in Caracas Tuesday April 16, 2002 The Guardian
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said yesterday he would investigate the mysterious presence of a US plane at the island prison where he was briefly detained during last week's abortive military coup.
The military high command took Mr Chavez and demanded his resignation last Friday, blaming him for the deaths of at least 11 unarmed protesters killed during a massive anti-government demonstration on Thursday.
But power slipped from the inexperienced grasp of a newly appointed civilian government over the weekend as Chavez supporters demanded his return and army units came out in favour of the colourful president.
Mr Chavez said he was fascinated by the presence of a plane with US markings on the Venezuelan Caribbean island of Orchila where he was held after Friday's coup. At the time the military were trying to persuade him to resign and fly into foreign exile.
"I saw the plane. It bore the markings of a private plane from the United States, not an official plane. This is being investigated. What was it doing there?" Mr Chavez asked at a news conference.
But Mr Chavez, who was democratically elected in 1998, said he was prepared to give Washington the benefit of the doubt over its ambiguous statements appearing to welcome his shortlived downfall.
"I think they were victims of misinformation," he said, adding that he guaranteed no interruption of Venezuelan oil supplies to the US.
American officials made it known they were not unhappy to see the back of Mr Chavez, a close friend of Cuba's Fidel Castro who is fond of anti-American rhetoric. They greeted his swift return to the helm of the world's fourth-largest oil exporter with reservation.
A US state department spokesman, Philip Reeker, said yesterday: "We want to see a return to democracy."
Denies Backing Chavez Plotters
Chavez has again locked horns with the US The Bush administration has denied encouraging the ousting of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
The statement follows reports in the American press indicating that US officials had met opponents of Mr Chavez.
A White House spokesman said on Tuesday that officials had met Venezuelan opposition leaders but had told them they would not support a coup.
Mr Chavez was reinstated on Sunday amid big street protests by his supporters against the military coup which removed him from power last week.
The US State Department has now told the BBC that they are withdrawing all non-essential diplomats and their dependents from the country, as well as warning Americans to avoid travelling there.
The spokeswoman said the order was a precautionary move, amid fears of renewed political violence.
The warning says Venezuela is currently a "volatile and unpredictable" country for Americans to visit.
The United States has withheld support for Mr Chavez, saying his return to power does not amount to a full restoration of Venezuelan democracy.
'Keep it constitutional'
Controversy surrounds the meetings held between the Bush administration and opposition leaders in Venezuela.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said: "Our message has been consistent. The political situation in Venezuela is one for the Venezuelans to resolve peacefully, democratically and constitutionally."
One unidentified senior official quoted by the New York Times said that members of the Bush administration had met an anti-Chavez group several times in recent months, but the US had insisted the Venezuelans use constitutional means to remove Mr Chavez.
"They came here to complain," the official said.
"Our message was very clear: there are constitutional processes. We did not even wink at anyone."
But a Defense Department official 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."
US Plane Probe
Mr Chavez has called for national unity and on Monday announced talks on the way forward with state governors and local mayors, including those from the opposition.
The planned meeting will name a reconciliation committee to give voice to opposition concerns.
However, there appears to be no sign of reconciliation with the US on the part of Mr Chavez.
He says a plane with US registration numbers was at an army airstrip on Venezuela's Orchila Island, one of five places he was held in captivity during his brief removal from power.
Mr Chavez has also upset the Bush administration by announcing that Venezuela -the world's fourth largest oil producer - will continue supplying oil to Cuba.
The interim government which briefly replaced Mr Chavez had decided to suspend the exports.
Officials Met With Venezuelans Who Ousted Leader
Christopher Marquis, The New York Times, April 16, 2002
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 (news - web sites), 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 (news - web sites)'s national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice (news - web sites), 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.