November 09, 2007
Analysts contend military's loyalty a constant concern
General Raul Baduel, former defense minister, held up a copy of Venezuela's Constitution on Monday and condemned the amendments the president wants to make as a virtual 'coup.'
CARACAS - A heated falling out between President Hugo Chávez and his former military chief has revealed divisions within the military analysts say are a constant concern for the Venezuelan leader.
surprised many this week when he condemned constitutional changes proposed by the president as a virtual "coup," urging voters to reject them in a national referendum tentatively set for Dec. 2.
He said Tuesday that he isn't ruling out a run for office.
Among Chávez 's 69 proposed amendments are measures to abolish presidential term limits, lengthen terms from six to seven years, and strip the Central Bank of autonomy.
Baduel warned that 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," the president said military leaders had met to evaluate the possible affect of the retired general's remarks, which he likened to "gasoline." He insisted there is no military faction capable of carrying out a coup nowadays.
"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, Tinker Salas said.
Chávez insists the changes would not boost his power, but rather help democracy flourish by empowering neighborhood assemblies, creating 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 changes 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. He has not said which office he might seek.
Baduel became friends with Chávez during their soldier days in the 1970s and was among the founding members of the president'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 while crowds of Chávistas protested in the streets.
Venezuelan talk shows were buzzing with debate over Baduel's possible motives, with some commentators theorizing his defection might even be a tactic orchestrated by Chávez to get more people to vote for his changes.
But Teodoro Petkoff, an opposition newspaper editor, said Baduel appears to be standing up for his own principles. "Baduel is a democratic soldier, not a coup-plotter," Petkoff wrote in his newspaper, Tal Cual.