High above Caracas, the office of former General Raúl Baduel is a bit like a shrine. The visitor is welcomed by the sound of Gregorian chants and the sweet scents of incense.

The deeply religious ex-army chief and former defense minister, who is now one of President Hugo Chávez's most implacable opponents, is surrounded by a clutter of Christian and oriental statuary.

In one corner is a large model of a terracotta warrior. In another a samurai stands guard. Two glass-topped tables display a Koran, a skull cap and an assortment of Taoist artifacts, testament to what Mr Baduel calls his “ecumenical” outlook. When asked whether he has spent time in the East, Mr Baduel says “not in this life.”

His desk contains plastic representations of Saint Michael and Saint George - the patron saints of the Venezuelan paratroop and tank regiments - and a selection of neatly ordered books on eastern philosophy, including the “The Art of War”.

As he picks up Sun Tzu’s military treatise, Mr Baduel explains how it inspired the plan to launch the dawn paratroop raid in April 2002 that brought Mr Chávez back to power following a short-lived military coup.

“We based our plans on the principle that the victor is the party whose heart is in it most,” says Mr Baduel.

The action confirmed the 52-year-old general as a leading figure in the Bolivarian movement and seemed to have cemented his position as one of the president’s most loyal and trusted allies.

But earlier this month, Mr Baduel deserted the president's camp and, in a move that stunned Venezuelans, lambasted Mr Chávez's plans to change the constitution. Mr Baduel says that approval of the proposed constitutional changes would be tantamount to a different kind of “coup”.

”If these wrongly defined ’reforms’ are approved, they would be altering the principles of our constitution in an unconstitutional way,” he says. “It is constitutional fraud of the most deceitful and tendentious kind,” said Mr Baduel, arguing that such fundamental changes to the constitution require calling a constituent assembly.

Among the proposals that most concern him are those that will affect the army, especially amendments that will institutionalize the militia, converting it into what Mr Baduel describes as “a kind of Praetorian guard”. The former general says many of his former colleagues are also worried, and share his conviction that the armed forces must remain professional and apolitical, as required by the current constitution.

“I can affirm that those men are convinced that their mandate is contained in the 1999 constitution,” said Mr Baduel. “I don't pretend to be a spokesman for the armed forces and I have maintained a judicious distance since my retirement. But I can tell you that my opinion coincides with that of sectors of the armed forces. If there is one thing that is really valued by soldiers it is professionalism.”

Mr Baduel accepts that the existing constitution could be improved but belief in its underlying principles is central to his political philosophy. Indeed, it was his desire for a more open and inclusive political system that led Mr Baduel – then a junior officer – to join Mr Chávez in the left-wing military conspiracy that eventually led to an attempted coup d'état in 1992 (although Mr Baduel says that he did not, in the end, take part).

“Our dreams and our desires (when the Bolivarian Revolutionary Movement was formed) are all reflected in this document,” says Mr Baduel. His belief in the constitution did however take him into action ten years later. When a military coup forced Mr Chávez from office in April 2002, Mr Baduel was the general in charge of the parachute regiment in the city of Maracay and threw his weight behind a popular mobilization that quickly led to the president's reinstatement.

Like Mr Chávez, Mr Baduel claims to be a socialist and has had few problems with the economic model adopted by the government. But he says that Venezuela must remain “a democracy with a division of powers, checks and balances.”

By veering away from that model, Mr Chávez has thrown the “future of our country into doubt,” says Mr Baduel. There is no question about Mr Baduel's involvement in the campaign against the referendum but it remains unclear whether this will foreshadow a more long-term involvement in opposition politics. Mr Baduel will not show his hand. “As the master says, the successful general must remain inscrutable and impenetrable.”

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