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White House Defends Its Stand on Venezuelan Coup - 2002-04-16

The Bush Administration says it did not encourage opposition leaders in Venezuela to oust President Hugo Chavez. The country's military forced President Chavez from power last week, but he regained control two-days later.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer says the Bush Administration met with a broad spectrum of Venezuelan leaders during the past few months. He said the message was always the same, that Washington would not back a coup against President Chavez. "United States officials explicitly made clear, repeatedly, to opposition leaders that the United States would not support a coup," he said.

Mr. Fleischer says Administration officials told Venezuelan leaders that the political situation there must be resolved peacefully, democratically, and constitutionally.

He was responding to U.S. newspaper reports suggesting that administration officials gave tacit approval for the coup attempt. There has also been criticism from within the hemisphere that the White House did not act quickly enough to denounce Venezuela's military when it forced President Chavez from power.

On the contrary, Mr. Fleischer told White House reporters Friday that President Chavez was to blame for provoking the crisis when his supporters opened fire on thousands of people marching on the presidential palace in Caracas. "The Chavez government suppressed peaceful demonstrations," he said. "Government supporters, on orders from the Chavez government fired on unarmed, peaceful protestors, resulting in 10 killed and 100 wounded. Venezuelan military and police refused to fire on the peaceful demonstrators and refused to support the government's role in such human-rights violations."

Asked about U.S. support for what appeared to be an extra-constitutional change of power, Mr. Fleischer said President Chavez resigned, dismissing his vice president and cabinet before he was arrested by the military.

Mr. Fleischer said President Bush looked forward to working with all democratic forces in Venezuela to restore "the essential elements" of democracy.

When supporters then returned President Chavez to power, the Bush Administration signed-on to an Organization of American States resolution condemning what it called "the alteration of constitutional order" in Venezuela.

Mr. Fleischer says the United States backs an OAS investigation into the events, and stands committed to preserving democracy in the hemisphere. "The tradition, the history in the last 20 years in Central America and South America has been a tradition of democracy, thanks in great part to the United States' efforts," said Ari Fleischer. "And that is a message the United States proudly repeats with all our allies in the region, that the answer to all these problems remains; that problems have to be solved through democratic solutions."

During his three-year presidency, Mr. Chavez has alienated many segments of Venezuelan society including business leaders, labor groups, the news media, and Roman Catholic leaders. He has also angered the United States by forging closer ties with Cuba, Iraq, Libya, and Iran.

The State Department says it is encouraged by President Chavez' call for national reflection. It urged all Venezuelans to take advantage of the opportunity to promote national reconciliation and what a spokesman calls "genuine democratic dialogue."