- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 16, 2002

The United States yesterday hedged on whether Hugo Chavez should be considered the legitimate leader of Venezuela, saying his return to power after a two-day ouster did not amount to full restoration of democracy.

At the same time, the Bush administration insisted that it has always opposed the seizure of power by unconstitutional means and said its failure to condemn the attempted coup in a statement Friday was the result of having insufficient information.

On Sunday the United States supported an Organization of American States (OAS) resolution condemning the "alteration of the constitutional order" in Venezuela. But it did not formally welcome Mr. Chavez's return to power yesterday, as did many other countries including France, Russia, Brazil, Cuba and Iraq.

The State Department said it "welcomed the opportunity we think Venezuelans have now."

"We are encouraged by President Chavez's call for national reflection, and we urge all Venezuelans to take advantage of this opportunity to promote national reconciliation and genuine democratic dialogue," State Department deputy spokesman Philip Reeker told reporters.

A senior Bush administration official went as far as to cast doubt on Mr. Chavez's legitimacy.

"He was democratically elected in 1998 he won a majority of votes," the official said. "Legitimacy is something that is conferred not just by a majority of votes, however."

The official, who spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity, said the United States had nothing to do with Mr. Chavez's temporary overthrow, which he refused to call a coup.

"Normally in a coup the military takes over the government, and the military did not take over the government," he said.

In Caracas, the Venezuelan capital, Mr. Chavez told reporters at a press conference he would investigate the mysterious presence of a U.S. plane on the Caribbean island of La Orchila, where he was taken on Friday by the military officials who announced his resignation.

"It bore the markings of a private plane from the United States, not an official plane," he said.

A State Department official said he was not aware of the aircraft's presence on the island.

Mr. Reeker said the United States would await the results of an OAS fact-finding mission to Venezuela before drawing any conclusions about what exactly happened at the end of last week.

On Friday, when it appeared that Mr. Chavez had been ousted, the State Department issued a statement that contained little regret over the populist president's fate.

It blamed the crisis in which more than a dozen people died on the "undemocratic actions committed or encouraged by the Chavez administration."

Michael Shifter, vice president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington think tank, said Washington's reaction on Friday "undermines the U.S. commitment to democracy."

"The statement didn't take into account that this was a disturbing development," he said. "That deprives the United States of high moral ground."

But Stephen Johnson, a Latin America policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, said the limited information coming out of Venezuela at the time of the crisis was the reason for Washington's "reserved" response.

"The United States can play a limited role in this case," he said. "This is more appropriate for the community of the Americas."

Mr. Chavez, who returned to power on Sunday, said yesterday he would invite a broad spectrum of Venezuelan society to participate in a dialogue on the problems his country is facing.

"I'm calling everyone business leaders, political parties, the church, the heads of communication media to dialogue," he said. "There will be no witch hunts, no persecution, no disrespect for free expression or thought."

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