A bishop recalls: Chavez was on the phone... save me, my children

Faridabad bishop Bharanikulangara was No. 2 at Vatican mission in Caracas during 2002 coup bid.

When he heard that Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez had died of cancer, Archbishop Kuriakose Bharanikulangara, Bishop of Faridabad, couldn't help recall an April night in 2002 when Chavez, ousted from power briefly during a failed coup, pleaded with him to save him and his family.

Posted as deputy ambassador at the Vatican embassy in Venezuela in 2002, Bharanikulangara said that on April 11 that year, Chavez's opponents put in motion a plan to topple him.

"His opponents had planned to kill him and they knew it was impossible without the support of the military. So, they managed to buy the generals of the army, marine services and air force. The public could not come out and protest, aware that the police too was on the other side. It was all so detailed," Bharanikulangara said.

By midnight, Chavez and his family were captives at the Miraflores presidential palace.

The Vatican ambassador was visiting home in France and Bharanikulangara was the acting ambassador.

"Well past midnight, my secretary received an urgent call and told me that the president was on the line. Chavez pleaded with me to save him. He said: 'My life is in danger. My family and I are being held hostage at gunpoint. Please come and save me, my children.' I told him a diplomatic mediation then was not possible because the city was virtually on fire, every road was blocked," Bharanikulangara said.

Desperate, Chavez asked him to call the head of the Catholic Church and seek help.

"I told Chavez in Spanish that the Catholic Church never favours violence. We respect life. Mr President, I will do everything to save your life.' And I was determined to help him at any cost," he said.

Bharanikulangara says he called the Pope and was told to give Chavez political asylum if he came to the Vatican embassy. When he said Chavez was being held at gunpoint, he was told to go to the presidential palace. With a cardinal and another priest, Bharanikulangara went to the palace where four generals had held the Chavez family. Their first demand was that Chavez immediately leave the country.

"We somehow managed to convince him that this was important and he was taken to Los Roques island along with his family. The two priests accompanied him. The cardinal even gave him a cross which he always carried around later," Bharanikulangara said.

Though the plan was that Chavez and his family would fly to Cuba the next day, the president decided to return on the third day. His supporters, Bharanikulangara said, came out in hordes. Those behind the coup were jailed.

In parliament, Chavez kept his hands on Bharanikulangara's shoulders and said: "He saved my life. I wanted to talk to God that night but it was not possible. So, I spoke to his representative."

Bharanikulangara was transferred to Congo in 2003.

He said he also supported Chavez because he could see similarities between his policies and those in his home state Kerala. "I was impressed by his programmes. As a diplomat, I was representing the Holy See but I adored Chavez. The Communist government came to power in Kerala in 1957. So, what Venezuela was witnessing then was what we had already experienced in the 1960s."

From Ernakulam, Bharanikulangara lives in Karol Bagh.

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