Bush administration officials acknowledged Tuesday that they had discussed the removal of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez for months with military and civilian leaders from Venezuela, but they insisted that they had always discouraged unconstitutional action to oust him.
Amid rising congressional criticism, officials said the subject of removing Chavez had come up intermittently with various Venezuelan groups while rumors swirled that opponents might oust the increasingly unpopular leftist leader. Chavez was briefly stripped of power last week but was restored to office Sunday.
One discussion took place in December, when Gen. Lucas Romero Rincon, chief of the Venezuelan high command, met with Roger Pardo-Maurer IV, a policy official in the Pentagon's Western Hemisphere branch, Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke said at a briefing. Pardo-Maurer "made it very, very clear that we . . . would in no way support coups or unconstitutional activity," she said.
Administration officials said in public comments that they were unaware of any discussions of specific coup plans between the Venezuelans and their American counterparts. But privately, U.S. officials said some Venezuelans had from time to time raised the possibility of a coup in an effort to see how the U.S. would treat such an action and the new government that followed.
The administration's reaction to the abortive coup has come under increasing scrutiny. Critics have charged that although Chavez has proved to be an autocratic leader with few friends in the hemisphere, the White House was too slow to condemn the effort to oust him.
Discussions of a possible ouster raised the sensitive issue of whether the United States might have in some way given a "green light" that encouraged the coup attempt. After decades of fostering coups in Latin America, the United States has more recently led multilateral efforts to discourage them and promote democracy in the hemisphere.
The administration's first response Friday to word of Chavez's ouster was to suggest that the mercurial leader got what he deserved. Officials of other Western Hemisphere nations, including Mexico, Paraguay and Argentina, were quicker to condemn the action.
U.S. officials said American aides spelled out their views on a possible ouster in meetings with Venezuelans at the White House, State Department and Pentagon, as well as at U.S. facilities in Venezuela. They said the meetings involved military officials; Venezuelan business, labor and human rights groups; and members of opposition parties.
U.S. officials met with Pedro Carmona, the business leader who was briefly installed as Chavez's successor, but they provided no details, said White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer.
The U.S. stance drew sharp criticism from congressional Democrats, who until now have been quiet on the issue and have been generally reluctant to attack President Bush's foreign policy.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) told reporters: "I'm very concerned about what message it sends about our support for democracy there and around the world. You know, I think that we've got to be supportive of democratic principles, even when they choose to elect people we don't like."
Sen. Christopher J. Dodd(D-Conn.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, said he was "extremely disappointed" in the administration's response to the coup.
He acknowledged that Secretary of State Colin L. Powell was preoccupied with the Middle East crisis but added, "I would hope that in the future there would be more adult supervision of the policy formulation."
Some Democrats said the administration should have done more to avert a coup after learning that some Venezuelan officials were considering it.
Rep. William D. Delahunt (D-Mass.), a member of the House International Relations Committee, said he wondered whether the administration "should have notified the Chavez government that there were those who were conspiring to overthrow a democratically elected government."
But Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said he was unconcerned. He said he did not know whether Venezuelan officials had sought U.S. guidance.
"I don't know how much of that went on, but I don't have a problem if it did," he said.
Lott said Chavez "has not been living up to his promises when he ran for and was elected president. He has been drifting very markedly to the left, talking up regimes like Libya and, of course, giving cut-rate oil prices to Cuba."
U.S. and Venezuelan military officials have had a close relationship over the decades, although that has been interrupted since 1998, when Chavez was elected by a landslide. Chavez has restricted contacts between the two militaries.
Two senior Venezuelan officers who backed the ouster, former army commander Gen. Efrain Vasquez and Gen. Eddie Ramirez Poveda, had attended the U.S. Army School of the Americas at Ft. Benning, Ga., according to School of the Americas Watch, an advocacy group in Washington.
Critics charge that foreign officers trained at the school sometimes went on to commit human rights violations in their home countries.