- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 17, 2002

The Bush administration said yesterday that it had made clear in meetings in recent months with foes of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez that it would not support a coup, rejecting accusations that it had done nothing to discourage his overthrow.
The State Department, meanwhile, issued a travel warning for Venezuela and authorized the voluntary departure from the country of non-emergency personnel and their family members.
It warned in a statement that "violent clashes, looting and demonstrations may take place at any time" and cited "reports of American citizens being singled out for threats and harassment."
A State Department official also said a plane with U.S. markings, which Mr. Chavez said he saw on the Caribbean island where he spent his brief internment, belongs to a Venezuelan businessman and is registered in the United States.
The White House acknowledged that U.S. officials had met recently with some of the participants in Mr. Chavez's two-day ouster last week, but it insisted that the Americans did nothing to encourage the Venezuelan visitors to use unconstitutional means against their democratically elected leader.
"Our message has been consistent," White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer told reporters. "The political situation in Venezuela is one for the Venezuelans to resolve peacefully, democratically and constitutionally, and we explicitly told opposition leaders that the United States would not support a coup."
Speaking later, he said, "The tradition, the history within 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, and that's a message the United States proudly repeats with all our allies in the region, that all those problems have to be solved through democratic solutions."
Mr. Fleischer said administration officials met with a "broad spectrum" of Venezuelan representatives, including Pedro Carmona, who was installed as the Latin American nation's interim president after several military officials announced that Mr. Chavez had resigned.
But the visitors also included pro-Chavez legislators, labor leaders and officials from the Catholic Church, the White House spokesman said.
The Pentagon said Roger Pardo Maurer, assistant secretary of defense for Western Hemisphere affairs, delivered the same anti-coup message to Gen. Lucas Romero Rincon, the chief of the Venezuelan high command, in December.
"I can say emphatically we had somebody from our policy shop who met recently with their chief of staff, who made it very, very clear that the U.S. intent was to support democracy, human rights, that we in no way support any coups or unconstitutional activity," Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke said.
The administration was criticized after Mr. Chavez's return to power on Sunday for a statement it issued Friday that seemed to endorse the populist leader's ouster. The White House and the State Department refrained from condemning the attempted coup and later chose not to welcome Mr. Chavez's return, unlike many other countries.
On Monday, a senior administration official who asked not to be named told a small group of reporters that the Venezuelan opposition representatives who had met with U.S. officials had not asked Washington to support a coup.
"They came here to complain and inform us about the situation, and our message was very clear: There are constitutional processes in every country," the official said.
"In fact, in many cases they came to tell us which were the clauses in their own constitution that allow for the peaceful removal of a president. We said, 'We can't tell you to remove a president or not to remove a president.' We didn't even wink at anyone," he said.
But yesterday, the New York Times quoted an anonymous Pentagon official as saying the administration's message had been less categorical.
"We were not discouraging people," the official said, according to the paper. "We were sending informal, subtle signals that we don't like this guy. We didn't say, 'No, don't you dare,' and we weren't advocates saying, 'Here's some arms; we'll help you overthrow this guy.' We were not doing that."
Mr. Fleischer disputed the truthfulness of that statement.
"You don't know the person's name," he said. "The person obviously doesn't have enough confidence in what he said to say it on the record."
In Caracas, the Venezuelan capital, Mr. Chavez met yesterday with Cesar Gaviria, secretary-general of the Organization of American States, who is on a mission to determine exactly what happened at the end of last week.
In the meantime, 10 Venezuelans sought asylum at the Bolivian Embassy in Caracas, the Bolivian government said in a statement.

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