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Bush Denies Encouraging Venezuela Coup

U.S. President George W. Bush says he did not encourage last week's short-lived coup against Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Mr. Bush says President Chavez needs to show he is serious about democratic reforms.

President Bush says he never supported the military forcing President Chavez from power. He says his administration spoke clearly in support of democracy.

"My administration was very clear when there were troubles on the streets in Venezuela that we support democracy and did not support any extra-constitutional action," said President Bush. "My administration spoke with a very clear voice about our strong support of democracy."

Last Friday, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer blamed President Chavez 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," Mr. Fleischer argued. "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."

At the time, Mr. Fleischer said President Bush looked forward to working with all Venezuelans to restore "the essential elements" of democracy.

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

When President Chavez regained power two-days later, the Bush Administration signed-on to an Organization of American States resolution condemning "the alteration of constitutional order."

The White House is 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 Mr. Bush did not act quickly enough to denounce Venezuela's military.

With Mr. Chavez back in power, President Bush says he should follow through on promises of reconciliation.

"It is very important for President Chavez to do what he said he was going to do, to address the reasons why there was so much turmoil on the streets," said Mr. Bush. "And it is very important for him to embrace those institutions which are fundamental to democracy including freedom of press and freedom for the ability of the opposition to speak out. And if there are lessons to be learned it is important that he learn them."

The president spoke during an Oval Office meeting with Colombian President Andres Pastrana. Mr. Pastrana says regional leaders hope President Chavez makes changes in Venezuela to respect civil laws, guarantee the rights of the opposition, and respect human rights and freedom of the press.

"What we are expecting is, that as President Chavez said in his speech, that he is going to try to look for reconciliation inside Venezuela," said Mr. Pastrana. "That he is going to correct many mistakes and we hope that what he is going to correct is toward strengthening democracy."

White House officials say they met with a variety of Venezuelan opposition leaders during the past few months and told all of them that Washington would not back a coup against President Chavez.

Mr. Fleischer says Administration officials made it clear that the political situation in Venezeula must be resolved peacefully, democratically, and constitutionally.