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Political storm hints at Chávez rift with army

President Hugo Chávez caused a stir earlier this year when he ordered members of Venezuela’s armed forces to salute their superiors with the words “Fatherland, Socialism or Death!”

Por: Benedict Mander

It fuelled debate in the military over its involvement in politics and civil society – long a sensitive issue in Venezuela, not least since the failed coup five years ago against Mr Chávez, in which factions of the military played key roles both in deposing him and reinstating him.

Mr Chávez himself is a former soldier who led an abortive coup 10 years earlier. So the public falling-out this week between Mr Chávez and one of his oldest allies since the 1970s, the retired general Raúl Baduel, has caused a political storm, triggering speculation as to whether this signals a deeper schism between the president and the military.

Mr Baduel, who was the defence minister until July, on Monday declared that Mr Chávez’s proposed changes to the constitution were “fraudulent” and would be tantamount to a “coup”.

Already, the new constitution, which would centralise power and allow Mr Chávez to be re-elected indefinitely, has been rejected by the pro-government party Podemos, which complained of “constitutional fraud”.

But pollsters expect the majority of the population, which Mr Baduel likened to “lambs to the slaughter”, to approve the changes in a referendum on December 2.

Mr Baduel’s choice of words resonated particularly strongly because of the respect he won after his key role in saving Mr Chávez from the coup against him in 2002, a risky move that for many proved his commitment to democracy.

Mr Chávez, who just months ago called Mr Baduel “a lifelong brother”, has now branded him a “traitor”.

What effect Mr Baduel’s stance may have on the rest of the military remains unclear, although officials have played down the importance of his statements.

“We are not going to pay attention to calls to political violence like this,” says General Alberto Müller Rojas, a former adviser to the president. “He is just one more to have joined the opposition.”

Alberto Garrido, an independent political analyst, disagrees, arguing that a new political space is emerging. “Baduel represents a third space between Chávez’s followers and the traditional opposition. It shows that within the original Bolivarian movement there are important discrepancies,” he says.

“It would be hasty to say that this confirms a crisis in the military, but it is clear he is not acting alone,” he adds, explaining that Mr Baduel represents a significant sector of the military.

Although Mr Chávez owes his continued success in elections to widespread support among the poorer sectors of the population, in governing the country he has consistently fallen back on the army’s support.

Over a quarter of the ministers that served in his government up to 2004 were military officers, while over a third of state governors have a military background. This has led to concerns of a militarisation of politics, although Mr Chávez says he lacks qualified civilians who back his project.

But the military is divided between a more conservative wing, seen by some to be represented by Mr Baduel, which wants to maintain a professional, independent force, and those promoting an ever-closer “civil-military union”. Mr Chávez has struggled to satisfy both.

The idea of a civil-military union is one of the principles behind Mr Chávez’s so-called “Bolivarian revolution”. It is argued that Venezuela can only succeed against a US invasion – however unlikely – through “asymmetrical warfare”, such as in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Mr Müller Rojas has argued that Venezuela’s arms build-up – which includes the purchase of 100,000 Kalashnikov rifles, 53 helicopters and 24 Sukhoi fighter jets as part of a $3bn contract with Russia – contradicts the theory of “asymmetrical warfare”, while Mr Baduel’s removal as minister of defence was seen to favour moves towards a civil-military union.

Source: Financial Times

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