Like Bob Dylan, General Manuel Noriega is disappointing us with lackluster work in the twilight of his career. His latest effort–his long-awaited trial–doesn’t just seem like it’s lasting for months, it really is lasting for months. Who cares about the boring details of workaday drug smuggling? You can hear better government corruption stories anytime Walter Jacobson films a city garbage crew. No, the only interesting thing about the Noriega trial is voodoo.

Even Hard Copy has forgotten, but Noriega was denied bail in part because prosecutors said he put a voodoo curse on the trial judge, William Hoeveler, and the U.S. attorney general, then Dick Thornburgh. Now that the trial is under way, we can ask: did he do that voodoo well?

Our first step is determining exactly what supernatural power the general called to his aid. “Voodoo” is a rather generic term, and Noriega’s tight-lipped prosecutors at the Miami U.S. attorney’s office refused to clarify it for us. The general’s own attorneys were no more helpful. “That’s–that’s totally ridiculous,” sputtered their secretary. “That’ll be totally denied, I can tell you that,” she declared, recommending a Mr. Hawkins for that job. Mr. Hawkins, however, didn’t deny anything, since he wouldn’t return repeated phone calls. The U.S. Justice Department wouldn’t allow a comment from its occult expert, U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer James R. Dibble, who got his picture in People for overseeing the collection and analysis of black-magic items in Noriega’s Panama headquarters and residences. At this late date the Justice Department thinks Dibble might “endanger” the case, as if that old issue of People isn’t sitting in several million dentists’ offices right now. Oddly enough, all this reticence makes People’s account the most detailed firsthand information available on Noriega’s voodoo practices.

People reported that Dibble found a freezer in one of Noriega’s headquarters holding “more than 30 trabajos, black-magic totems directed at Noriega’s ‘enemies,’ among them George Bush, Ronald Reagan . . . and William Hoeveler.” Dibble said the trabajos “were put into the freezer as a means of ‘freezing’ the actions of the person.” For the same purpose, there was also a photo of Reagan covered with red candle wax. These types of artifacts can be attributed to a number of so-called “occult” religions, such as Haitian voodoo or Palo Mayombe. More specifically, People reported that Noriega had an altar to a saint of the Santeria religion. The altar held, among other things, a lock of the general’s hair.

“Santeria” means the worship of saints, writes author Migene Gonzalez-Wippler in Rituals and Spells of Santeria. This Afro-Cuban religion originated with the Yorubas of Nigeria, who mixed in elements of Catholicism after they were brought to Cuba as slaves. The Yoruba slaves practiced their religion by disguising their gods, identifying them with various Catholic saints. When that deception was discovered by white owners, the religion and its rituals became strict secrets, which they still are.

Santeria is an “earth religion,” says Gonzalez-Wippler, in which each god or saint is “identified with a force of nature and with a human interest or endeavor.” Adherents use spells, rituals, and sacrifices such as fruit, flowers, or candles to acquire power from the saints. (Chickens, goats, and other animals sometimes come in handy too, which prompted a Miami suburb to outlaw animal sacrifices in 1987.) Gonzalez-Wippler details common sacrifices and rituals, such as those to hasten a marriage, get an inheritance, or protect a car from accidents.

School of the Art Institute professor Marilyn Houlberg, who teaches courses in African and Caribbean art and religions, explains that Santeria is by no means diabolical. “The main thrust or ethos of the religion is keeping yourself in balance,” she says. “You enlist the deities’ help to empower you in what you need to accomplish. It’s a more concrete way of dealing with your problems–helping you with everyday things. It’s very normal.” Houlberg recommended a leading Chicago Santeria priest, or “babalawo,” Hector Rodriguez, who has lectured for her classes.

Hector Rodriguez is a busy man. He wears a beeper, and on a recent balmy afternoon at his modest frame house on North California, people were waiting in line at the side gate. “We’re doing ceremonies in the back this week for the religion, and you’re not allowed back there,” said his wife, Ida. “I’m not allowed back there either,” she kindly added so I wouldn’t feel bad. “But he’s hungry, so he’ll be in soon.” Rodriguez quickly arrived, a short middle-aged man with jet black hair, wearing khaki pants and a colorful shirt.

Hector doesn’t speak English fluently, so Ida translated for us. “Santeria is not for bad,” she said. “It’s to help. It’s for good. The same way you go to a Catholic priest and confess and the priest helps the person. That’s what we do through our gods and saints. We sweeten the person to work for you. He turns your way. There is black magic, but it has nothing to do with our religion. Black magic is sort of Haitian. People come to Hector with a lot of black magic, and he has the power to take the bad stuff from people.”

After the initial disclaimer, which Haitians might well dispute, Hector concentrated on the Noriega case. “He has heard from a babalawo in Miami that there was a babalawo seeing Noriega in Panama,” said Ida. “His friend in Miami knows him. Hector says just because you have a babalawo that you see doesn’t mean he can give you power to do whatever you want. He can tell you of the dangers ahead in your life. Some people follow the advice, and some people don’t. And if you don’t”–she shrugged–“things happen. As far as Hector knows, Noriega didn’t obey what the babalawo told him.”

