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White House says it didn't support Venezuela coup

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Bush administration said Tuesday it did not encourage a failed coup in Venezuela, but acknowledged "conversations" with opposition leaders in that oil-rich country, as well as a meeting with Venezuela's military chief-of-staff late last year.

Some rebellious military officers ousted Venezuelan President Hugh Chavez for two days, but he returned to office Sunday, supported by the nation's poor.

After Chavez's removal Friday, the Bush administration did not condemn the action. Instead it blamed street protests on "undemocratic actions committed or encouraged by the Chavez administration."

The United States has frequently been at odds with Chavez, a left-wing populist friendly to the regimes of Fidel Castro in Cuba and Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

The New York Times reported Tuesday that senior members of the Bush administration met several times in recent months with leaders of the coalition that briefly toppled Chavez from power.

The U.S. government says it did not encourage a failed coup in Venezuela, but it acknowledged contact with opposition leaders. CNN's David Ensor reports (April 17)

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The administration did not deny such meetings, but it took issue with the suggestion that the United States had given its tacit approval to any plot to overthrow the Chavez government.

"We explicitly told opposition leaders that the United States would not support a coup," White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer told reporters. He cited several "conversations" between the opposition leaders and various officials within the State Department and the National Security Council.

Fleischer said U.S. officials met with a "broad spectrum" of officials from Venezuela, ranging from business leaders, including Pedro Carmona, who helped lead the opposition against Chavez and briefly served as interim president, to pro-Chavez legislators, as well as labor leaders and officials from the Catholic Church.

At the Pentagon, spokeswoman Victoria Clarke cited a meeting last December between Venezuela's military chief of staff and the U.S. assistant secretary of defense for Western Hemisphere affairs. At that meeting, Clarke said, the administration "made it very, very clear that the U.S. intent was to support democracy, human rights, but we, in no way, would support any coups or unconstitutional activity."

Asked why the subject of coups came up, Clarke said she did not know "the original impetus" of the meeting.

After the military action in Venezuela, several leaders of other nations -- including Mexico, Costa Rica, Argentina and Paraguay -- condemned the seizure of power. Asked if the Bush administration had undercut its own moral authority by not speaking out sooner, Fleischer defended the U.S. response, saying the situation in Venezuela last weekend had been fluid.

And Fleischer repeated comments critical of Chavez, noting that demonstration against his rule turned deadly when forces loyal to the president fired on protesters.

"There's no secret that President Chavez has had a rule that has been controversial and was not met with widespread popular support within Venezuela or among his neighbors and certainly in the United States with President Bush," Fleischer said. He called the widespread protests last week against Chavez "no surprise."

The Organization of American States dispatched a fact-finding mission to Venezuela Monday.

"It is important for the OAS to evaluate the situation carefully and determine how we can best support Venezuela in its efforts to consolidate democracy in these difficult times," OAS Secretary-General Cesar Gaviria said in a statement.

The delegation is to report back to the OAS during a special session Thursday.

The U.S. is backing that mission and the Bush administration's position is that it is still unclear what happened in Venezuela.

"That's the purpose of the OAS fact-finding mission that the United States voted in favor of," Fleischer said. "That is under way now and that will establish the facts."

--CNN White House Correspondent Kelly Wallace contributed to this report




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