February 4, 2007
CARACAS - Thousands of Venezuelans wearing red and waving giant inflatable dolls of President Hugo Chavez poured into the streets of Caracas on Sunday to commemorate a 1992 coup that forged Chavez's reputation.
Chavez, who says he is a leading a socialist revolution in the OPEC nation, makes no attempt to brush over the failed putsch he led 15 years ago as a paratrooper officer, saying it represents the birth of a new leftist era in Venezuela.
``The fourth of February split Venezuelan history into two parts. It was the lightning bolt that illuminated the darkness,'' he said at a military parade, wearing his red paratrooper's beret and fatigues.
The bungled coup was the culmination of a period of massive social unrest, triggered by growing dissatisfaction with a political elite perceived as corrupt and painful reforms mapped out by the International Monetary Fund.
Before heading to prison for two years, Chavez seized the imagination of the poor majority and middle classes by saying his attempt to take power was only over ``for now.'' He won a landslide election in 1998.
Chavez and his supporters say they are now fully committed to politics through the ballot box.
``The fourth of February was the reflection of popular discontent with the governments back then,'' said construction worker Rafael Gonzalez, on his way to the parade, which included tanks, marching bands and horsemen with machetes.
ALWAYS A MILITARY MAN?
On the other hand, Chavez's critics say the former soldier has not changed, and that his green combat dress shows he is following the path of Cuban leader Fidel Castro.
Chavez says his military service opened his eyes to abuses committed by the authorities.
His December election campaign showed signs of his military strategy, recruiting a get-out-the-vote squad in the shantytowns where his support is greatest, dividing people into ''battalions'' and ``platoons.''
Chavez is centralizing political power, last week winning powers to pass laws by decree. He is denying a license to an opposition television channel, seeking a single governing party and trying to end electoral term limits.
In the economic sphere, he is nationalizing huge oil and gas projects and utilities, affecting many foreign owners and shareholders.
Many of the officers involved in the coup hold prominent government positions, such as Jose Vielma Mora, who heads the SENIAT tax authority that collects back taxes from major foreign oil companies, and Francisco Arias Cardenas, who is Venezuela's ambassador to the United Nations.