CIA says U.S. knew of Venezuela coup plot

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The U.S. government knew of an imminent plot to oust Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in the weeks before a military coup in 2002 that briefly unseated him, newly released CIA documents show, despite White House claims to the contrary a week after the putsch.

Yet the United States, which depends on Venezuela for nearly one-sixth of its oil, never warned the Chavez government, Venezuelan officials said.

The Bush administration has denied that it was involved in the coup against the leftist president or knew one was being planned. At a White House briefing April 17, 2002, just days after the 47-hour coup, a senior administration official said: "The United States did not know that there was going to be an attempt of this kind to overthrow - or to get Chavez out of power."

A CIA spokeswoman contended that the agency played no role in the coup and was merely collecting information about political events in Venezuela for top U.S. officials. She said it was up to those officials and not the CIA to determine what to do with the information.

"The CIA was simply doing what it is we do, in terms of analyzing events and providing policy-makers with our best estimate of the events as they unfold," said the spokeswoman, who declined to be named. She added that alerting Chavez to the impending coup "would suggest we would meddle in the affairs of another nation."

Asked to comment on the CIA documents, a U.S. State Department spokesman said: "As we've stated before, there is no basis to claims the United States was involved in the events of April 12-14 in Venezuela."

One of the CIA documents filed five days before the coup would appear to support that statement. It notes that "repeated warnings that the U.S. will not support any extraconstitutional moves to oust Chavez probably have given pause to the plotters."

White House and National Security Council officials had no immediate comment.

The briefs - called Senior Executive Security Briefs - are one level below the highest-level Presidential Daily Briefs and are circulated among about 200 top-level U.S. officials.

Chavez was arrested and overthrown April 12, 2002, after military dissidents blamed him for violence at an opposition protest that left 19 people dead and 300 wounded. He was returned to power two days later.

But the April 6, 2002, CIA document states that "dissident military factions, including some disgruntled senior officers and a group of radical junior officers, are stepping up efforts to organize a coup against President Chavez, possibly as early as this month."

The censored document adds: "The level of detail in the reported plans ... lends credence to the information, but military and civilian contacts note that neither group appears ready to lead a successful coup and may bungle the attempt by moving too quickly."

It also states: "To provoke military action, the plotters may try to exploit unrest stemming from opposition demonstrations slated for later this month or ongoing strikes at the state-owned oil company PSVSA."

Newsday is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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