By Alexandra Ulmer
CARACAS (Reuters) - The socialist movement built by Venezuela's former president Hugo Chavez risks imploding if corruption, inefficiency and an economic crisis are not tamed, a dissenting faction of the ruling Socialist Party says.
"The revolutionary process is in danger, it's falling apart," warned Gonzalo Gomez Freire, a leader of Marea Socialista, or "Socialist Tide", a small but vocal group of leftist intellectuals critical of President Nicolas Maduro's government.
Chavez handpicked Maduro as his successor before he died of cancer in March 2013 and Maduro went on to win a presidential election the following month.
But he is now under intense pressure with an economy in recession, shortages of basic goods and medicines, annual inflation above 60 percent and sky-high crime.
Maduro lacks Chavez's charisma and his approval rating has dropped to around 35 percent.
The Marea Socialista group relentlessly chides Maduro's government for enrichment of senior officials, top-heavy decision-making and what it sees as the abandonment of revolutionary purity.
"What we have now is deterioration ... This is Chavismo's worst moment ever," Gomez said in an interview with Reuters this week at an imposing state-run hotel in central Caracas.
To be sure, Marea Socialista remains a niche within the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) and does not pose a major threat to Maduro in itself. But its criticism is garnering plenty of attention in the volatile post-Chavez era, and analysts say it may be a harbinger of future splits.
Fear of divisions within the disparate "Chavista" coalition - which ranges from military bosses to hardline ideologues - appears to be stopping Maduro from implementing economically crucial but politically risky reforms.
While some within the PSUV favor, for example, loosening currency controls to aid local businesses or raising gasoline prices that are the cheapest in the world to boost state coffers, other groups including Marea Socialista believe such moves would be a betrayal of Chavez's legacy.
'DEVIATION' FROM SOCIALISM
Gomez said Marea Socialista does not track membership numbers but that he has been flooded this year by calls and e-mails from Chavistas upset at corruption and bureaucracy.
The group has a useful ally in Aporrea, a high-profile left-wing news and opinion web site that Gomez co-founded where dissenting views within the socialist coalition flourish.
"For a while now a deviation of principles has been underway. We are convinced there is a smart and skillful strategy by the bourgeoisie to make this government apply their policies and not ours," Gomez said.
A 60-year old psychologist by training, Gomez fondly recalls working closely with Maduro, then a union activist, in the 1990s. But they have not met for years, he said.
National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello has said Marea Socialista is no longer part of the PSUV, though no formal expulsion has been ordered.
In a clear reference to Marea Socialista and their ilk, Maduro recently tore into dissenters.
"While one or another so-called intellectual lends his pen to the empire... to the anti-patriotic cause, there are thousands of loyal leaders, men and women," he said during the ruling party's annual Congress last month.
Gomez warned that Marea Socialista may abstain from supporting PSUV candidates in the National Assembly elections in December 2015.
It is too small and disjointed a group to present its own candidates so instead it seeks to attract a growing number of Venezuelans who are disillusioned with "Chavismo" but balk at what they still deem an out-of-touch, self-serving opposition.
Many "Chavistas" are deeply skeptical of the opposition's democratic credentials after a failed 2002 coup against Chavez.
They also fear popular social programs would be cut if the opposition took power and were unimpressed by anti-Maduro street protests earlier this year that led to violence killing at least 43 people.
"We have to push this from the left. What would most help 'Chavismo' unity at the moment is cleansing and purifying ourselves," Gomez said. Or else, he added, "we will no longer be what we were meant to be."
(Reporting by Alexandra Ulmer; Additional reporting by Diego Ore and Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Kieran Murray)