Venezuela's charismatic president, former paratrooper Hugo Chvez, is facing the first serious split in his year-old "Bolivarian revolution" regime.
On one side: three of Chvez's closest former comrades in a failed 1992 military coup. They are now significant political figures in their own right. On the other side: senior ministers in Chvez's government. Each side is openly accusing the other of corruption and hypocrisy.
Last Friday, on the eighth anniversary of the coup attempt, the former lieutenant-colonels published a five-point manifesto containing a clear, albeit indirect and carefully worded, warning to their former comrade, now the president.
The implication was that, despite having swept away the old, discredited two-party system, the new regime is already falling into the same bad habits of corrupt, backroom deals, and demagoguery.
For example, Lus Miquilena, widely regarded as President Chvez's key political operator, is accused of giving government contracts to an insurance company that had helped finance Chvez's presidential campaign.
"If that's the way it works, then I can't continue in this government," declared Jess Urdaneta, shortly after resigning his post as head of the state security police (DISIP) in January. Mr. Urdaneta's work included compiling information on corruption in government.
Mr. Miquilena chaired the constituent assembly, which rewrote the Venezuelan Constitution last year. Currently, he heads the congresillo (little congress) that will be the de facto parliament until after May 28 general elections.
Miquilena denies the charges. He, in turn, has called for an investigation into how Urdaneta could afford "the life he was leading on a [monthly] salary of 750,000 bolivares [about $1,150]." Urdaneta is building himself a house that is said to be worth well over $1 million.
Besides Urdaneta, the other dissident officers include the Zulia state governor, Javier Arias Cardenas; and the now-demoted political coordinator of Chvez's own Fifth Republic Movement (MVR), Yoel Acosta Chirinos.
"These three are emblematic figures," said Pablo Medina, a leftist politician involved in the 1992 coup and now leader of a party that belongs to Venezuela's ruling coalition.
"This is the hard core of the revolution," added political scientist Anibal Romero. "They are the true believers." In Feb. 1992, all three achieved their military objectives. Chvez, however, was unable to consolidate his position in the capital and was forced to surrender, causing the collapse of the plot to overthrow President Carlos Andres Perez.
The key issue behind this unseemly brawl is ideological, says former rebel Air Force officer William Izarra, who broke with Chvez early in his government for similar reasons.
"The group around the president is reformist," he argues. "They have no commitment to the revolution - they say one thing and then negotiate another under the table."
A formal split may come sooner rather than later: The MVR must decide whether to back Arias Cardenas and Acosta Chirinos for the governorships of their respective states in the May elections.
Chvez, who remains hugely popular, is almost certain of a massive election victory. The future, however, looks more clouded.
"This is a complicated situation for Chvez in the medium term," says Anibal Romero.
"His popularity is high partly because there are no other options, but his position will erode if he's not able to deliver the goods."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society