Colombia's 'regina Xi' Says She's No Witch—but Her Political Rise Is Spellbinding
04/14/1980 at 01:00 AM EST
Not even the New Hampshire primary, with its legendary candidates from the lunatic fringe, has produced an office seeker like Colombia's Regina de Jesús Betancourt Viuda de Restrepo de Liska. She claims that the weather obeys her, that she levitates for relaxation the way most people jog and that she can use "magnetic healing" to focus an invalid's internal powers and cure anything from skin disease to cancer. Unlikely as all that sounds, Betancourt, 43, is possessed of one certifiable talent bordering on the miraculous—an uncanny gift for winning votes. Last month, in local elections, she was voted into the city councils of two different cities and the assemblies of two states—and suddenly rated a plausible long shot for president of Colombia in the 1982 election. Supporters liken her populist appeal to that of Argentina's Evita Peron. Opponents call her a witch—and she has adopted a broom as her party symbol, vowing, "I'm going to sweep all of the old politicians out of office."
To the "old politicians," that is no idle threat. When she sought the presidency two years ago, Regina ran afoul of a bizarre Colombian eligibility test: Either a master's or doctoral degree or prior political office was required. She has now met the latter test, winning with a campaign budget of only $8,000 against opponents who laid out upwards of $1 million each. Her platform was simple: "Politicians don't help poor people, I feel bad about that. I promise to create 1,200,000 jobs."
Her voters have not forced her to deliver on that pledge, nor have they seen fit to question Regina's exotic autobiography. The self-described "seer," one of 18 children of a street barber, says that she became aware of her gifts at age 4. Entering a dark room in her house, she recalls seeing "the eyes and face of a man larger than life projected on the ceiling, and the room became illuminated." Then the spirit communicated to her: "I am here. I am your teacher. I am going to teach you everything about the mind. You are the 11th to have this power. I was the 10th, but the world will know me as the 23rd." Only years later did Regina—who calls herself "Regina XI"—decide that her spiritual adviser was the man who became Pope John XXIII. Although she contends that Jesus was the second possessor of the power, she won't identify the others in her illustrious lineage.
Regina remembers herself as a prodigious child and reports that she used to levitate to the ceiling to unscrew light bulbs. Her mother rushed her to the local priest for an exorcism, but Regina managed to escape. By age 7, she says, she began healing through touch, becoming so locally renowned that the doctor would send her his most difficult cases. "Everybody can magnetize and cure people," she shrugs.
But as an adult Regina rarely used her powers until 1970, when her daughter Johanna—the only child of her second marriage, to Danny Liska, a peripatetic Nebraska rancher she met on a flight to Bogotá—was born a deathly ill "blue baby." "I promised myself that if I cured Johanna, I would go everyplace and teach people how to use the powers," says Regina. Johanna—who doctors thought would die within hours—will soon celebrate her 11th birthday, the beneficiary of what Regina describes as her greatest miracle.
Regina's followers claim that the miracles have continued and their patron has kept their loyalty in more earthly ways as well. Regina has already established free dental clinics, a restaurant serving a daily 80-cent lunch to 800 and a textile factory that trains workers and then finds them jobs. But the charitable projects are a sideshow to Regina's professional activities, which include a popular half-hour radio program; running a computer firm; marketing products that include "magnetized" T-shirts, face cream and Regina dolls, and running the nonprofit International Union Center to teach healing powers to students who come from all over the world. "I work 24 hours a day," Betancourt insists.
Regina's first appearance as a politician came after some devotees staged a mass for her 40th birthday at Bogotá Cathedral on Feb. 14, 1977. Almost 80,000 people mobbed the cathedral and the plaza outside, paralyzing the center of the city. Although Regina's followers include nuns and priests, the hierarchy condemned the gathering and the government canceled her radio program. "I then and there decided to get into politics to defend my rights," she says. Thanks to some shrewd politicking-she threw her support to President Julio César Turbay—her radio program, Human Relations with Regina XI, is back on the air.
Her political career took off from the start. Thousands attend her rallies—which include a light show, mantra chanting, off-color jokes and frequent fainting. She insists that at one mass gathering last year in Miami (where she maintains a second home) she deflected Hurricane David from the city. In her recent election, instead of following the standard practice of distributing ballots free (Colombian candidates must print and hand out their own ballots), she charged supporters 10 cents for "magnetized" ballots and thereby financed her campaign. "I've got more than 100 employees who'd probably turn to crime the day they lose their job with me," she confides.
Unabashedly pro-American, Regina says her party draws workers who would otherwise vote Communist. Among her most loyal supporters is her husband Danny, 51, a former globetrotter whose résumé includes a job stunting for Yul Brynner during the filming of Taras Bulba. (Regina's first husband, who left her with three daughters, was killed in a knife fight.) "Regina is like a fruit tree that everyone comes to, and I am the caretaker whose job it is to see that the tree doesn't dry up," says Liska. If Regina's popularity continues to grow, Colombians may reap a strange harvest indeed in their next presidential elections.