WASHINGTON – U.S. diplomats specifically and clearly told Venezuelan opposition leaders the Bush administration would not support a coup against President Hugo Chavez, the White House said Tuesday.
The Pentagon delivered the same message to Venezuela's highest-ranking military officer, defense officials said, before Chavez was deposed before being restored to power over the weekend.
"United States officials have met with a broad spectrum of Venezuelans over several months," press secretary Ari Fleischer said of diplomats' efforts. "These have included business association representatives, to include the chamber of commerce president, interim President (Pedro) Carmona as well as pro-Chavez legislators."
"Our message has been consistent: The political situation in Venezuela is one for the Venezuelans to resolve peacefully, democratically and constitutionally, which I said on Friday. We explicitly told opposition leaders the United States would not support a coup," he said.
Fleischer said he did not know of even an implicit suggestion that a coup be attempted.
Asked if the U.S. military gave logistical or intelligence support for the failed coup, Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke said she was "not aware of that."
"I can say emphatically that we had somebody ... who met recently with the chief of staff and made it very, very clear that the United States intent was to support democracy, human rights — that we in no way would support any coups or unconstitutional activity," Clarke told a news conference Tuesday.
She said the message was delivered by Roger Pardo-Maurer, assistant defense secretary for the hemisphere, in a meeting with Venezuelan Gen. Lucas Rincon. She said she didn't know the purpose of the meeting or how the subject of coups came up.
Their remarks were in response to a New York Times story that said Bush administration official agreed with leaders of the coalition that ousted Chavez that he should be removed.
President Bush, who considers himself a champion of democracy and moral clarity in foreign relations, has been embarrassed by his administration's quick embrace of the Carmona presidency, which lasted two days before Chavez returned to power.
"We're encouraged by President Chavez's calls for national reflection," State Department spokesman Phil Reeker said Monday. "And we urge all Venezuelans to take advantage of this opportunity to promote national reconciliation and a genuine democratic dialogue."
Chavez appeared to have been driven from power Friday by military officers following violent street demonstrations against his rule, only to be reinstated Sunday after large protests by his supporters.
On Monday, he called on Venezuelans "to reunite, to reflect" and said he would begin talks with opposition leaders Tuesday.
The United States long has been at odds with Chavez, particularly because of his friendly relations with Cuba, Iraq, Libya and Iran.
Despite the U.S. insistence that nations in the Western Hemisphere follow democratic procedures, the Bush administration did not protest when the popularly-elected Chavez was forced from office Friday.
While Latin American leaders were condemning the coup, the State Department said Chavez was to blame for his fate. A spokesman charged that Chavez authorized followers to open fire on demonstrators, leaving more than a dozen dead and hundreds wounded.
After Chavez was reinstated, the administration went along with an Organization of American States resolution that condemned "the alteration of constitutional order in Venezuela."
On Monday, both Chavez and the U.S. government seemed to try to discourage speculation about any U.S. role in the coup. When a reporter in Caracas asked Chavez whether the United States may have been involved, he responded: "The root is here."
He spoke well of the United States, saying he saluted the U.S. government with "love and affection."
A senior State Department official told reporters in Washington that the United States never suggested to any Venezuelan opponent of Chavez that it would look with favor on a change in government outside the constitution.
It wasn't the first time the United States has said it wouldn't support a coup. In February, a U.S. official said American diplomats had been approached by dissident Venezuelan military officers to see if the United States would support a coup. The official said they were given a firm no.
Reeker said the Friday statement criticizing Chavez was based "on what appeared to be the facts at the time."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.