Sun, Nov 11, 2007 - Page 7 News List

Defection of former military chief puts Chavez in tight spot

HISTORY REPEATED?The Venezuelan leader says the atmosphere is similar to tensions five years ago that led to a failed military rebellion

AP , CARACAS

The defection of Venezuela's former military chief coupled with massive protests that have turned violent have given Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez a potentially explosive mixture to worry about as he seeks to expand his power through constitutional changes.

But the rudderless political opposition has yet to demonstrate it can galvanize the unexpected upheaval into a united front capable of defeating a Dec. 2 referendum on proposed amendments.

University students have taken the lead in protests that have drawn tens of thousands -- sidelining political parties discredited by several failed attempts to topple Chavez during his eight years in office.

And opposition leaders seem wary of throwing their support behind retired General Raul Baduel, a former defense minister who turned his back on Chavez this week to start a campaign against the constitutional reforms. Venezuela's opposition has rushed to support defectors before -- only to see them return to the Chavez fold once it became clear he would keep the upper hand.

Chavez is "worried, and he's got reasons to be worried because this could build and he's smart enough to realize that," said Michael Shifter at the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington.

However, it's "very unlikely that Chavez is going to lose at the ballot box because the opposition is still weak, divided and has a hard time coming up with a common strategy," he said.

Chavez and his allies are comparing the political atmosphere to agitation in 2002 and 2003 that culminated with a botched military rebellion and nationwide strike. The unrest left the opposition demoralized and allowed Chavez to consolidate his power over the oil industry and the military.

But it was Baduel who played a major role in returning Chavez to power during the 2002 coup, and his defection raised the specter of military discontent.

Acknowledging Baduel's words were like "gasoline," Chavez gathered his military leaders this week to evaluate their possible impact.

On Friday, however, Chavez appeared unconcerned during a visit to Chile for a summit of Latin America leaders, condemning his opponents for resorting to "fascist violence" and accusing them of seeking help from Washington and Venezuela's military.

"I urge the people of the right not to go down the fascist path," Chavez told state television from Santiago, Chile. "They generally take the path of fascist violence and confront the laws and the people, and they are always looking to the Pentagon, high-ranking generals."

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