Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez denounced his former military chief as a traitor on Monday after the longtime ally condemned constitutional reforms that would let the leftist leader run for re-election indefinitely.
In a sharp break with Chavez, former defense minister Raul Baduel said if the public approves the reforms in a Dec. 2 referendum, "in practice a coup d'etat would be consummated, violating the constitutional text in a shameless way."
Hours later, Chavez responded firmly in a telephone call broadcast on state TV, calling Baduel "one more traitor."
"It's the end of Baduel, the moral end," Chavez said.
He said he felt hurt to lose a close friend who was like a brother -- "I'm even godfather of his little daughter."
"The loose screws are going to keep coming out and I think it's good," Chavez said.
The high-profile defection filled Venezuelan TV talk shows with debate -- not only about the retired general's motivations but also whether his objections are echoed within the ranks of the military.
Baduel, who was replaced in July, was a close confidant of Chavez who helped him return to power after a short-lived 2002 coup. But he strongly opposed the constitutional change, saying "it seizes away power from the people."
Chavez, a former paratroop commander who was re-elected last year, says the changes would expand democracy by empowering neighborhood-based assemblies and would also advance the country's transition to socialism.
The proposed amendments would also create new types of property managed by cooperatives and end the Central Bank's autonomy.
In a televised news conference, Baduel said the 69 reforms approved by the National Assembly last week are "introducing changes in a fraudulent way ... carrying along the people like sheep to the slaughterhouse."
A battery of officials responded on state TV, including two other former defense ministers and later Chavez himself, who said he was surprised by Baduel's aggressive tone and accused him of acting on behalf of Venezuela's right wing and "taking part in the very game of [US] imperialism."
"We'll be very alert because it's part of a plan, part of a plan that without a doubt aims to fill the streets of Venezuela with violence," Chavez said.
He said the military high command met to evaluate the situation, saying Baduel's comments were like "gasoline."
"I'm completely sure there is no current within the Armed Force that has the necessary strength to carry out a successful coup d'etat or to lead the country to a civil war -- we have to avoid that," Chavez said.
Baduel urged the public -- as well as soldiers -- to closely analyze the reforms, warning of a threat to democracy and saying it remains unclear what sort of socialism Chavez wants.
Baduel said although he can no longer speak for the armed forces, "it can be perceived in the heart of our institution that there is not complete acceptance" of Chavez's stances, including his order that all troops must salute using the slogan "Fatherland, socialism -- or death."
Baduel is not known to have a political following. But he is one of the closest members of Chavez's inner circle to break ranks in recent years.
"He's an important voice even though he's retired," said Alberto Garrido, a Venezuelan political analyst.
What remains unclear, he said, is how much of a support base Baduel might have within the military.