CARACAS, Venezuela (CNN) -- An ex-general who helped President Hugo Chavez through an abortive coup against his leadership in 2002 publically broke with the president Monday over proposed constitutional changes.
Approval of the proposed changes "would in effect finalize a coup d'etat, brazenly violating the constitution," former Defense Minister Raul Baduel said at a news conference. "The Venezuelan people should categorically reject this fraud."
Venezuela's pro-Chavez National Assembly on Friday overwhelmingly approved a package of 69 changes to the 1999 Constitution. The changes would institutionalize Chavez's bid to implant a new model of development -- called "Socialism for the 21st Century" -- in the country while strengthening the power of the executive to rule by decree. It would also change electoral rules and allow a sitting president to seek unlimited re-election -- grandfathering Chavez into that system.
Opposition and human rights groups have been particularly critical of how the changes would give the president greater latitude to impose a state of emergency and suspend individual rights, as well as how they would place further restrictions on the news media. Protesters and security forces have clashed repeatedly in recent weeks as opposition to the changes moved into the streets. Watch protesters in Venezuela »
Baduel, who was Chavez's defense minister and military general in chief until July, became the highest-profile former military official to criticize Chavez's constitutional designs. He targeted his stinging criticism on how the changes would concentrate power in the executive.
"Constitutions are born precisely to limit the power of governments and to protect citizens from the abusive exercise of power, guaranteeing their rights and liberties," Baduel said. "They shouldn't do the opposite."
"Any Constitution that removes the limits on power should be viewed with suspicion," he continued, calling on "on all Venezuelans to vote 'No'" when the changes are put to a public referendum in December.
Baduel's harsh criticism -- and the public nature of his break with his former comrade in arms -- was a sharp counterpoint to their previous relationship.
The two came up through the officer corps together as both military and philosophical brothers in arms: Baduel participated with Chavez in his 1992 coup attempt against President Carlos Andres Perez, but escaped being cashiered from the army because his role in the plot didn't come to light.
Then, as commander of the 42nd Airborne Brigade in Maracay, Baduel's support was critical in helping overturn the abortive coup d'etat in 2002 that briefly unseated Chavez -- and opened the way for Chavez to strengthen his grip on power by moving to clear dissident officers from the military and put the opposition on the defensive.
Baduel was soon promoted up the chain of command, first being put in overall command of the army's main garrison at Maracay and then, in 2006, taking over as general-in-chief and, in July 2006, as defense minister. In all of those roles, he was seen as a right-hand man to Chavez as Chavez reshaped the military from a traditional institutional military into a politicized arm of his "Bolivarian Revolution," and worked to reshape Venezuela as a whole.
However, when he was replaced in July by Gen. Gustavo Rangel Briceno of the Military Reserve and National Mobilization forces, Baduel gave a broad hint of the break to come, using the bulk of his retirement speech to critique the idea of "Socialism for the 21st Century."
"A socialist regime is not incompatible with a democratic system of checks and balances and division of powers," he said. "We must separate ourselves from Marxist orthodoxy." E-mail to a friend