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US Again Denies Backing 2002 Coup Against Venezuelan President Chavez - 2004-02-18

The State Department is "categorically" rejecting renewed charges by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez that the United States supported the 2002 coup against him and is trying to oust him again by backing a recall referendum on his rule.

Mr. Chavez and the Bush administration have been trading criticism for some time. But U.S. officials say the Venezuelan leader may have taken the feud to a new level in a speech Tuesday in which he said the United States was giving financial backing to both the recall drive and what he termed "acts of conspiracy" against his government.

Mr. Chavez reiterated his long-standing charge that the United States supported the April 2002 military coup that briefly removed him from office, but also said the Bush administration was responsible for deaths of 19 pro and anti-government protesters in street clashes that preceded the overthrow.

At a news briefing in Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said he "categorically" rejects the Chavez charges which he said are "just plain not true" and said the Venezuelan leader was resorting to such tactics as a diversion from the recall movement.

"I think we've seen from time to time these kinds of attempts to divert attention away from the efforts that are underway amongst the Venezuelan people to exercise their constitutional rights and try to resolve the political polarization through a constitutional process," he said. "That's what's going on. One shouldn't try to divert attention with charges against the United States."

Mr. Boucher said U.S. aid to non-governmental groups promoting civil society in Venezuela is provided "very openly" and is for the benefit of democracy, not to support any particular political faction.

He said dozens of pro-Chavez political party members and several of his parliamentary allies have benefited directly from U.S.-funded training and visitors programs.

Relations between the United States and Venezuela, a leading U.S. oil supplier, have been strained by among other things, Mr. Chavez' close ties with Cuban President Fidel Castro and embrace of Saddam Hussein in a visit to Iraq four years ago.

The United States strongly supported Organization of American States mediation efforts in Venezuela's political crisis last year that led to the referendum effort, but insists it is not taking sides on whether Mr. Chavez should remain in office.

More than three million Venezuelans are reported to have signed recall petitions, and the country's National Elections Council is expected to announce by the end of this month if the petitions are valid.

Mr. Chavez' current six-year term runs until 2006, but if the recall effort is upheld, there would be a vote on his continued rule within in a few months.

On a Caracas visit earlier this week, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Peter DeShazo urged the electoral council not to use technicalities to invalidate recall petitions.

In his Tuesday speech, Mr. Chavez said the U.S. diplomat had been there to support the recall and said the true leaders of the Venezuelan opposition are "in Washington."