December 24, 2007


Chávez Faces Challenge From Former Comrade (JOSÉ DE CÓRDOBA, December 24, 2007, Wall Street Journal)

Venezuela's political future is shaping up as a battle between two former comrades-in-arms: President Hugo Chávez and former defense minister Raúl Baduel, one of Mr. Chávez's closest friends going back to their days together in the barracks.

In recent weeks, Mr. Baduel has emerged as perhaps the most significant rival to Mr. Chávez since he became president in 1999. The 52-year-old retired general was instrumental in tilting public opinion against Mr. Chávez's attempts to rewrite the constitution to give himself greater powers, including the right to unlimited re-election. Along with allies in the military, he is widely seen as having pressured Mr. Chávez to concede defeat in a Dec. 2 referendum on the changes.
[Raul Baduel]

Mr. Baduel's rise could constrain Mr. Chávez's well-known twin ambitions to stay in power for good and turn the world's sixth-biggest oil exporter into a Cuban-style socialist state. His opposition to Mr. Chávez also seems to reflect some dissatisfaction with the president within the armed forces. The president has politicized the military, forced tasks upon it such as running soup kitchens instead of preparing for battle and changed its traditional view of the world -- turning its longtime ally, the U.S., into its main foe.

Mr. Baduel's role on the night after the vote is fast becoming the stuff of legend in Venezuela. The country's electoral commission dragged its feet for hours in announcing the results. Shortly after midnight, Venezuelan TV showed soldiers preventing opposition representatives from entering the vote-counting hall, sparking rumors that Mr. Chávez was planning to rig the vote.

Then Mr. Baduel appeared on television, wearing a windbreaker and surrounded by grim-faced aides. "For the good of the country, the [election agency] cannot yield to any pressures which could lead to undesired situations," said Mr. Baduel, whose 36-year military career included stints in elite parachute, jungle and antiguerrilla units. His message was clear: Fraud could lead to civil war. Minutes later, the electoral commission stunned the country by announcing that Mr. Chávez had lost -- the first electoral defeat for the seemingly invincible president. Immediately it made Mr. Baduel a key player in shaping the country's future.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 24, 2007 11:35 PM
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