CARACAS (Reuters) - How far will President Hugo Chavez press his effort to install Cuban-inspired socialism in oil-rich Venezuela? The answer may well have been written in his failed coup plans 15 years ago.
Chavez spent more than a decade conspiring with other leftist officers before leading the putsch in 1992, during which time he helped draft a set of decrees for a revolutionary government.
He has said he burned his copies of the documents just before his arrest for leading the attempt, but copies were published soon after.
The blueprints -- for a militaristic yet utopian government that would upend the South American country’s corrupt politics -- now read like a road map for Chavez’s drive this year to nationalize industries and put power in the hands of communities.
Among his moves, Chavez has decreed that foreign oil companies including household names like Exxon Mobil must hand over control of four multibillion dollar oil projects in the Orinoco basin by May 1.
But one of his most ambitious goals remains to entrench new community councils that will administer billions of dollars in oil wealth in what may be his biggest effort to redistribute political power since coming to office in 1999.
Critics say the plan is meant to eliminate rival politicians in local government, but the president says the effort has its roots in the leftist ideology that inspired the unsuccessful coup.
“Communal power, a state dedicated to social justice -- all of this comes from those days,” Chavez told supporters earlier this year.
Chavez was pardoned for his coup attempt, went on to win the presidency in 1998, faced down national strikes, a recall referendum and even survived a putsch that ousted him for two days. He won a landslide reelection in December, after which Congress granted him powers to rule by decree, leaving him freer than ever to press his 1992 vision.
Chavez, who describes Cuban President Fidel Castro as an inspiration, has achieved nearly all the measures laid out in the documents, including currency and price controls. He has controlled Congress and the courts through political maneuvers -- rather than dissolving them as called for in the coup plan.
His takeover this year of utilities such as telephone company CANTV echoed the coupsters’ Decree No. 13 calling for the suspension of all privatization.
And last month, in what the opposition called an abuse of power by a dictator-in-the-making, Chavez decreed it a crime to hoard food as he sought to combat a rash of supermarket shortages.
This, too, was an echo from 15 years earlier, when he and his conspirators had planned to issue a ninth decree, “To declare a serious crime the hoarding of merchandise ... particularly foodstuff.”
Venezuelan historian Alberto Garrido says the president’s goals in government have always been clear, but his revolutionary plans have been consistently underestimated or passed off as hollow saber-rattling.
Garrido said Chavez’s opponents failed to realize that his early insistence on state control of strategic resources foreshadowed his campaign this year to grab multibillion dollar projects from major oil companies.
“There’s no big discoveries to make here, it’s just a question of reading what he’s already written,” Garrido said.
The decrees themselves are attributed to Kleber Ramirez, a long-time guerrilla and leader of the Party of the Venezuelan Revolution, a division of the communist party that first drew Chavez into the circle of armed forces conspirators.
Chavez’s own political manifesto, written several years before the coup, described a “concrete utopia” built on the ideas of Venezuelan liberation hero Simon Bolivar, the namesake of Chavez’s leftist movement, which he calls the “Bolivarian Revolution.”
The political treatise known as The Blue Book offers an outline of citizen-driven “participative democracy” that formed a key plank of his 1998 anti-poverty presidential platform.
“Popular Bolivarian Democracy will be born of communities, and their beneficent vitality will extend through the entire social fabric of the nation,” he wrote.
This idea will become reality as Chavez implements the new system of Communal Councils, citizen groups that will receive some $3 billion this year to address local problems -- emasculating traditional municipal governance in the process.
Chavez cultivates intrigue surrounding his past, with frequent stories of how he almost joined leftist guerillas, recalling during a news conference this year that by 23 he was already talking revolution with other cadets.
“Those who think I‘m just improvising ... oh, how mistaken they are,” Chavez said in February.