Senior U.S. official warned coup leader in Venezuela

But Bush administration denies it encouraged plot or knew in advance

April 17, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - The Bush administration, under criticism for its role in the ouster of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, acknowledged yesterday that a senior administration official was in contact with the man who succeeded Chavez on the day he took over.

Otto J. Reich, assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere affairs, phoned the incoming president, Pedro Carmona Estanga, to plead with him not to dissolve the National Assembly on the grounds it would be "a stupid thing to do" and provoke an outcry, a State Department official said.

Bush administration officials pointed to the call as evidence that they had sought to uphold democratic processes in Venezuela, but the disclosure raised questions as to whether Reich or other officials were stage-managing Carmona's takeover.

Bush administration officials vigorously deny this.

"In our opinion, he needed to work with them," said the official, referring to Carmona, a prominent businessman and one of the leaders of the group that ousted the president.

Carmona ignored Reich's appeal and shut down the Assembly and the Supreme Court, igniting a popular backlash that restored Chavez as president.

Bush administration officials vigorously denied yesterday that they had encouraged plotters or had any advance knowledge of plans to oust Chavez, a populist leader whose leftist policies have long antagonized the United States.

But Reich's advice to Carmona on the day that military officers took Chavez into custody at an army base suggests an early and urgent administration interest in seeing Carmona succeed and maintain the appearance of democratic continuity. It was not clear what time Reich placed his call on Friday; Carmona was sworn in as interim president at 6 p.m.

Administration officials notified members of Congress on Friday that Chavez had resigned. The report was erroneous, and he insists that he never relinquished office. The United States did not condemn the action against Chavez, a democratically elected leader, until Saturday evening after protesters forced Carmona to resign.

Asked to explain the discrepancy, Bush administration officials have said they were acting on the best information they had during a chaotic situation.

"Those events were not anticipated," said Ari Fleischer, the White House spokesman. "And once those events took place, the United States did move to condemn it."

Carmona, who heads Venezuela's largest business association, was one of numerous critics of Chavez to call on administration officials in recent weeks. Officials from the White House, State Department and Pentagon, among others, played host to a stream of Chavez opponents, some seeking help in removing him from office.

Bush administration officials insisted yesterday that, despite their contempt for Chavez, they categorically ruled out an ouster during their conversations with his opponents. But U.S. officials did discuss replacing Chavez through a referendum or by impeachment, and did not disguise their eagerness to see him gone, officials acknowledged.

"The United States policy is to support democracy and democratic solutions to any type of problems in nations around the world," Fleischer said. "We explicitly told opposition leaders that the United States would not support a coup."

When asked whether the Bush administration had advance knowledge of Chavez's overthrow, Fleischer said that U.S. diplomats and news media had been warning of the possibility of violence for several months.

U.S. officials said they had been in touch with numerous critics of Chavez in recent months, as well as with some of his supporters.

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