Soldier in the Wings

Article excerpt

Twenty years ago, four young Venezuelan military officers swore an oath under the shade of a historic tree, where liberator Simon Bolivar is said to have camped during the 19th-century independence struggle. "I swear before you, and before the God of my fathers, that neither my arm nor my soul will rest until we have broken the chains that oppress us," the four declared, using Bolivar's own words. Two decades, and several coup attempts, later, one of those men--Lt. Col. Hugo Chavez--is the elected president of the republic. Of the other three, one is dead; one served briefly as Chavez's secret-police chief, but has virtually retired from public life, and the last is Gen. Raul Isaias Baduel, who today commands the Fourth Infantry Division, one of the two most important military units in the country.

Until very recently, Baduel was a virtual unknown. But since the events of mid-April, when Chavez was briefly overthrown by his own armed forces, Baduel has become the subject of intense speculation. Baduel played a key role in restoring Chavez to power--and he may again face the decision whether to either support or abandon the embattled president. Caracas is awash with coup rumors, and moves to impeach Chavez for any one of a couple of dozen alleged crimes are underway in the Supreme Court. Political commentator Alberto Garrido calls the cautious Baduel a military alternative to both Chavez and the coup plotters. Adds former Venezuelan president Carlos Andres Perez, "He's the true commander of the Venezuelan Army."

Baduel does not fit the stereotype of the macho Latin American soldier. Though a fearless paratrooper, he is a practitioner of the ancient Chinese philosophy of Taoism. He meditates regularly, and incense burns constantly in his office in the city of Maracay, about an hour away from Caracas. Baduel is fond of poetry and ballet, and is a strict vegetarian. He caused a stir recently by telling a Caracas newspaper that while he had never been to Europe "in this life," he had lived in 15th-century Germany, as well as in Asia, in previous incarnations.

Perhaps because of his grounding in Asian philosophy, the general is somewhat inscrutable. He's managed to avoid being implicated in three failed coup attempts. When Chavez and his fellow military conspirators attempted to overthrow Andres Perez in 1992, Baduel--prudently, it turned out--failed to join in. …