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Bush Criticized by Democrats for Slow Response to Venezuelan Crisis

Senate Democrats are criticizing the Bush administration for its handling of the short-lived ouster of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

Senator Christopher Dodd of Connecticut says the administration should have moved more quickly to denounce the Venezuelan military when it forcibly removed Mr. Chavez from power last Friday.

Mr. Dodd is chairman of the Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere, Peace Corps and Narcotics Affairs. Senator Dodd said, "I am extremely disappointed that rather than leading the effort to reaffirm the region's commitment to the democratic principles outlined in the OAS [Organization of American States] Charter, only belatedly did the United States join with other OAS members to respond to the Venezuelan crisis. I would be the last one to defend all of the decisions and policies of the Chavez administration, but to stand silent while the illegal ouster of a government is occurring is deeply troubling."

The administration had blamed Mr. Chavez for creating conditions that led to his overthrow.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota acknowledged that Mr. Chavez has been a frequent critic of U.S. policy, but he said that was no reason for the U.S. administration to "throw out democratic principles".

The comments of Senate Democrats, along with news reports that the administration gave tacit approval to a coup attempt, put White House spokesman Ari Fleischer on the defensive.

Mr. Fleischer denied the United States encouraged those responsible for the ouster of the Venezuelan President even though U.S. officials had met opponents of Mr. Chavez in recent months. He said, "United States officials explicitly made clear, repeatedly, to opposition leaders that the United States would not support a coup."

Mr. Fleischer noted that after supporters returned Mr. Chavez to power, the administration backed an Organization of American States' resolution condemning what it called 'the alteration of constitutional order.'

Senate Republicans refrained from criticizing the administration's handling of the Venezuelan crisis.

Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina, an influential member of the Foreign Relations Committee, suggested that the threats to Venezuelan democracy and its constitution began long before last Friday's incident. Senator Helms said, "I personally would urge Mr. Chavez to make good use of his second chance and embrace a little more strongly the principles of democracy than he has in the past."

Mr. Helms, a long-time foe of the communist-led government in Cuba, also called on Mr. Chavez to end his close relationship with Cuban leader Fidel Castro.