Of Submarines and Loose Screws:A Chávez Ally Jumps the Divider

On November 5th, retired general Raúl Baduel shocked many in Venezuela and abroad by delivering a prepared statement condemning the proposed constitutional reform and urging a “NO” vote on December 2nd.  The shock felt by many and the outrage by some is no doubt the result of such a high-level defection: until July, Baduel had served as Venezuela’s defense minister.  But this position in and of itself fails to express the mythical status that Raúl Baduel had garnered among Chavistas in recent years.  To grasp both the popular shock at Baduel’s defection and its inevitability, we need to look more closely into a history spanning nearly three decades.

Operation Restore National Dignity

Alongside Chávez, Baduel was a founding member of the Revolutionary Bolivarian Movement (MBR-200), a clandestine grouping that formed in the early 1980s within the Venezuelan Armed Forces.  This group of conspiratorial idealists was rooted in the parachute regiment at Maracay, a stiflingly hot city of a million some two hours west of Caracas, from where they began to chart an escape from the corruption and repression of the late Fourth Republic.  Together, they swore a Bolivarian oath under the historic Samán de Güere, a massive tree under which Simón Bolívar is said to have rested.

But when it came time to act, Baduel himself was notably absent.  In an interview, he told Marta Harnecker that he chose to sit out the 1992 coup attempts because he considered them premature.  While Baduel has been often criticized for this decision, he wasn’t entirely wrong: the coup itself, however necessary for what followed, was indeed premature and poorly organized.  But other aspects of Baduel’s concerns prior to the 1992 coup stand out. “What will happen to the military structure?”  Baduel recalls asking himself, “What are we going to do with those with a higher rank than us?  They can’t be subordinated to us . . . because a fundamental element of military life is vertical hierarchy.”  Baduel, in this 2002 interview, even prophetically jokes about having felt like Eden Pastora, the Sandinista “Commander Zero”-turned-Contra who “was not loved by either side, because some said he had betrayed them and others that he had infiltrated them.”

Sitting out the 1992 coups did not spell the end of Baduel’s relationship with the MBR-200.  He would maintain contact with the imprisoned leaders and support Chávez’s eventual bid for political power in the 1998 election, and in 1999, Baduel was named commander of the 42nd Parachute Infantry Brigade, Chávez’s own regiment in times past.  While his refusal to participate in the 1992 coup had cast a long shadow over Baduel’s revolutionary credentials, his mythical status would be cemented a decade later, when he nearly single-handedly spearheaded the military response to the April 2002 coup against Chávez.

Why did Baduel, for whom a respect for the military hierarchy had prevented action in 1992, choose to break with that very hierarchy a decade later when it turned against Chávez?  Because by then another crucial element had intervened: the new 1999 Constitution.  In 1992, the conspirators were all clear that, in Baduel’s own words, “the ruling class wielded the existing Constitution, but applied it according to their own interests.”  In 2002, on the other hand, the coup-plotters and the military hierarchy (but crucially, not the middle ranks) had moved against the new “Bolivarian” Constitution.  Confronted with a conflict between his two primary values, loyalty to military structure and loyalty to the Constitution, Baduel finally decided to act.  He declared the 42nd Brigade in open rebellion against the illegitimate interim government of Pedro Carmona Estanga and initiated “Operation Restore National Dignity,” thereby providing the spark that allowed the majority of loyal officers to turn against the coup.  This loyalty to the Constitution was repaid: within two years, Baduel would be named Army Commander, before becoming Defense Minister in 2006.

Two Visions of the Military

In the aftermath of the failed coup and Chávez’s return to power, Baduel would come to represent the quintessence of loyalty and moderation in the popular imaginary.  It was not until he passed into retirement in July 2007 that the public was given any glimpse of potential discord between this hero of “April 13th” and the direction of the revolutionary process.  Baduel took the opportunity of his retirement speech to urge caution when it came to Chávez’s proposed project of “21st Century Socialism.”  He praised socialism as a concept, but warned against its state capitalist manifestations: “Our socialism must be profoundly democratic,” he counseled, one focused on the redistribution of wealth and the correction of inequalities.  Further, he distanced himself from the view that “the division of powers is merely an instrument of bourgeois domination,” arguing that such division, generally associated with liberal constitutionalism, remains essential.

But Baduel wasn’t the only general to retire last July: he was joined on the stage by Alberto Müller Rojas.  But while Baduel waited until retirement to court controversy, Müller was retired in an effort to silence it.  Earlier in the year, Müller, a member of the commission responsible for founding the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), had spurned existing law by joining the PSUV while on active military duty.  Military neutrality, Müller argued, is a myth, and one which stands alongside professionalism as twin pillars of reactionary military organization.  Advocating a recognition of the inherently political role of the military alongside the development of a broad-based and popular militia structure to offset military hierarchy, Müller urged that the current process of constitutional reform be used to clear the way for this new vision.

