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Venezuelan's Role Unraveled Coup, U.S. Says

Politics: Interim leader's unconstitutional dissolution of government branches led the military to reinstate Chavez, officials contend.

April 18, 2002|PAUL RICHTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — U.S. officials, pressing their case that they played no improper role in last week's failed uprising in Venezuela, on Wednesday blamed business leader Pedro Carmona for taking actions as self-appointed president that violated his nation's constitution and led to the coup's rapid collapse.

In the most detailed account yet of their role in the abortive ouster, U.S. officials said Carmona thrust himself into a power vacuum created when Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was forced from office late last week. They said that when Carmona unwisely dissolved the National Assembly and removed the country's Supreme Court, the military became alarmed and reinstalled Chavez.

When Carmona and his aides dissolved the National Assembly on Friday, "it was apparent that they didn't know what they were doing in terms of operating within the constitution," said a senior Bush administration official who insisted on remaining unidentified. "I think the military probably noticed that as well."

Chavez, elected by a landslide in 1998, has become an increasingly polarizing figure in his country, restricting opposition parties, gagging the media and seeking to reorganize the state oil company. He surrendered power last week after large demonstrations in Caracas, the capital, set off violence that killed at least 15 people. He regained the presidency early Sunday.

U.S. Reaction Faulted

The Bush administration has been criticized by congressional Democrats and other observers, who say it was slow to condemn the undemocratic effort to dump Chavez even though the U.S. has led a public effort to dissuade coups against democratically elected governments. Critics have charged that American officials might even have encouraged Venezuelans to dump the leftist leader, with whom the U.S. has long clashed.

But administration officials insisted that they took no action either to encourage a coup or to ensure that it would succeed.

They insisted that although U.S. Ambassador Charles Shapiro contacted Carmona on Friday as the interim Venezuelan leader sought to close down the legislature, it was not to aid the effort but to avert unconstitutional acts that would further harm U.S.-Venezuelan relations.

An official said that if the interim government had violated the constitution, the United States and other countries would have been forced to impose trade and other sanctions under a 7-month-old international agreement called the Inter-American Democracy Charter.

"It wasn't that we wanted Carmona to succeed," a senior U.S. official said. "It was a question of having some democratic continuity so that we could continue to operate with Venezuela as a country."

He said U.S. officials were "outraged" at Carmona's moves to shut down the legislature, the Supreme Court and other branches of the government.

Most officials willing to discuss the events requested anonymity because of the sensitive diplomatic relations.

The Bush administration's actions have drawn fire from Democrats in part because the assistant secretary of State responsible for Latin America is Cuban-born Otto J. Reich, a staunch anti-Communist whose appointment was opposed this year by some Democratic senators.

Some critics have questioned whether the administration's actions might have been influenced by Reich's dislike for Chavez, who supports Fidel Castro.

But Reich insisted that he had had no contacts with Carmona or other leaders of the coup attempt during the thwarted ouster. "I never spoke to Mr. Carmona," he told reporters at the State Department on Wednesday.

Praise for the Military

U.S. officials said that although they still have no proof that Chavez willingly relinquished power, they did hear reports of his resignation from a number of military and civilian sources in Venezuela. They said it was possible that the military might have forced the president from office temporarily because it was upset that pro-Chavez gunmen had fired on large crowds of protesters in Caracas last week.

The U.S. officials praised the actions of the military officers who, they said, had risen up against Chavez because of his role in directing the violence against protesters.

The U.S. officials contended that the military had not sought to install any new president or take any other unconstitutional action, but had allowed the job to be temporarily unfilled. As of last Thursday night, they said, Venezuelan sources were telling them that no one was in charge.

By Friday, however, Carmona had sworn himself in as president and begun to reorganize the government, they said.

Congressional aides say Bush administration officials have told lawmakers of reports that Cuban troops had joined last week's fighting on Chavez's side. An administration official, who acknowledged that the government had received reports that foreign troops were involved, declined to identify them or elaborate.

U.S. officials said they hoped to help steer Venezuela back toward a more robust democracy by working with other nations in the Organization of American States.

The OAS might even send an observer mission to monitor the actions of the Venezuelan government, as it did in Peru during the troubled tenure of former President Alberto Fujimori, officials said. But it also could choose a less intrusive approach, they said.

The U.S. is in a sensitive diplomatic position because it does not want to be seen as trying to push around the Chavez government, especially given the controversy over the U.S. attitude toward the attempted ouster.

OAS members are to meet in Washington today to consider a fact-finding report from Secretary-General Cesar Gaviria on the failed coup and to try to chart actions to help move Venezuela toward a fuller democracy.

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