Like Old Days: U.S. Role in Venezuela Coup under Scrutiny. (World)

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Guatemala in 1954. Chile in 1973. Nicaragua in the 1980s. The list is long of efforts by the United States to overthrow democratically elected governments in Latin America or destabilize governments it disliked.

Now, as new details emerge of the April 12 coup d'etat that ousted President Hugo Chavez of oil-rich Venezuela for 48 hours, critics are asking whether the United States or its Central Intelligence Agency played a role.

"In the post-World War II era, of the 30 or so major coups in Latin America, there hasn't been one in which the CIA has not been involved," said Larry Birns of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, a liberal think-tank in Washington. "Why should this one be different?"

U.S. officials emphatically deny they played any part in Chavez's temporary removal from power and say they fully support democracy in Latin America. Still, Venezuelan and U.S. authorities have launched investigations into a possible U.S. role in the upheaval.

Chavez asserts that the failed coup included plans to assassinate him. He also suggests that a foreign hand, perhaps that of the United States, may have been involved in his ouster.

If that turns out to be true, it would mark a sharp reversal of recent U.S. policy toward the region. Throughout the 20th century, the United States backed dozens of coups and movements aimed at destroying leftwing governments, even those elected in free and fair votes.

A CIA-backed coup in 1954 overthrew the democratically elected president of Guatemala, Jacobo Arbenz, ushering in a 30-year civil war that left 200,000 people dead. Another CIA-backed coup in 1973 ousted Chile's president, Salvador Allende, the first democratically elected socialist head of state in the hemisphere. Gen. Augusto Pinochet ruled Chile brutally for the next 17 years. In the 1980s, the United States financed the right-wing "contra" guerrillas to undermine the leftist Sandinista government in Nicaragua.

"It was never an issue of a wink," said Peter Kornbluh of the National Security Archive, a nonprofit research institute in Washington. "It was a full-scale, overt and covert policy to change governments that we didn't like in Latin America, with an extremely strong preference for right-wing military regimes as opposed to left-wing governments."

However, those policies generally ended in the 1990s as the United States adopted a stance of supporting the region's emerging democracies.

Now some regional specialists say the United States may be returning to the old days. Their concern stems in part from President George W. Bush's policymaking team for Latin America, which includes three central figures from the Iran-contra scandal and "dirty wars" in Central America in the 1980s.

They are Otto Reich, Bush's chief policymaker for Latin America; Elliot Abrams, of the National Security Council; and John Negroponte, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. In addition, a top Pentagon official for Latin American affairs, Rogelio Pardo-Maurer, was a close associate of the contra forces.

U.S. officials have confirmed that in the months and weeks leading up to the coup against the democratically elected left-leaning Chavez, a stream of Venezuelan businessmen, journalists, military officers and politicians opposed to Chavez met with U.S. officials in Caracas and Washington. They include Pedro Carmona, who replaced Chavez briefly as president and is head of Venezuela's version of the Chamber of Commerce.

`Informal, subtle signs'

Defending the meetings, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said, "United States officials explicitly made clear repeatedly to opposition leaders that the United States would not support a coup." U.S. officials say they also met with Chavez supporters. Contradicting Fleischer, a Defense Department official told The New York Times that in the U.S. officials' meetings with Chavez foes, "We were not discouraging people. …