President Bush yesterday sidestepped questions about whether his administration had been slow to condemn last week's aborted coup in Venezuela, saying it was important that President Hugo Chavez learned some lessons about democracy from the attempt to oust him.
In his first public comments on the Venezuelan upheaval, Bush said that it was "very important for [Chavez] to embrace those institutions which are fundamental to democracy, including freedom of the press and freedom for -- the ability for the opposition to speak out. And if there's lessons to be learned, it's important that he learn them."
Critics have charged that White House antipathy toward Chavez led it to tacitly endorse the coup attempt at midday last Friday, within hours of Chavez's ouster, even as much of Latin America had begun to reject it as a violation of democratic norms and hemispheric agreements. Chavez was returned to power early Sunday after the business executive installed in his place assumed dictatorial powers and lost military support.
By just after midnight Saturday, the White House had joined the Organization of American States in condemning the coup.
OAS Secretary General Cesar Gaviria reported his findings from a three-day inquiry in Venezuela to a closed-door session of the multilateral body yesterday. The 34-member group last night moved to adopt a resolution condemning the coup attempt while calling on Chavez to make some changes in his governing behavior.
The Bush administration, which has disapproved of Chavez's close ties with Cuba and his outspoken populism, has focused attention on his anti-democratic excesses, including alleged orders to fire on massive anti-government demonstrations last week -- killing at least 14 protesters -- and attempts to shut down opposition media the day before his ouster.
Bush spoke yesterday after an Oval Office meeting with Colombian President Andres Pastrana, who came to Washington this week to lobby Congress for an administration-proposed expansion in U.S. military involvement in Colombia and for approval of trade preferences for the Andean region.
With Pastrana, Bush was asked whether the delay in condemning the Venezuelan coup conflicted with his commitment to "always stand up for democratic values."
"My administration was very clear, when there were troubles on the streets in Venezuela, that we support democracy and did not support any extra-constitutional action," Bush replied. "My administration spoke with a very clear voice about our strong support of democracy. It is very important for President Chavez to do what he said he was going to do, to address the reasons why there was so much turmoil in the streets."
When he returned to the presidential palace Sunday, and in a speech yesterday, Chavez said he wanted to resolve the differences dividing Venezuela.
Noting that "when things got hot in Venezuela, [Chavez] shut the press down," Bush joked, "I've never thought of doing that."
"I don't care how tough the questions are or, as significantly, how they editorialize in their news stories," Bush said of the U.S. media. "Because I respect the press and so should President Chavez. It's essential he do that."
With continued unease in Venezuela, the Pentagon yesterday delayed the deployment of about two dozen Army Special Forces trainers who were scheduled to hold counter-drug classes with the Venezuelan military this week. A Pentagon official emphasized that, despite the administration's differences with Chavez, the training program has been operating successfully for some time and is expected to resume within days.
Many Chavez supporters remain convinced, despite U.S. denials, that the administration was involved in the coup attempt. "The last thing [the Pentagon] wants is for C-130s to show up with Special Forces dropping out of them," the official said. "We're still not sure what the exact situation is with the chain of command there."
The suspension, he said, was not intended to send a message to the Chavez government, but was more a "force protection issue . . . the last thing you want to do is scare Venezuelans."
Earlier this week, the State Department issued voluntary departure orders for diplomatic dependents in Venezuela.
Bush said he and Pastrana discussed reports that Venezuela was giving support to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, the leftist guerrilla army that the U.S. and Colombian governments have branded a terrorist organization. The administration request to expand U.S. military involvement from anti-drug to anti-terrorism operations in Colombia is directed against the FARC and a right-wing paramilitary force in Colombia.
Pastrana said he sent a letter to the Venezuelan foreign ministry Wednesday asking for clarification of its relationship with the FARC, and had proposed that the two governments establish a joint commission to deal with such questions. Relations have always been sensitive between the two countries, which have disputed their shared border for years. At the same time, Venezuela is Colombia's second-largest trading partner after the United States, and Bogota is interested in keeping their relations on an even keel.
The requested lifting of restrictions on U.S. military training and the use of U.S.-provided equipment in Colombia are part of an administration anti-terrorist funding bill before Congress. Many lawmakers are wary of deeper U.S. entanglement in a 40-year-old South American guerrilla war, and Pastrana spent Wednesday and much of yesterday on Capitol Hill explaining his position.
"Why can't we use this [assistance] against the people who are terrorizing Colombia?" asked Pastrana in a meeting with Washington Post editors and reporters. "We don't understand."
Over the past two years, the United States has spent nearly $2 billion on an aid program directed at stopping Colombia's cocaine and heroin exports. Both the FARC and the paramilitary force derive much of their income from drug trafficking.
Pastrana, who ended three years of sputtering peace talks in February, said the FARC had "declared themselves terrorists" that month by hijacking a domestic airliner and kidnapping a Colombian legislator who was on board. Since then, the guerrillas have stepped up terrorist attacks on the nation's infrastructure, including bombing electrical and water installations. Pastrana said he believed FARC political leaders had wanted to continue negotiations, but had lost an internal battle with military commanders.
Of equal, if not more immediate importance to Pastrana is approval of the Andean Trade Preference Act now held up in the Senate. Enacted in 1991 to help boost non-drug employment in Colombia, Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia, the measure expired last December. The administration asked Congress last summer to expand its terms and reenact it, but failed to push the measure in the months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
The House eventually passed it, but a bipartisan group of senators balked at the textile imports covered in the expanded version. During a trip to Peru last month, Bush accused Senate Majority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) of failing to bring it to the Senate floor and set a deadline of April 22 for action.
There is little chance of action by that date, next Monday. The measure, known as ATPA, is attached to the administration's requested trade promotion authority. ATPA "created 140,000 jobs in Colombia," Pastrana said. "It is important for us to extend it quickly."
Daschle told Pastrana on Wednesday that he hoped to bring the trade measures to the Senate floor "in the next week or two," Pastrana said. The Colombian president also met yesterday with U.S. Trade Representative Robert B. Zoellick.