Müller was promptly assailed by moderate Chavistas, who accused him of giving in to opposition claims of military politicization.  What happened next offers a window into the shadowy corridors of Venezuelan power: Chávez joined in the attack on Müller, insisting on the apolitical and professional nature of the Venezuelan military, and the impertinent general was duly ostracized from the president’s inner circle for daring to suggest the sort of militia structure that Chávez and so many other Venezuelan officials had proposed in the past.  Clearly, a message was being sent to the military hierarchy.  And that message was to momentarily divert attention away from the question of military politicization.  This became clear when Chávez’s constitutional reform proposal was released, which conformed almost point-for-point with Müller’s arguments.  If approved in the December referendum, the reformed Article 328 will mean that the military will no longer be an explicitly “apolitical” institution, but would instead be characterized as “patriotic, popular, and anti-imperialist.”  Moreover, Article 329 would convert the existing reserve into a more institutionally powerful force referred to as the “Bolivarian Popular Militias.”

But the intrigue didn’t end with the story of Müller’s ironic ostracism.  Shortly after the reform proposal was released, Chávez announced that, after consultations with the military high command, the new militia force would be known as the “Bolivarian National Militias,” rather than “Popular” ones.  What is more interesting than this seemingly minor semantic change is the (presumably powerful) political pressure that must have intervened to make such a change.

Jumping the Divider

While Müller Rojas wasted no time in courting controversy, Baduel’s day in the spotlight wouldn’t come until November 5th, less than a month before the scheduled constitutional reform referendum.  On November 4th, Chávez had warned that someone might soon be “saltando la talanquera,” or “jumping the divider,” between Chavismo and the opposition.  Such a statement wouldn’t be surprising to anyone who has observed the recent controversies over the formation of the PSUV, which saw one of the larger members of the Chavista coalition, the social democratic PODEMOS party, essentially expelled to the no-man’s land between Chavismo and the opposition.  But the fact that Chávez offered an explicit warning may have indicated to some that something serious was afoot.

The next day, Baduel appeared at a press conference from which state-run Venezolana de Televisión was notably excluded.  What he said stunned millions, for whom he had come to represent the epitome of loyalty.  In his own words, Baduel (a self-professed Taoist) had “taken some time to reflect and meditate” on the course of the country.  His conclusion: the 1999 Constitution is sufficient.  Far from being a fetter to the revolutionary process, Baduel argues, the Constitution has yet to enter fully into force.  The document, he argues, “does not in any way impede the exercise of a socialist government, with high levels of inclusion and broad social content.”  But what socialism does Baduel endorse?  This he doesn’t say.  But when he suggests that the word could be applied to anything from the Cambodian Khmer Rouge to Nordic social democracy (which he revealingly deems “socialism”), it is clear where his loyalties lie.

Echoing his retirement speech, Baduel reiterated his devotion to liberal constitutionalism: “constitutions should limit and control power . . . and constitution that deregulates and removes limits from power should be seen with suspicion.”  Constitutions, in short, have a fundamentally negative role: they limit power rather than em-powering.  This liberal constitutionalism dovetails nicely with Baduel’s liberal socialism: having achieved a division of powers and mild redistribution of wealth, no further action is necessary. Any efforts to radicalize the process by undermining the division of powers becomes for Baduel a “usurpation,” and he claims that, if approved, the current constitutional reform proposal “would consummate, in practice, a coup d’etat, shamefully violating the text of the constitution.”

Notably, Baduel calls on the Armed Forces to “profoundly analyze the proposed text,” and implores the population as a whole to use “the only legal and democratic weapon we have left,” the “NO” vote on December 2nd.  But for our purposes, what is most interesting is Baduel’s departure from his own script.  When it came time for him to call on the Armed Forces, Baduel entered into a long excursus on the nature of the military, in which he read in full the current definition of the military as an apolitical and professional institution.  While the military question was relatively absent from the rest of his speech, this unscripted addendum leaves little doubt both as to Baduel’s motivations and his relationship to the Müller controversy.  Not only does the reform undermine liberal constitutionalism, but it also threatens military professionalism.  We would be justified in wondering if it was Baduel himself who, for the sake of his vaunted “vertical hierarchy,” intervened previously to force out Müller and to pressure Chávez to change the proposed name of the Bolivarian militias.

