Bush Officials Defend Their Actions on Venezuela

  By: Karen De Young 

The Washington Post, March 18, 2002



Bush administration officials forcefully defended themselves yesterday against criticism that they had interfered with the democratic process in Venezuela, saying they had done their best to respond to fast-moving events about which they knew little more than what they were seeing on television. Rather than supporting the self-declared government that temporarily seized power last week from President Hugo Chavez, officials said, they acted quickly to stem its excesses.

Assistant Secretary of State Otto J. Reich acknowledged the administration had contacted the Venezuelan businessman installed in Chavez's place last Friday. Reich said he had instructed Charles Shapiro, the U.S. ambassador in Caracas, to call Pedro Carmona that night to express concern over unconstitutional actions Carmona had taken, including the dissolution of the Venezuelan National Assembly.

Shapiro repeated the message in a visit to Carmona on Saturday morning. "It would have been irresponsible not to do it," Reich said. He denied published reports that he had called Carmona himself or that the administration had advised the military and business leaders who seized control of the government.

But whatever took place during last week's tumult, the overall result appeared to be a foreign policy setback for a White House already reeling from bruising events in the Middle East. It occurred in a part of the world that President Bush has said he feels closest to, and that he has declared to be among his administration's highest priorities.

Not only has Chavez remained in power, but what had been a steadily growing drumbeat of domestic and hemispheric opposition to his increasingly undemocratic rule has likely been undermined, for the moment at least, by the anti-democratic tactics of those who tried to oust him. Long before last week, a number of administration officials had said they believed that Chavez eventually would fall from the weight of domestic, democratic opposition and that any U.S. involvement would only postpone that day by legitimizing his anti-American rhetoric.

"We didn't wink, we didn't nod, we didn't insinuate and we didn't encourage any unconstitutional change of government in Venezuela in any way," a senior administration official said.

But in the view of some informed observers, the administration fundamentally misread the balance of power in a region where it claims high interest and expertise, and believed the anticipated day of Chavez's demise had arrived.

"There was a lot of self-fulfillment going on here," said a non-U.S. diplomat with long experience in the region. Although a number of Venezuelan military leaders had criticized Chavez in recent months, and a massive anti-Chavez strike had brought the country to a halt last week, the administration "vastly underestimated Chavez's residual strength," the diplomat said.

Few Latin American officials believe the United States promoted the coup attempt. "Everybody understands that there wasn't a wink or a nod," said one. "But what there was was an initial certainty on their part that [the attempt] would succeed."

Skeptics include members of Congress who have charged that at the very least the situation was handled amateurishly by appointed officials. Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), chairman of the Foreign Relations subcommittee on Western Hemisphere affairs, said Tuesday that those handling the crisis lacked "adult" supervision while Secretary of State Colin L. Powell was in the Middle East.

Administration officials have been repeatedly asked why they did not question the assertion of senior military officials, who presented no proof that Chavez had voluntarily resigned. At midday Friday, hours after Chavez had been seen leaving the presidential palace under military escort, and shortly after the military announcement, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer announced his voluntary departure as fact.

Asked what independent evidence they had, senior officials offered several responses. "Mr. Chavez had been taken away. He was in custody," said one. "We had no evidence to the contrary. We were told he was going to be tried. . . . We were told he was being spirited out of the country," most likely to Cuba. Later, however, the official said, "Even today, we don't have all the facts. . . . I don't have any evidence for or against."

Another high-level official said that Fleischer's statement was merely "sharing the information that was available," largely through the media.

At the same time Friday, however, administration lawyers studying the Venezuelan constitution noted that presidential resignations are invalid until they are accepted by the National Assembly, which also has the sole power to install a new head of state.

"We heard this new interim government was going to disband the Assembly and the Supreme Court," said another senior official. "We recognized this was in violation of the constitution and we could not work with them."

By the time Shapiro had twice passed that message to Carmona, many in the military had also studied the constitution and switched sides, and Carmona quickly resigned as Chavez supporters took to the streets.

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