MEXICO CITY --
As the White House denied Tuesday that it encouraged the plotters of the failed coup in Venezuela, the Bush administration's refusal to condemn the short-lived ouster of President Hugo Chavez has raised doubts about the U.S. commitment to democracy.
Across Latin America, critics charged that the Bush administration ignored its own frequent declarations in support of democracy and hemispheric unity when it appeared to embrace the coup against Chavez, a renegade former paratrooper who frequently has thumbed his nose at U.S. interests.
Some people are talking about this [U.S.] faux pas in Venezuela as a sort of Bay of Pigs without weapons. It's not necessarily a question of hypocrisy, but a question of consistency, and there's not been a lot of consistency.
Luis Guillermo Solis, a political analyst at the University of Costa Rica
The failed coup came seven months after the U.S. endorsed a groundbreaking charter in support of democracy with 34 Latin American nations. But when the other countries condemned the coup and threatened to invoke charter sanctions against the coup plotters last week, the Bush administration instead blamed the democratically elected Chavez for provoking his own ouster.
Latin American leaders and analysts warned that the U.S. stance could harm Washington's credibility in the region and send the wrong signal to other military commanders in a hemisphere where shaky democracy has begun to take root after decades of brutal army dictatorships.
In a region with bitter memories of U.S. political and military intervention, the Bush administration's stance left many Latin Americans convinced that the U.S. played an active role in the coup or at least sent subtle signs of encouragement.
"Some people are talking about this [U.S.] faux pas in Venezuela as a sort of Bay of Pigs without weapons," said Luis Guillermo Solis, a political analyst at the University of Costa Rica in San Jose. "It's not necessarily a question of hypocrisy, but a question of consistency, and there's not been a lot of consistency."
Latin American response swift
In contrast to the U.S. stance, a summit of Latin American leaders meeting in Costa Rica last week condemned the coup in strong terms. While not known for quick and decisive collective actions, this time the leaders cited the new democratic charter and threatened to break relations with the new regime in Venezuela.
Mexican Foreign Minister Jorge Castaneda, in an interview Tuesday, would not comment directly on the U.S. handling of the Venezuela crisis. But he said the Latin American nations took such a strong stance because of the potential long-term ramifications of allowing the coup to succeed.
"We think that was the proper stance," Castaneda said. Latin America has "to address the long term and the whole region more than the short term and the immediate term and the specific case of Venezuela, and we wanted to have a very principled stance . . .
"The defense of democratic rule is a much more important issue in a region that has not necessarily enjoyed long periods of democratic rule and where it is less well-rooted than it should be."
U.S. denies encouragement
In Washington, Bush administration officials confirmed that they met with Venezuelans considering the overthrow of Chavez as far back as December. But they vigorously denied they had encouraged anyone to proceed.
"We explicitly told opposition leaders that the United States would not support a coup," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said. "Our message has been consistent. The political situation in Venezuela is one for the Venezuelans to resolve peacefully, democratically and constitutionally."
U.S. officials said that among those making pleas for U.S. help were businessman Pedro Carmona, who was briefly declared president during the coup and is now under house arrest, and Gen. Lucas Romero Rincon, chief of the Venezuelan armed forces.
A State Department spokeswoman said Romero met with Roger Pardo-Maurer, a U.S. deputy assistant defense secretary, in December.
"We had somebody from our policy shop who met recently with the [Venezuelan] chief of staff, who made it very, very clear that the U.S. intent was to support democracy, human rights, that we in no way would support any coups or unconstitutional activity," Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke said.
The Pentagon did not make clear precisely why a senior defense official would discuss the possibility of a coup with a Venezuelan military officer.
At the White House, Fleischer said Venezuela had been rife with coup rumors for months. "The [U.S.] diplomats had their ear to the ground, and there was talk," Fleischer said.
Meanwhile, a State Department official told The New York Times that Otto Reich, assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere affairs, phoned Carmona the day he took over, pleading with him not to dissolve the National Assembly on the grounds it would provoke an outcry.
Administration officials cited the call as evidence they had sought to uphold democratic processes in Venezuela, but the disclosure raised questions as to whether Reich or other officials were stage-managing Carmona's takeover. Administration officials denied this.
Chavez agrees with U.S. denial
In Caracas, Chavez appeared to support the U.S. denials, saying Monday that the "root" of the coup was "here," in Venezuela. He also spoke well of the U.S., saluting it with "love and affection."
U.S. officials were busy trying to mend fences Tuesday with their Latin American counterparts. Phil Reeker, a State Department spokesman, praised an emergency mission of the secretary general of the Organization of American States, Cesar Gaviria, to Venezuela to investigate what happened.
Reeker called for Venezuela to return quickly to "full democracy." However, the Bush administration still refused to welcome Chavez's return to power.
In Washington, Democratic leaders and Latin American experts also criticized the Bush administration's response to the coup, saying that it suggested a selective U.S. commitment to democracy.
"I'm very concerned about what message it sends about our support for democracy," said Senate Majority leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.). "We've got to be supportive of democratic principles even when [other nations] choose to elect people we do not like."
Arturo Valenzuela, director of the Center for Latin American Studies at Georgetown University and a former Clinton administration official, said the Bush administration did not appear to understand what was at stake in Venezuela.
"The U.S. now risks losing much of the considerable moral and political leadership it had rightly won over the last decade as the nations of the Americas sought to establish the fundamental principle that the problems of democracy are solved in democracy," Valenzuela told Reuters.
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell was in Lima, Peru, on Sept. 11 when the 34 Latin American nations signed the Inter-American Democratic Charter laying out steps for punishing any attacks on the democratic process in the hemisphere. Powell quickly departed after the terrorist attacks.
Since then, the Bush administration has lauded the charter frequently, often when criticizing Cuba for remaining outside the democratic sphere. President Bush cited the charter as recently as last Friday, at the White House's annual Pan-American Day proclamation.
The charter stiffened a 1991 resolution signed in Chile. That version had been vigorously invoked by former President Bush and President Clinton when regimes were threatened in Peru, Paraguay, Guatemala and Ecuador over the last decade.
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