April 16 — The Bush administration, under criticism for its role in the
ouster of President Hugo Chvez of Venezuela, acknowledged today that a
senior administration official was in contact with Mr. Chvez's
successor on the very 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.
Administration officials cited the call as evidence that they had sought
to uphold democratic processes in Venezuela, but the disclosure raised
questions as to whether Mr. Reich or other officials were
stage-managing the takeover by Mr. Carmona, one of the leaders of the
military and business coalition that ousted the president.
"In our opinion, he needed to work with them," said the State Department official, referring to Mr. Carmona and the Assembly.
Mr. Carmona ignored Mr. Reich's appeal and shut down the Assembly and
the Supreme Court, igniting a popular backlash that restored Mr. Chvez
Administration officials vigorously denied today
that they had encouraged plotters or had any advance knowledge of plans
to oust Mr. Chvez, a populist leader whose leftist policies have long
antagonized the United States.
But Mr. Reich's advice to Mr.
Carmona on the very day that military officers took Mr. Chvez into
custody at an army base suggests an early and urgent administration
interest in seeing Mr. Carmona succeed and maintain the appearance of
democratic continuity. It was not clear what time Mr. Reich placed his
call on Friday.
Administration officials notified members of
Congress on Friday that Mr. Chvez had resigned. The report was
erroneous, and he insists that he never relinquished his office. The
United States did not condemn the action against Mr. Chvez, a
democratically elected leader, until Saturday evening after angry
protesters forced Mr. Carmona to resign.
Asked to explain the
discrepancy, administration officials have said they were acting on the
best information they had during a chaotic situation.
events were not anticipated," Ari Fleischer, the White House spokesman,
said today. "And once those events took place, the United States did
move to condemn it."
Mr. Carmona, who heads Venezuela's largest
business association, was one of numerous critics of Mr. Chavez to call
on administration officials in recent weeks. Officials from the White
House, State Department and Pentagon, among others, were hosts to a
stream of Chvez opponents, some of them seeking help in removing him
Administration officials insisted today that,
despite their disdain for Mr. Chvez, they categorically ruled out an
ouster during their conversations with his opponents. But American
officials did discuss replacing Mr. Chvez through a referendum or by
impeachment, and did not disguise their eagerness to see him gone,
"The United States policy is to support
democracy and democratic solutions to any type of problems in nations
around the world," Mr. Fleischer said. He added, "We explicitly told
opposition leaders that the United States would not support a coup."
When asked whether the administration had advance knowledge of Mr.
Chvez's overthrow, Mr. Fleischer said American diplomats and news
media had been warning of the possibility of violence for several
"I think you have to be careful about advance knowledge
of a specific act and general talk of unease in a nation like
Venezuela, that has been marked by a very difficult internal democratic
system," Mr. Fleischer said.
Officials said they had been in
touch with numerous critics of Mr. Chvez in recent months, as well as
with some of his supporters.
Victoria Clarke, the Pentagon
spokeswoman, said the chief of the Venezuelan military high command,
Gen. Lucas Romero Rincn, met recently with Rogelio Pardo-Maurer, a
Pentagon official responsible for Latin America. She did not provide
details of the meeting, or say whether intelligence was shared.
Mr. Pardo-Maurer, who served for three years as the chief of staff to
the representative of the Nicaraguan rebels known as contras during the
1980's, "made it very, very clear that the U.S. intent was to support
democracy, human rights, that we in no way would support any coups or
unconstitutional activity," Ms. Clarke said.
On Capitol Hill,
Democrats voiced concern that the administration meetings with
anti-Chvez leaders might undercut Washington's credibility as the
region's main advocate for democracy.
"I'm very concerned about
what message it sends about our support for democracy there and around
the world," said Senator Tom Daschle, the Democratic majority leader.
"I think that we've got to be supportive of democratic principles even
when they choose to elect people we don't like."
In some ways,
the back-and-forth between administration officials and Democrats
recalled the suspicion and bitter policy battles over Central America
and Cuba during the Reagan administration. The administration's foreign
policy team is dominated by anti-Castro hard-liners, who fought those
policy battles, and they are running afoul of familiar antagonists
including Senator Christopher Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat who has long
specialized in Latin American affairs.
Mr. Dodd expressed dismay
that the administration had been slow to criticize Mr. Chvez's ouster.
Administration officials erroneously reported on Friday that Mr. Chvez
had resigned and said his antidemocratic behavior was responsible for
his undoing. Only after Mr. Chvez had been restored on Saturday did
the administration support a resolution at the Organization of American
States condemning the interruption of democratic rule.
all the details of the attempted coup in Venezuela are not yet known,
what is clear is that the vast majority of governments in the
hemisphere lived up to their responsibilities under the Inter-American
Democratic Charter, and denounced the unconstitutional efforts to take
power from a government which had been freely elected," Mr. Dodd said.
Mr. Reich, who is a Cuban exile, warned Congressional aides that there
was more at stake in Venezuela than the success or failure of Mr.
Chvez. American officials accuse Mr. Chvez of meddling with the
historically independent state oil company, providing haven to
Colombian guerrillas and bailing out Cuba with preferential rates on
In the closed door briefing, Mr. Reich said the
administration had received reports that "foreign paramilitary forces"
— suspected to be Cubans — were involved in the bloody suppression of
anti-Chvez demonstrators, in which at least 14 people were killed, a
Congressional official said today.
Mr. Reich, who declined to be interviewed today, offered no evidence for his assertion, the official said.