In heated congressional testimony, a former senior official of the Bush administration has denied U.S. involvement in the failed 2002 coup that briefly toppled Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. New light has been shed on an issue that remains a sore point in U.S.-Venezuelan relations to this day.
On April 11, 2002, Venezuela's military ousted President Chavez, detained him, and installed pro-opposition businessman Pedro Carmona as interim president. But the coup quickly faltered and ultimately crumbled amid massive protests and bloody confrontations between Chavez-backers and security forces. Less than 48 hours after his ouster, a triumphant Hugo Chavez returned to power and Carmona went into exile.
Ever since, Mr. Chavez has accused the United States of orchestrating the coup, and argued that Washington has no credibility as a defender of democracy in the Americas. U.S. officials have repeatedly denied the charge.
To date, no evidence has emerged that the Bush administration actively aided in the preparation or execution of the coup attempt. What remains an open question to many historians, however, is whether the U.S. government had advance knowledge of the coup and tacitly backed Chavez' ouster, and to what extent the United States embraced the short-lived interim Venezuelan government.
The State Department's point man for Latin America at the time, former Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Otto Reich, testified on Capitol Hill Wednesday. Speaking about the future of U.S.-Latin American relations, Reich said President Obama must distinguish between democratic leaders and despots in the hemisphere. Those words prompted a testy response from Democratic Congressman Bill Delahunt of Massachusetts.
"I have full confidence in President Obama," he said. "And I dare say in the case of Venezuela, he would not have made an effort to support tacitly the coup. He would not have attempted to influence ambassadors in other nations in Latin America to confer legitimacy to the Carmona government. When Pedro Carmona swore himself in, his first act was to abolish the National Assembly, to abolish the judiciary."
Reich demanded an opportunity to respond, but Delahunt cut him off.
"There are rules here," he said. "I have the floor."
Later given a chance to speak, Reich said, far from endorsing the coup at the time, he issued a stern message to the interim Venezuelan government through the U.S. Embassy in Caracas.
"I instructed [former U.S.] Ambassador Charles Shapiro to find Mr. Carmona and tell him that if he swore himself in, violating Chavez's own constitution, that he could not count on the support of the United States government, and we would have to impose economic sanctions [on Venezuela]," Reich said.
Most Latin American governments quickly condemned the coup, although relatively few demanded Mr. Chavez' return to power. The Bush administration initially acknowledged a change of government in Venezuela, and did not condemn the coup until it had collapsed.
In the interim, Reich convened a meeting with Latin American ambassadors in Washington.
At Wednesday's hearing, Congressman Delahunt repeatedly asked Reich if he pressed the ambassadors to lobby their governments to recognize the Carmona regime. Time after time, Reich said no.
"I'll accept that," said Delahunt. "Is that your answer?"
"My answer is that we told the Latin American ambassadors what we believed was taking place in Venezuela at the time," Reich replied. "But I am telling you we did not tacitly endorse a coup."
The U.S. government has acknowledged contact with those opposed to President Chavez before the coup, but says there was no encouragement of illegal actions. An internal probe of U.S. government activities leading up to the coup found no evidence of wrongdoing.