Bush aides met plotters before Chavez coup

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The Independent US

Suspicions are growing that the US may have had, if not a direct hand in, at least prior knowledge of the abortive coup last week against Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez.

The New York Times said yesterday that senior Bush administration officials met leaders of the business and military behind the coup several times, and agreed that the controversial and populist Mr Chavez should be removed from power.

The coup lasted barely 24 hours before the ousted President was restored to office, although Washington had already publicly welcomed his overthrow. Even now, the Bush administration has not acknowledged a coup took place. The most charitable comment from senior Bush aides was that Mr Chavez had better take to heart the lessons of the past few days, or face another overthrow attempt.

The official line here is that the coup leaders were told Washington sympathised with the ends but the means had to be constitutional. The 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. We explicitly told opposition leaders the US would not support a coup."

However, "benign neglect" may be closer to the truth. A senior defence official said: "We were not discouraging people. We were not saying, 'No, don't you dare'."

The US would love to see the back of Mr Chavez, who is about as popular with the Bush administration as the Chilean president, Salvador Allende, was with the Nixon administration when he was ousted in a CIA-backed coup in 1973.

Mr Chavez has established good relations with Saddam Hussein and Fidel Castro, and has expressed sympathy for the Marxist Farc guerrillas in neighbouring Colombia, target of a US-backed military campaign. He is also an avowed radical at the head of a country that is one of the biggest oil suppliers to the highly import-dependent US.

The Venezuelan President, anxious to restore a veneer of stability, has played down suggestions that Washington was involved. Asked if the US might have been involved in the coup, he said: "The root is here."

But his officials are investigating reports that a US-registered private plane was ready to fly him into exile from La Orchila, a Caribbean island retreat for the presidency, where Mr Chavez was being held. .

But the affair has made the US look stupid. Washington, even as it trumpets support for democracy and human rights, stands accused of conniving at the overthrow of a democratically elected leader in its own hemispheric backyard.

Doubly embarrassing, the US was almost alone in not denouncing the coup. Several other governments, led by Mexico, condemned it and refused to recognise an interim government installed by the military.

The fear now is that other restless generals in Central and South America may interpret the Bush administration's response to the Venezuelan crisis as a tacit green light for other coups to get rid of troublesome civilian leaders.

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