Venezuela President Must Embrace Democracy, Bush Says

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Brushing aside questions about the U.S. response to last week’s failed coup in Venezuela, President Bush declared Thursday that the leftist president who survived the threat must prove that he is a friend of democracy.

Bush’s warning to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez came as the Organization of American States convened a special meeting to consider the events that drove Chavez from power and then brought him back.

“It’s very important for him to embrace those institutions which are fundamental to democracy,” Bush said of Chavez, “including freedom of press and freedom for the ability [of] the opposition to speak out.”


Hours after Bush spoke, the Venezuelan foreign minister told the OAS, which represents the 35 nations of the Western Hemisphere, that the Chavez administration had deep respect for the rule of law and for democratic freedoms.

“Despite all that has happened,” said Foreign Minister Luis Alfonso Davila, “at this moment not a single Venezuelan newspaper has been shut down, nor has a television or radio station, nor has any member of the media been imprisoned.”

Speaking at OAS headquarters in Washington, Davila asserted that Venezuelan society has never enjoyed as much freedom of expression as it has under Chavez, who was first elected president in 1998.

The remarks by Bush and Davila continued the debate about what happened in Venezuela last week and what will happen next in the important oil-producing country.

Bush spoke in a brief session with reporters in the Oval Office, with President Andres Pastrana of Colombia, a U.S. ally and neighbor of Venezuela, at his side.

For Bush, who seeks to forge better relations with Latin America, managing the fallout of the abortive Venezuelan coup--which his administration was slow to condemn--is emerging as an important diplomatic test.


Bush insisted that his administration was “very clear” in its support of democracy during the upheaval in the Venezuelan capital, Caracas, and “did not support any extra-constitutional action.”

But on Capitol Hill, a senior administration official acknowledged that the U.S. response “wasn’t what it should have been.”

Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage, responding to questions from House Minority Whip Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), said the Bush administration “didn’t have any involvement, not to my knowledge” in the attempt to oust Chavez.

Armitage told a House Appropriations subcommittee that in the aftermath of the coup, “formulation of the U.S. statement wasn’t what it should have been.”

The coup began April 11 when a rebellious faction of the Venezuelan military announced an end to the Chavez regime after an anti-government protest turned violent. On April 12, when Chavez was taken into custody, the White House expressed no regrets.

But Latin American leaders raised an immediate outcry, and the OAS subsequently condemned the coup in a U.S.-backed resolution. Chavez returned to power early Sunday.


This week, attention has focused on the Bush administration’s actions before and during the attempted coup. Administration officials, skeptical of many Chavez policies, including his pro-Cuba stance, acknowledge having had contact with anti-Chavez groups beforehand. But they vigorously deny approving any unconstitutional attempt to topple Chavez.

At the OAS meeting, Secretary-General Cesar Gaviria, a former Colombian president, delivered a report on a fact-finding trip to Caracas.

Gaviria made no mention of the United States in his report. He concluded that the coup leaders were not the same as the leaders of the massive street protests on April 11 and preceding days.

Instead, he said, the coup attempt “was the result of decisions taken by the military.”

Gaviria said that “this alteration of constitutional order was reversed by the reaction of a considerable number of officers of the armed forces and by a vigorous reaction by citizens--both defenders and opponents of the government of President Chavez.”

He recommended that Venezuela adopt reforms to curb political involvement by the military. He also urged that government probes into the events of April 11 be fair and open, meting out full punishment to those responsible.

In modern times, many Latin American countries have been beset by coups that have overturned constitutional governments. But in recent years the region has stiffened its resolve to promote democracy. Last year, the nations of the Western Hemisphere adopted a tough pro-democracy policy at the Summit of the Americas in Canada.


Bush in January reiterated that policy, declaring in a speech to Latin American leaders that “democracy is the nonnegotiable demand of human dignity” and that “the future of this hemisphere depends on the strength of three commitments: democracy, security and market-based development.”

In his remarks Thursday, Bush sought to assure Latin America and the world that he remained committed to that vision. “My administration spoke with a very clear voice about our strong support of democracy,” he told reporters.

Also on Thursday, the Pentagon said it had suspended anti-drug training with Venezuela and was assessing what to do about other military-to-military programs.

The U.S. Southern Command said two dozen U.S. Army trainers whose planned trip to Venezuela last Friday was delayed by the coup were told Sunday that the trip was off for now.


Times staff writers Esther Schrader and Paul Richter and wire services contributed to this report.