|Globalization - Countries
WASHINGTON, April 15 Senior members of the Bush administration met several times in recent months with leaders of a coalition that ousted the Venezuelan president, Hugo Chávez, for two days last weekend, and agreed with them that he should be removed from office, administration officials said today.
But administration officials gave conflicting accounts of what the United States told those opponents of Mr. Chávez about acceptable ways of ousting him.
One senior official involved in the discussions insisted that the Venezuelans use constitutional means, like a referendum, to effect an overthrow.
"They came here to complain," the official said, referring to the anti-Chávez group. "Our message was very clear: there are constitutional processes. We did not even wink at anyone."
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. We didn't say, `No, don't you dare,' and we weren't advocates saying, `Here's some arms; we'll help you overthrow this guy.' We were not doing that."
The disclosures come as rights advocates, Latin American diplomats and others accuse the administration of having turned a blind eye to coup plotting activities, or even encouraged the people who temporarily removed Mr. Chávez. Such actions would place the United States at odds with its fellow members of the Organization of American States, whose charter condemns the overthrow of democratically elected governments.
In the immediate aftermath of the ouster, the White House spokesman, Ari Fleischer, suggested that the administration was pleased that Mr. Chávez was gone. "The government suppressed what was a peaceful demonstration of the people," Mr. Fleischer said, which "led very quickly to a combustible situation in which Chávez resigned."
That statement contrasted with a clear stand by other nations in the hemisphere, which all condemned the removal of a democratically elected leader.
Mr. Chávez 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, Petróleos de Venezuela, the third-largest foreign supplier of American oil.
Whether or not the administration knew about the pending action against Mr. Chávez, critics note that it was slow to condemn the overthrow and that it still refuses to acknowledge that a coup even took place.
One result, according to the critics, is that in its zeal to rid itself of Mr. Chávez, the administration has damaged its credibility as a chief defender of democratically elected governments. And even though they deny having encouraged Mr. Chávez's ouster, administration officials did not hide their dismay at his restora tion.
Asked whether the administration now recognizes Mr. Chávez as Venezuela's legitimate president, one administration official replied, "He was democratically elected," then added, "Legitimacy is something that is conferred not just by a majority of the voters, however."
A senior administration official said today that the anti-Chávez group had not asked for American backing and that none had been offered. Still, one American diplomat said, Mr. Chávez was so distressed by his opponents' lobbying in Washington that he sent officials from his government to plead his case there.
Mr. Chávez returned to power on 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.
Mr. Fleischer, the White House spokesman, stuck to that approach today, saying Mr. Chávez should heed the message of his opponents and reach out to "all the democratic forces in Venezuela."
"The people of Venezuela have sent a clear message to President Chávez that they want both democracy and reform," he said. "The Chávez administration has an opportunity to respond to this message by correcting its course and governing in a fully democratic manner."
On Sunday, President Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, expressed hopes that Mr. Chávez would deal with his opponents in a less "highhanded fashion."
But to some critics, it was the Bush administration that had displayed arrogance in initially bucking the tide of international condemnation of the action against Mr. Chavez, who was democratically elected in 1998.
Arturo Valenzuela, the Latin America national security aide in the Clinton administration, accused the Bush administration of running roughshod over more than a decade of treaties and agreements for the collective defense of democracy. Since 1990, the United States has repeatedly invoked those agreements at the Organization of American States to help restore democratic rule in such countries as Haiti, Guatemala and Peru.
Mr. Valenzuela, who now heads the Latin American studies department at Georgetown University here, warned that the nations in the region might view the administration's tepid support of Venezuelan democracy as a green light to return to 1960's and 1970's, when power was transferred from coup to coup.
"I think it's a very negative development for the principle of constitutional government in Latin America," Mr. Valenzuela said. "I think it's going to come back and haunt all of us."
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 O.A.S., César Gaviria, left today for Caracas, the Venezuelan capital, 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 the businessman Pedro Carmona Estanga as Mr. Chávez's successor.
One Democratic foreign policy aide complained that the administration, in phone calls to Congress on Friday, reported that Mr. Chávez had resigned, even though officials now concede that they had no evidence of that.
And on Saturday, the administration supported an O.A.S. resolution condemning "the alteration of constitutional order in Venezuela" only after learning that Mr. Chávez had regained control, Latin American diplomats said.
One official said political hard-liners in the administration might have "gone overboard" in proclaiming Mr. Chávez's ouster before the dust settled.
The official said there were competing impulses within the administration, signaling a disagreement on the extent of trouble posed by Mr. Chávez, who has thumbed his nose at American officials by maintaining ties with Cuba, Libya and Iraq.
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