The New York Times
November 06, 2007
CARACAS, Venezuela, Nov. 5 — In a sharp indictment of President Hugo Chávez’s proposed changes to the Constitution, the former top army commander here described the proposed charter on Monday as “in effect a coup d’état” intended to abolish checks on Mr. Chávez’s expanding power.
The former commander, Gen. Raúl Isaías Baduel, who was also defense minister until his retirement last July, had been one of Mr. Chávez’s closest allies after helping to reinstall him in office during a brief coup in 2002. At a news conference here, he called the president’s proposals a “nondemocratic imposition that would put us into tragic retreat.”
The criticism from General Baduel, who said he saw little reason to replace the existing Constitution written in 1999, points to fissures among the president’s supporters ahead of a referendum on the constitutional overhaul scheduled for Dec. 2.
The new charter would allow Mr. Chávez to be re-elected indefinitely and could centralize power in his hands by diminishing the influence of elected governors and mayors. The Constitution currently limits presidents to two six-year terms, and would end Mr. Chávez’s presidency in 2012.
Other important supporters of Mr. Chávez have recently broken with him, offering different views of the proposed charter. These include a high-profile lawmaker, Ismael García of the leftist Podemos party, who has taken to criticizing the president’s ideas with a frankness once reserved for the more traditional political opposition.
Still, Mr. Chávez showed over the weekend that he was able to draw supporters with ease to a march in favor of the 69 amendments, which would also impose a six-hour workday and ease property expropriations. Thoroughfares here were flooded with civil servants and pro-Chávez activists clad in red clothing.
In an address before his followers, Mr. Chávez lashed out at critics in universities and the Roman Catholic Church. Apparently alarmed by the intensity of student-led street protests in recent weeks, the president described student leaders as “rich bourgeois brats” and said authorities could restrict permits for future demonstrations.
Similarly, the president’s loyalists, including leaders of the National Assembly and former military commanders, reacted harshly to General Baduel’s comments, describing him in treasonous terms for breaking with Mr. Chávez on such a crucial issue. “He is a traitor and the people here disown traitors,” said Cilia Flores, president of the National Assembly.
Still, General Baduel is of a different stripe than most high-ranking members of Venezuela’s military establishment. While even top commanders are usually forgotten in this country once they retire, the leftist General Baduel, 52, attained almost mythical status in Mr. Chávez’s political movement for his pivotal role in thwarting the 2002 coup.
General Baduel’s careful choice of words, particularly the word “coup,” inflamed the president’s supporters, who often describe their opponents as putschists or coup-plotters. José Vicente Rangel, Mr. Chávez’s former vice president, warned over the weekend that he had intelligence that some in the political opposition were paving the way for a coup.
Such accusations are commonplace in political debate here, but after General Baduel’s comments, military analysts sought to discern what effect he might have within the country’s armed forces, which are engulfed in internal discussion over Mr. Chávez’s attempts to politicize their ranks at the expense of institutional independence.