By Uberto Mario* (Café Fuerte)
HAVANA TIMES – The Venezuelan corporal who was key in restoring Hugo Chavez to the Presidency in April 2002, today spends his days as the head of security and the aide-de-camp in the Venezuelan embassy in Havana.
Juan Bautista Rodríguez, an ordinary Venezuelan, made his entrance into Venezuelan history with his unconditional loyalty to Chavez during the hours that he was removed from power. Bautista was directly involved in sending the leader’s clandestine letter from Turiamo, where he was being held, to let the Venezuelan people know that he hadn’t resigned from the Presidency and that he was being held captive in the hands of the opposing forces.
“The President of the Republic is here, kidnapped and a prisoner!” That phrase of Bautista’s detonated the popular patriotic sentiment and converted him into one of the protagonists of Chavez’ rescue 11 years ago.
That history is now very well known: it appeared in the pages of many newspapers and the Venezuelan officer himself took on the task of offering his declarations about the events. However, I want to relate some unfamiliar parts of the story of the person who today is Sergeant Bautista.
Jubilation of the return
Following the jubilation upon Chavez’ return to power on April 14, 2002, Bautista received his reward for the “very valiant” attitude he displayed.
During the public homage offered to all of the Cuban diplomats and other personnel who resisted during the hours of the attempted coup d’etat, Bautista received the XX Anniversary medal from the FAR (Cuban armed forces), sent by Fidel Castro on that occasion exclusively for Bautista in recognition of his having informed the world where Chavez was.
I was there as well, receiving the Francisco de Miranda order, together with the entire group from the Cuban embassy that refused to surrender in the days from the 11 to the 14 of April. I spoke with Bautista and learned of his peasant origins: he also told me how he had chosen the path of the National Guard because his lack of professional preparation meant that he wasn’t qualified for anything else – he wasn’t a high school graduate and worked hard in the fields with his father and brothers.
I learned in addition that one fine day he met General Raul Baduel while the latter was on an inspection tour of El Blanco in the Venezuelan state of Lara. Bautista told him he wanted to join the National Guard.
Time passed and one day he received a letter to come and take the tests. In this way, Bautista entered the Venezuelan army. He still feels sympathy and gratitude to Baduel, even though the General “betrayed” his President.
Several days after first making his acquaintance, I met Bautista at one of the events that we used to hold on Saturdays in Caracas to interview young people and active members of the military who were candidates to study in Havana.
I still remember that my conversation with him was a disaster, to the extreme that he didn’t even know what century Simon Bolivar the great liberator had lived in, or that Che Guevara was an Argentine.
When the Fort Tiuna Office of Cadres in Caracas was advised of the negative results of Corporal Bautista’s entry interview, his answer was blunt: “No matter, we’re sending him to Havana. It’s our Comandante’s recognition of our colleague Bautista.”
And that’s how it was. Bautista left for Havana, first assigned to the José Martí Technical Military Institute, (known as ITM) in the company of 50 young Venezuelans who now belonged to the Palace military corps. That’s where he received preparation as the political director of the troops.
I don’t know how much he was able to learn in Cuba. When the group returned six months later, I ran into him again in Miraflores. At this point he was stationed in the Presidential office as the coordinator of governmental events. This was what Cubans call “a bottle” meaning sinecure, because, truthfully, Bautista hadn’t received sufficient training and could barely maintain a coherent conversation.
Special Attention from Fidel Castro
But before returning to Caracas, he had received other special honors from Cuba. Upon finishing the course of study in the ITM, Fidel Castro awarded Bautista a week in Varadero, a tour of Viñales, a visit to the headquarters of the Western Army and a tour of historic sites in Santiago, all in the company of his wife, his parents, two brothers and his four children.
At the end of 2003 I again met him on one of Chavez’ tours of the neighborhoods on the Caracas Hills. There, the now deceased leader presented him to the Cuban medical and training brigades as his great friend and savior of “Venezuelan dignity.”
During those years he accompanied Chavez on all of his tours throughout the world. Bautista would move among the escorts as a tourist, always maintaining a low profile, but he had nothing further to contribute.
It was during this epoch that Bautista’s head began to swell and he was in danger of going down the wrong road. However, Ronald Blanco, ex-governor of Táchira, saved him from being sent back to the barracks of the National Guard as a corporal and barracks servant.
When Blanco was designated Ambassador to Havana, he decided to take Bautista with him on the diplomatic mission. There was a powerful family motive: Blanco’s current wife is a sister of Corporal Bautista. And although Blanco is no longer the ambassador, he left him well recommended with his substitute, Edgardo Ramírez, the current representative of President Maduro’s Foreign Ministry in Cuba.
A few days ago, Bautista was seen in a “mission of honor”, placing a bust of Chavez on the Caracas peak of eastern Cuba’s Sierra Maestra mountains. He was there with the Cuban spy René González, now back on the island and very active in official public events.
Today Bautista is a sergeant and functions as head of protocol and provision supplier for the Venezuelan diplomatic seat in the Havana municipality of Playa. He still tells the story of being the one who sent Chavez’ famous letter revealing that he had not resigned from the presidency. Apart from this episode, he doesn’t have a lot more to say or do.
(*) Uberto Mario, author of this piece, is a radio reporter and former agent of the Cuban intelligence under the alias of “Marcos.” He was recruited by the MININT (Cuban Ministry of the Interior which includes intelligence services) in 1987 and worked in this field up until his desertion in 2003. Currently, he resides in Miami.