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Published Sep. 14, 2009

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez appears to have put the brakes on his socialist revolution in the last few days, a welcome sign of political realism.

He backtracked over a controversial new spy law that decreed anyone refusing to work as an informant for state intelligence agencies would face four-year prison terms. "This is a government that rectifies," he said.

Whatever happened to the stubborn old Chavez and his "my way or the highway" approach?

Fact is, Chavez has been having a hard time of it lately, his popularity is down, and he seems to realize it's time to make nice with his critics.

One of the most important of them is Gen. Raul Baduel, his former defense minister. Baduel publicly denounced Chavez's political ambitions last year, calling him a dangerous megalomaniac and helping defeat a December referendum that would have permitted Chavez to stay in power indefinitely.

Recently, I sat down with Baduel to ask why he made the dangerous leap into opposition politics.

The 36-year army veteran and avid parachutist is accustomed to dangerous jumps. Feeling fear is a healthy sensation, he says.

The former general looks comfortable these days in a business suit. But for two decades he and Chavez were comrades in arms. Baduel, 52, and Chavez, who is one year his senior, were part of a group of idealistic officers who signed a secret oath in 1982 to fight government corruption.

But in 1992 when Chavez launched an officer's coup, Baduel did not join him. It was a smart decision, as the coup failed and Chavez ended up in jail.

A decade later when Chavez was himself ousted in a civilian coup, Baduel came to his rescue.

His loyalty earned him promotion to defense minister, as well as almost mystical status in Venezuela. But Baduel, a devotee of Taoism's emphasis on resolving conflict without violence, broke with Chavez last year when he tried to rewrite the constitution.

Chavez responded with a furious speech, leading a crowd of supporters who chanted, "Baduel, traitor! To the firing squad!"

It was Chavez, however, who came away wounded. His defeat may have irreparably damaged his hope of staying in power beyond 2013, when his current term ends.

Baduel says his mission is unfinished. Gubernatorial and municipal elections in November are the next battleground.

"The only thing that interests him (Chavez) is infinite re-election, even if it pushes the country off a cliff," he said.

Baduel accused Chavez of picking fights with Colombia and the United States in order to boost his popularity by stirring up "false nationalism."

He was referring to a scandal involving seized computer documents that appear to show Venezuelan government support for Colombia's main rebel army, the FARC. Chavez has cast the scandal as a conspiracy by the United States and Colombia to besmirch his government.

With polls showing Chavez's party trailing in key states, Baduel said it is conceivable Chavez might cancel the November election to avoid a defeat that would undermine a future attempt to revoke his term limit.

What his country needs is not more Chavez, Baduel says, but stronger democratic institutions so that it can properly administer its vast oil wealth to meet the needs of its 28-million people.

"We need to armor-plate our democracy to ensure that no one, Chavez or anyone else, can arbitrarily take control of the country's resources, especially the oil revenue," he said.