- The Washington Times - Friday, April 26, 2002

Otto Reich, the Bush administration's top diplomat on Latin America, defended what many interpreted to be an early U.S. endorsement of the Venezuelan military's ouster of President Hugo Chavez and called recent reports detailing direct U.S. involvement "not true."

In an interview, Mr. Reich was asked if he regretted an April 12 statement by the Bush administration the day after the coup that actions by the Venezuelan government had "provoked" the crisis.

He replied that the statement "was the best we could do under the circumstances."

He said that critics who claimed the Bush administration was too quick to recognize Mr. Chavez's resignation were "second guessing" and "working with the benefit of hindsight."

"What were the circumstances? The head of the armed forces came out of the presidential palace and said Chavez has resigned. Chavez is not there anymore. He is in some kind of detention on a military base and is not seen for two days. What are we to assume?" Mr. Reich said.

President Bush appointed Mr. Reich assistant secretary of state in January, when Congress was not in session, because the Democrat-led Senate refused to consider his nomination.

During the last six months, dozens of Venezuelan opposition figures have come to Washington to complain about Mr. Chavez, a firebrand leftist who had enacted harsh measures to silence his opponents.

Many held discussions at the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, both funded by the National Endowment for Democracy.

The New York Times reported yesterday that some of the money from the U.S.-funded endowment might have gone to support the coup.

"There's not a shred of truth in this story," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said.

Mr. Reich and other Bush administration officials are adamant that they never gave the Venezuelan opposition any hint that the United States would support a military or civil coup against Mr. Chavez.

"Our message was so consistent and so simple we cannot support any unconstitutional change of government in Venezuela," Mr. Reich said.

Venezuelan opposition leaders have offered similar accounts of their meetings with Mr. Reich and other U.S. officials.

"[Mr. Reich] said, 'The United States is not going to recognize a de facto government, or a government that comes via a coup,'" said Carlos Ortega, a Venezuelan labor leader who meet Mr. Reich in February, as quoted in the Los Angeles Times.

On April 8, the Venezuelan oil industry went on strike, and on April 11, Chavez supporters opened fire on anti-Chavez demonstrators, killing 17.

Mr. Chavez called out the army and tapes revealed Wednesday that Mr. Chavez asked for tanks to defend his presidency.

The military refused to fire on the Venezuelan people and asked for Mr. Chavez's resignation.

Two days later, Mr. Chavez was restored to power.

Asked if the Bush administration now saw Mr. Chavez in a different light, Mr. Reich said he was hopeful but watching.

"He gave a speech on Saturday morning where he said that he had made many mistakes, he begged for forgiveness, and he reached out to his political adversaries," Mr. Reich said. "We will have to take him at his word unless events prove otherwise."

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