba's cane country, the religion of choice is vodou, and the high priest is Eugenio Sensio

One notable feature of vodou is the equality of male and female roles, a departure from Santeria, in which women can't become priests, as well as Catholicism and Christianity in general, with admonitions against women having authority over men. Most experts agree that female vodou priests, or mambos, are as numerous as houngans (male priests) in the Western Hemisphere. As leaders of communities of initiates, priests and priestesses must study divination and the use of medicinal and poisonous herbs. (It is a powerful nerve poison found in a Haitian plant -- physostigmine venenosum, according to Harvard University scientist Wade Davis's controversial 1985 book The Serpent and the Rainbow -- that gave rise to the rare but documented zombie phenomenon; victims of such poisoning may appear dead for days but then often "rise" from the grave.)

Vodou has played a central role in the history of Haiti, the world's first independent black republic. "Vodou emerges with the Creole language; it is very much a religion of survival and resistance," says Terry Rey, professor of African and Caribbean religions at Florida International University. Boukman, the leader of the slave uprising in 1791 that resulted in Haiti's independence from France thirteen years later, was a vodou priest; his first act of rebellion was a ritual sacrifice, and the rebels were called to attack by the beats of vodou drums. Around that time many French landowners fled to Cuba, taking with them their slaves, who in turn took with them their religion.

In the Twentieth Century, François Duvalier became familiar with popular Haitian religious beliefs during his years as a traveling country doctor. After his election to the presidency in 1957, Duvalier, known as Papa Doc, used his knowledge of vodou to create an image of himself as a magically powerful figure resembling the god Samedi, vodou's graveyard guardian.

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A century after the initial migration of slaves from Haiti to Cuba, the U.S. occupation of Haiti in the early 1900s prompted thousands more Haitians to go into exile in Cuba. Subsequent Haitian immigration was prompted mainly by the need for labor on the large American-owned sugar plantations in Cuba. "The last wave of immigration was in the Forties, and their vodou traditions have flourished in a totally Cuban context without any refreshment from Haiti," Rey explains. "So vodou in Cuba might emerge in very different versions."

It was during the Twenties that Eugenio Sensio's parents came to the Oriente, or eastern part of the island. His father brokered Haitian labor in the cane fields. At that time Cuban law discouraged Haitians from obtaining education or work other than manual labor. Many were also persecuted for practicing their religion, according to Maria Ileana Faguaga, a graduate student of African religions at the University of Havana. "Now there is much more openness," Faguaga says. "There are many Haitians perfectly assimilated into the culture who want to maintain their heritage and speak Creole again. They are often very pro-Fidel, and they see the revolution as having improved their lot."

Sensio is vocal in his dedication to the revolution. "I'm a communist," he declares. He does not differentiate between his vodou and his politics; both focus on relieving the suffering of the poor and powerless. "I practice my religion in accordance with my traditions as a communist," he explains. "Because of this my vodou has the power of the masses. My vodou doesn't serve capitalism; it is humble. The powerful think vodou is bad because they know it has the power of the masses."

He was born in Palma Soriano in 1926, a year before Fidel Castro, who grew up not far away in Biran, and who himself had a Haitian godfather. Sensio says he joined Castro's rebels in 1957, when his forces were fighting in the Sierra Maestra mountains. After the triumph of the revolution, Castro ordered most of the country's military personnel, including Sensio, to Havana. There, Sensio worked as a painter, barber, and rotulista (sign painter). He got married and had the first of what would eventually be 22 children. Although he's been divorced from his wife Manuela Echevarria, the mother of seven of those children, for more than ten years, they remain on good terms.

While living an outwardly typical life in Havana, Sensio says he also worked in counterintelligence for 33 years, going undercover for the Cuban government in Angola and Algeria. "I helped train the famous snake Savimbi," he boasts, referring to Angolan guerrilla leader Jonas Savimbi, who fought for independence from Portugal in the Seventies, later turned against the elected Marxist government in Angola, and is still fighting to rule the country.

Sensio settled in Miraflores Viejo because he remembered the place and its mango trees from when he was on a work crew in 1956, building the highway through the region. Many Haitian Cubans live in the area, including a sister and niece in the village. Here, he says, his spirits ordered him to publicly make his calling as a vodou priest. "What was hidden will now be revealed to the whole world," he proclaims, paraphrasing Jesus Christ but referring to himself. Sensio never goes into much detail about exactly what is to be revealed, other than his immense spiritual power, and maybe that's as complicated as he gets; in any case, after Sensio moved to Miraflores Viejo, people started coming to him for counseling. There he initiated his first ahijados (godchildren, from the Spanish word for child, hijo).

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