U.S. officials, group met on Chavez ouster

Bush aides backed removal of Venezuelan leader, but method supported unclear


WASHINGTON - Senior members of the Bush administration met several times in recent months with leaders of a coalition that ousted Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez for two days last weekend and agreed with them that he should be removed from office, administration officials said yesterday.

But administration officials gave conflicting accounts of what the United States had told these opponents of Chavez about acceptable ways of ousting him.

One senior official involved in the discussions insisted that the Venezuelans use constitutional means, such as a referendum, to effect an overthrow.

But a Defense Department official who is involved in the development of policy toward Venezuela said the administration's message was less categorical.

"We were not discouraging people," the official said. "We were sending informal, subtle signals that we don't like this guy."

Latin American diplomats and others accuse the administration of having turned a blind eye to coup plotting activities or even encouraging the people who temporarily removed Chavez. Such actions would place the United States at odds with its fellow members of the Organization of American States, which is on record as condemning the overthrow of democratically elected governments.

In the immediate aftermath of the ouster, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer suggested that the administration was pleased that Chavez was gone. "The government suppressed what was a peaceful demonstration of the people," Fleischer said, which "led very quickly to a combustible situation in which Chavez resigned."

That statement contrasted with a clear stand by other nations in the hemisphere, which condemned the removal of a democratically elected leader.

Chavez has made himself very unpopular with the Bush administration with his pro-Cuban stance and mouthing of revolutionary slogans - and, most recently, by threatening the independence of Venezuela's state-owned oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela, the third-largest foreign supplier of American oil.

Whether or not the administration knew about the pending action against Chavez, critics noted that it was slow to condemn the overthrow and that it refused to acknowledge that a coup even took place.

The result, according to the critics, is that in its zeal to rid itself of Chavez, the administration has damaged its credibility as a chief defender of democratically elected governments.

Chavez returned to power Sunday, after two days. The Bush administration swiftly laid the blame for the episode on him, pointing out that troops loyal to him had fired on unarmed civilians and wounded more than 100 demonstrators.

Fleischer, the White House spokesman, stuck to that approach yesterday, saying Chavez should heed the message of his opponents and reach out to "all the democratic forces in Venezuela."

Administration officials insist that they are firmly behind efforts at the Organization of American States to determine what happened in Venezuela and restore democratic rule. The secretary-general of the OAS, Cesar Gaviria, left for Caracas yesterday, and the organization is scheduled to meet in Washington on Thursday.

Still, critics say, there were several signs that the administration was too quick to rally around businessman Pedro Carmona Estanga as Chavez's successor. One Democratic foreign policy aide complained that the administration, in phone calls to Congress on Friday, reported that Chavez had resigned, even though officials concede they had no evidence of that.

And Saturday, the Bush administration supported an OAS resolution condemning "the alteration of constitutional order in Venezuela" only after learning that Chavez had regained control, Latin diplomats said.

One official said that political hard-liners within the administration might have "gone overboard" in proclaiming Chavez's ouster before the dust settled.

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