The Embarrassing Return of Hugo Chavez

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As coups go, Venezuela?s could only be called absurd. The plotters were brash and incompetent, while the U.S. stumbled on the sidelines, appearing at times to welcome the overthrow of an elected government. The whole thing lasted only three days, and in the end, the target of the putsch re-emerged as its conqueror: the once and once again leader, President Hugo Chávez.

When he slipped back into power, the normally cocksure Chávez seemed humbled by the experience of momentarily losing his perch. "Let us hope that all the events that happened lead to the reconciliation and reunification of Venezuelans," he told the nation.

That won?t be easy. Some of the hapless conspirators aren?t ready to apologize. Pedro Carmona, the interim President (now under house arrest), denies there even was a coup. He prefers to call it a "vacuum of power." And the U.S. has yet to acknowledge that it might have been inappropriate to suggest that Chávez, a left-wing leader whose policies and statements often irk Washington, had it coming. Instead, the White House chided the restored President: National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice suggested that he needed to "respect the constitutional processes," sidestepping the question as to whether Washington had ignored legal niceties by moving to embrace the illicit regime change in Caracas just days before.

Chávez, 47, won election in 1998 on a populist platform. His cozy ties with Fidel Castro, Muammar Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein have raised eyebrows in Washington. And his criticism of America?s war in Afghanistan, sympathies for Colombian guerrillas and spigot-tightening approach to oil exports don?t play well in the U.S.

Were these motives enough for a made-in-Washington coup? Though there is no evidence that the U.S. played an active role, Assistant Secretary of State and former ambassador to Venezuela Otto Reich told Time that he had, before the coup, met with several Venezuelan delegations in Washington, many of whom wanted help in ousting Chávez. While Reich concedes that the U.S. encouraged the demonstrations that led to the coup, "the U.S. had no association with this plot," he insists. "We told them, 'Sorry, we?re not in that business.'"

The overthrow was set in motion on April 11 after Chávez-funded militiamen opened fire on 300,000 protesters backing a general strike, as they marched toward the presidential palace. Fifteen were killed. Generals in the armed forces began renouncing the President on television. The military high command took Chávez into custody and pressured him to resign. He refused, but the generals told the media he had stepped down. Washington chose to believe it. In a press conference the next day, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer acknowledged the transition government headed by Carmona, president of Venezuela?s largest business association.

Carmona soon committed political suicide: he began filling his advisory council with business leaders, Old Guard politicians and members of an ultraconservative religious group — rebuffing important labor and military leaders who had helped him to power. Then he dissolved the elected National Assembly. By Saturday, pro-Chávez supporters had taken to the streets, and many in the military had withdrawn their support.

In the early hours of Sunday morning Chávez returned to power. Crucifix in hand, he gave an impassioned speech promising to tone down his rhetoric and open new lines of communication with all sectors of society. He appeased the national oil company by removing some of his leftist appointees, and he hinted at modifying some of the socialist laws he has enacted.

Back in Washington, Democrats are calling for an investigation of the Administration?s handling of the whole affair. Says Julia Sweig, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, D.C., "This has hurt the U.S., which is now perceived as supporting democracy only when we like the person in power." Chávez may not be the only one who needs to rethink his positions.

With reporting by Christina Hoag/Caracas and Massimo Calabresi/Washington