WASHINGTON – President Bush shrugged off suggestions Thursday that his administration welcomed a short-lived Venezuelan coup, and told the nation's embattled president to respect democratic values such as freedom of the press.
"If there are lessons to be learned, it's important that he learn them," Bush said of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
Last week, hours after Chavez appeared to have been deposed during a mass protest, the State Department and the White House said Chavez was to blame for his fate. The administration showed no remorse about the interruption of democratic procedures.
The next day, however, the United States joined with other Organization of American States countries in condemning an attempt to install a successor government outside constitutional rules. Chavez was reinstated Sunday.
"The administration was very clear when there were troubles on the streets in Venezuela that we support democracy and did not support any extraconstitutional action. My administration spoke with a very clear voice about our strong support of democracy," Bush said.
"It's very important for President Chavez to do what he said he was going to do — to address the reasons why there was so much turmoil on the streets. It's very important for him to embrace the institutions that are fundamental to democracy, such as freedom of the press, freedom of the opposition to speak out," Bush said after an Oval Office meeting with Colombian President Andres Pastrana.
"When things got hot in Venezuela, he shut the press down," Bush said.
Bush made the remarks as hemispheric nations began looking for ways to avoid future coups in the oil-rich country.
Foreign ministers of the Organization of American States were to hear a report Thursday from the secretary-general, Cesar Gaviria, on his fact-finding mission this week in Venezuela.
With the meeting scheduled on short notice, most foreign ministers from the 34-nation group will not attend but will be represented by subordinates. Venezuelan Foreign Minister Luis Alfonso Davila is expected to participate, officials said.
Meanwhile Thursday, the Pentagon said it had suspended counterdrug training and is assessing what to do about other military-to-military programs with Venezuela.
The U.S. Southern Command said two dozen U.S. Army trainers who were supposed to have gone to Venezuela Friday as the coup was unfolding were first put on hold, then told Sunday the trip was off for the time being.
The two countries also have joint annual exercises in navy and coast guard maneuvers. The Pentagon is watching how the situation in Venezuela develops day to day, defense officials said.
"We are postponing military-to-military activities there until the situation on the ground stabilizes," said Capt. Riccoh Player, a Pentagon spokesman for hemisphere issues.
More than 40 years of uninterrupted democratic rule almost came to an end Friday when, in the aftermath of a popular uprising, the military took Chavez into custody.
An attempt by businessman Pedro Carmona to form a replacement government collapsed, and Chavez was reinstated Sunday.
As Gaviria ended his two-day visit to Venezuela, he said, "This country has to learn from the traumatic events of last week."
"Episodes such as those that occurred have enormous risks in human lives and in the preservation of institutions," said Gaviria, a Colombian, pleading with Chavez's foes to "take the president at his word" and give him a chance to practice forgiveness and correct past errors.
Otto Reich, assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, welcomed Chavez's recent expression of interest in improved relations with Washington.
"If President Chavez is sincere, and I have no reason to doubt his sincerity, I think he's going to find a cooperative U.S.," Reich told reporters.
Chavez irritated the United States by refusing to allow U.S. anti-drug planes to use Venezuelan airspace. Chavez also is seen as sympathetic to leftist guerrillas operating in neighboring Colombia, some of whom reportedly have been given sanctuary on Venezuelan territory from time to time.
In another development, U.S. officials said the Bush administration tried in vain to persuade Carmona, leader of the short-lived post-Chavez government, not to dissolve the National Assembly. The United States considered the assembly essential because only it could appoint a new president when the office is vacated.
Carmona ignored the appeal, dissolved the assembly and had himself sworn in as Chavez's replacement.