November 08, 2007
President Chávez's rift with a former defense minister revealed military divisions in Venezuela, a constant concern for him.
A heated falling out between President Hugo Chávez and his former military chief has revealed divisions within the military that analysts say are a constant concern for the Venezuelan leader.
Former Defense Minister Raúl Baduel, a longtime friend of Chávez's, surprised many this week when he condemned constitutional revisions proposed by Chávez as a virtual ''coup,'' urging voters to reject them in a national referendum tentatively set for Dec. 2.
He said Tuesday he isn't ruling out a run for office.
Among Chávez's 69 proposed amendments are measures to abolish presidential term limits and lengthen terms from six to seven years, and to strip the Central Bank of autonomy.
Baduel warned the changes would ''seize power away from the people,'' and urged citizens -- and soldiers -- to study them carefully.
''The military is divided,'' said Steve Ellner, a political science professor at Venezuela's University of the East. ``There's an anti-Chávez faction, there's an institutionalist faction . . . and there's a pro-Chávez faction.''
Yet, he said, the armed forces remain cohesive and a strengthened pro-Chávez faction appears to block any chance of insurrection -- in contrast to 2002, when Chávez overcame a short-lived coup with help from Baduel and other loyalists.
Chávez appears to be taking no chances. Condemning Baduel as ''one more traitor,'' Chávez said military leaders had met to evaluate the possible effect of the retired general's remarks, which he likened to ''gasoline.'' He insisted there is no military faction capable of staging a coup.
Addressing thousands of supporters who chanted ''Baduel, traitor!'' at a rally Tuesday night, Chávez bellowed: ``Traitors are the devil. . . . Let them leave.''
''Since the coup, the military has always been a center of attention and concern,'' for Chávez, said Miguel Tinker Salas, a Latin American studies professor at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif. ``He tries to keep a pulse on what the attitude is within the military.''
Baduel's break is likely to pique public debate ahead of the referendum on the constitutional changes, Tinker Salas said.
Chávez insists the revisions would not boost his power, but rather help democracy flourish by empowering neighborhood assemblies, creating new types of collective property and easing his planned transition to socialism.
Chávez, a former paratroop commander and close ally of Cuban leader Fidel Castro, said comparing the revisions to a coup is an irresponsible exaggeration.
Baduel, who was replaced as defense minister in July, is one of the closest members of Chávez's inner circle to defect in recent years.
The retired general is not known to have a political following, but appears to be testing the waters for a role in the country's fractured political opposition.
Baduel became friends with Chávez during their soldier days in the 1970s, and was among the founding members of Chávez's political movement. He was widely credited with helping return Chávez to power after the 2002 coup, organizing paratroopers to rescue the president from rebel officers.
Some commentators have theorized that Baduel's defection might be a tactic orchestrated by Chávez to get more people to vote for his changes. But opposition newspaper editor Teodoro Petkoff said Baduel appears to be standing up for his own principles.
''Baduel is a democratic soldier, not a coup-plotter,'' Petkoff wrote in Tal Cual.