The Crusader Vs. The Comandante

A row among old friends has cast a dark cloud over the popular government of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. The trouble began last month, when Chavez accepted the resignation of his secret-police chief, retired Lt. Col. Jesus Urdaneta, who was accused of human-rights violations during December's deadly floods and mudslides.

Earlier this month Urdaneta, who with Chavez led a failed coup in 1992, struck back. The comandante, along with the other two surviving lieutenant colonels from that coup conspiracy, said Chavez's government was riddled with corruption. As proof, Urdaneta has filed more than 40 corruption charges with the national prosecutor's office, which has launched an investigation. Chavez, who is preparing for presidential and parliamentary elections in May, has pledged his full cooperation.

But the crisis strikes at the heart of Chavez's credibility: he ran his 1998 presidential campaign on an anticorruption platform. The conflict has also raised fears that Chavez, if faced with eroding popular support, might be forced to turn to the armed forces. Says Angel Alvarez, director of the Institute of Political Studies at the Central University of Venezuela: "I honestly fear that this political crisis may be resolved by unconstitutional means."