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President locks up the bringer of bad news

The Venezuelan President did not like his horoscope. It said he was going to die next spring.

So President Rafael Caldera, 81, locked up the messenger - Jose Bernardo Gomez, a leading astrologer - and accused him of plotting a coup. Mr Gomez, a 48-year-old philosophy professor with four children, had predicted the President's demise at a seminar of bankers, businessmen and politicians in a private think-tank. "Caldera has Pluto ascending. Pluto is the planet of death," he said. "Caldera will not make it through 1997."

The President's secret police hauled him off to its feared Caracas headquarters, held him incommunicado for 48 hours in a tiny cell, then grilled him over an alleged anti-government plot. His family feared he had been kidnapped.

He was freed after explaining the astral basis for his prediction and that he was merely warning the President to "beware the Ides of March".

"The most critical point for the President will be between 5 February and 27 April, and specifically in mid-March," Mr Gomez said yesterday. "Mars will be in retrocess and there will be a solar eclipse on 8 March whose effects will last for three months. If Caldera is still in power on 8 June, I'll give up astrology for good. That would mean my system is useless. But I'm convinced it will work. I'm not specifically saying the President will die. It could be a symbolic death, if he leaves power for whatever reason. He's over 80. It's natural he's going to die sooner rather than later."

Mr Gomez, president of the Venezuelan Astrologers' Association, was one of the few who predicted Mr Caldera's surprise 1993 election. His spell in jail has made him a celebrity.

"Most people think the President's reaction was absurd," he said. "I'm just a stargazer."