The Bends

Perhaps unsurprisingly given Baduel’s celebrated status, the response by Chavistas to his declarations has been a deafening outpouring of rage.  Chávez has claimed that Baduel is “betraying himself” and betraying their 1982 Bolivarian oath under the Saman de Güere.  The President, we should recall, is by this point no stranger to high-level defections.  “When a submarine gets deeper the pressure increases,” he reminds us, “a loose screw can pop out.”  This metaphor resonates with the entire history of the process: as the Bolivarian submarine has plumbed new depths, a variety of such screws have wiggled their way out.  Most notably, several longtime allies like 1992 coup veteran Francisco Arias Cárdenas and longtime Chávez political advisor Luis Miquilena jumped ship for the opposition in 2000 and 2002, respectively (Arias Cárdenas, bizarrely, would return to the Chavista ranks after running against Chávez in presidential elections).  But according to most, this has been good for the process, overcoming inertial tendencies, strengthening Chavista identity, and allowing the revolution to forge radical new paths.

Many have echoed the claims of treason, and some, like Mario Silva of La Hojilla, have pointed out that Baduel had openly endorsed even the most controversial elements of the proposed constitutional reform until only two weeks earlier.  Even some more heterodox members of the Chavista coalition like the Patria Para Todos (Homeland for All) party have taken aim at the fallen hero.  Some claim that Baduel is bitter over his forced retirement, or at not being named head of the state oil company PDVSA.  Some cite rumors that Baduel will be seeking election as head of his home state of Guarico.

While pillorying the retired general’s treason, however, Vice President Jorge Rodríguez did give him credit for channeling his discontent through democratic means by urging voters to participate in the reform referendum.  But Müller doesn’t view things this way: a close examination of Baduel’s claims, he argues, shows a more sinister aim.  Baduel’s accusation of usurpation, for Müller, is a very precise call for rebellion against the government.  That is, by accusing the government of a coup, he is in fact justifying the same.  Baduel’s position, then, becomes doubly ironic: if Müller is correct, this will be the second time that Baduel will have encouraged but not himself participated in an attempted coup.  He will be the golpista menos golpista in Venezuelan history.

But the most intriguing and revealing part of this long saga wouldn’t be played out until Müller Rojas was invited on the VTV evening program Contragolpe.  Müller had been invited on to give his opinion on the Baduel affair, and proceeded to explain that he had never considered Baduel was a committed revolutionary.  Indeed, in the past, Müller has criticized Baduel’s policies while serving as defense minister, policies which according to Müller hindered the government’s military-civilian integration.  The show then received a call from Chávez himself, who had not spoken to Müller publicly since their acrimonious falling-out in July.  He publicly thanked the retired general for the sharp and incisive advice he had always offered and insisted that he would be in touch in the near future.  This was a public apology, and a recognition that Baduel’s more conservative opposition had come between the president and Müller’s proposed radicalization of the military.

Error or Treason?

Some, however, have refused to accuse Baduel of treason: Luis Tascón, a National Assembly deputy from Táchira state who tends toward the radical wing of the government, recently claimed that Baduel isn’t a traitor.  According to Tascón, Baduel mustn’t be attacked on moral grounds, but only political ones. “I don’t support Baduel,” Tascón later clarified, “What I said was that Baduel is my friend, I respect him, I appreciate what he did, but I think he is wrong, totally wrong.”  Tascón chose his words carefully, but evidently not carefully enough: he was promptly expelled by the disciplinary committee of the nascent PSUV for his declarations.

Raúl Baduel is two things: he is a loyal soldier and a rigid constitutionalist.  Nothing can take that away from him.  But loyalty to military hierarchy and the constitution doesn’t necessarily (or even frequently) make one a revolutionary.  His support for the 1999 Constitution, the same support which spurred him to action in 2002, has put him at odds with a new round of constitutional reforms.  But this opposition is fundamentally rooted in Baduel’s own liberal constitutionalism, military traditionalism, and social-democratic temper: the Revolution, he is saying, has gone far enough, and it is here that he comes into conflict with the very constituent power he claims to be shielding from “usurpation.”  When he claims that the executive and legislative branches are taking constituent power away from the people, we are left wondering where exactly that power resides.  The only answer, for Baduel, can be division: he cannot conceive the constituent as an indivisible Rousseauean “General Will,” but only as a system of liberal checks and balances.  This, however, has never been the Bolivarian project.  As one commentator on the webzine Aporrea.org puts it: “Only one question, Baduel my friend: did you not realize what was going on during the past eight years?”

This isn’t to say that there is no cause for concern in the current constitutional reform proposal, or even that the division of powers is to be so readily dispensed with.  Despite the many positive elements of the proposal, there are nevertheless disagreements to be had.  But Raúl Baduel’s departure from the revolutionary ranks is rooted in much deeper divergences that made this moment, painful for many who had come to respect his loyalty, more or less inevitable.  His views on “socialism,” the military, and the Constitution, are not those of the government, and nor does he seem to care if they reflect the desires of the people.  Even if the Venezuelans approve the reform come December, as it seems they will, this will still be a “coup” against the Constitution in Baduel’s eyes.

George Ciccariello-Maher is a Ph.D. candidate in political theory at U.C. Berkeley.  He can be reached at gjcm(at)berkeley.edu.

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