Usually, Rodriguez said, people with an upcoming trial visit the babalawo to perform ceremonies to sweeten the judge. “Not to do anything bad, but to get them to work for you.” If Noriega did use Santeria, perhaps he performed the ritual described in the Gonzalez-Wippler book for very difficult court cases: “The person must cleanse himself with a pigeon, which is then sacrificed to Ochosi,” a Santeria saint identified with the Catholic Saint Norbert and said to have judicial and administrative powers. “The head of the pigeon must be impaled on Ochosi’s arrow and left there until the case is won. The body of the pigeon is left in the woods with seven cents.”

Rodriguez insisted that Santeria does not include curses, so Noriega must have used another religion as well. To determine what that might have been, Ida read Hector the People account. They chortled over the black-magic totems in the freezer and the picture of Reagan with the red wax. “Hector doesn’t think it was [Haitian] voodoo,” Ida chuckled. “Maybe Noriega was with people who didn’t know much. Obviously, it brought him down. These are simple things that don’t have any power. What are these going to do? Putting them in a freezer? What will that do?” She grinned and shook her head. “He thinks Noriega wasn’t advised well, and they probably took a lot of money from him for a while and made him think he had the power to stay in his position for a long time.”

Rodriguez said Noriega may have been using a number of different religions simultaneously. “In his desperation for power, he was turning to everything, like a person who goes to a lot of doctors,” Ida translated. If so, the resulting effect on Judge William Hoeveler and Dick Thornburgh would depend on their own personal power. “Say you throw witchcraft on a person,” Ida explained. “It won’t go in as easy in some people. Say you do something to make the person have an accident and die. That doesn’t mean it’s going to happen. Some people have their own protection. It might go into the judge and not the attorney general.”

Rodriguez said Hoeveler’s and Thornburgh’s best bet would be to consult a babalawo, who can remove the curse. If they don’t have the curse removed, he said, “It could still be working. Later on they could get sick, go crazy, things could go bad economically, at work.” By that definition, a look at Hoeveler’s and Thornburgh’s lives this past year indicates a curse could be active.

Thornburgh has experienced serious and rather mysterious setbacks at work this year. He quit his attorney-general job to run for the U.S. Senate from Pennsylvania, which should have been a no-brainer for him. Thornburgh is a former two-term Pennsylvania governor, and he began with a 40-point lead in the polls. Still he managed to lose resoundingly to Democrat Harris Wofford, whose usual media description was “little-known.” The Senate race was the first run for elective office for Wofford, a liberal in a conservative state that hadn’t sent a Democrat to the Senate since 1962. So voodoo looks plausible, though given Thornburgh’s diehard Reaganite positions on the campaign trail, it might have been voodoo economics. It’s not clear whether Thornburgh realizes the possible supernatural cause of his political defeat; he wouldn’t return calls to his Pittsburgh law office, and as a private citizen he no longer has any media spokesmen to comment for him.

Hoeveler, the 69-year-old semiretired judge, seems doomed to sit and listen full-time to the excruciatingly dull details of every routine drug flight out of Panama and every petty spat between Noriega and the Medellin drug cartel. No one knows how long the trial will last. Not a full-blown grisly end, perhaps–but not one most people would willingly choose either. The judge is probably unaware of the ongoing danger. “Are you serious?” scoffed his secretary. “You want me to ask the judge that?” She wouldn’t.

More curse evidence: A key witness against Noriega was killed last February in a car crash–days before his scheduled testimony against two Noriega codefendants. Ramon Navarro, a federal drug informant, died after his car slammed into a fence and electrical transformer. As Navarro’s lawyer observed, “It’s kind of a coincidence that this guy’s getting ready to testify and he turns up as a cadaver.”

And of course Noriega’s frozen black-magic totems included George Bush and Ronald Reagan. Bush’s heart problem last May is highly suspect. Doctors concluded it was caused by Graves’ disease, the rare thyroid condition already afflicting Barbara Bush. The chances of Graves’ disease striking two people in the same household were considered astronomical. And Reagan . . . well, he’s still married to Nancy anyway.

If Judge Hoeveler or Thornburgh consulted him, Rodriguez said his standard procedure would be to do a reading to determine what curse had been placed on them. During such readings, Rodriguez ascertains the subject’s name and birth date. Then, saying special prayers, he throws his okuele, a chain holding eight medallions usually made of coconut shell or tortoise shell. Certain signs are seen in the way the okuele falls. The subject also holds a rock in one hand, and a shell in the other, Rodriguez said, and he learns more by which hand they choose to hold either one. After analyzing the nature of the curse through the reading, Rodriguez said the curse is removed using a round wooden board known as the Table of Ifa.

The procedure sounds complicated, but Thornburgh and Judge Hoeveler might be interested to know that it can easily be fitted into a busy professional schedule. “If they’ve been cursed,” says Rodriguez, “everything can be taken away in about an hour.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Joan Hackett.