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April 17, 2002

U.S. Cautioned Leader of Plot Against Chvez

Key Player: Otto J. Reich

Related Articles
O.A.S. Reaffirms Support for Venezuelan (April 17, 2002)

Bush Officials Met With Venezuelans Who Ousted Leader (April 16, 2002)

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Venezuela's Chief Forced to Resign; Civilian Installed (April 13, 2002)


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WASHINGTON, 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 as president.

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.

"Those 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 from office.

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, officials acknowledged.

"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 months.

"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.

"While 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 oil.

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.

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