Anti-Chavez and anti-Uribe protesters face off

BOGOTA — Alejandro Gutierrez decided he'd had enough of what he describes as Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's meddling in his country. So 11 days ago the 28-year-old started a Facebook group calling for an international march against the controversial leader. The following day, the group had 22,000 members, a number that has mushroomed to more than 377,000.

As a result of Gutierrez and nine like-minded Colombians harnessing the power of Facebook, coupled with the growing disdain toward Chavez, thousands turned out for anti-Chavez marches Friday in 30 Colombian cities and abroad, from Buenos Aires to Toronto to Sydney.

Although expectations ran high for a massive turnout in Colombia and particularly in the capital, only 1,000 to 2,000 demonstrators took to the Bogota streets, according to police and GlobalPost estimates (though organizers put the number at 20,000). What they lacked in numbers, however, they made up for in their clamors and vigorous protest, as they called for an end to the populist leader they called “a dictator” and “a best friend of the FARC” (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the country’s largest guerilla group). Relations between Colombia and Venezuela are at a near-breaking point. “I think this march can be interpreted as a rejection of hostile attitudes and decisions of Chavez against the [Colombian] government and Colombian people,” said Alfredo Rangel, director of the think-tank Security and Democracy Foundation in Bogota, noting it is the first time such a mobilization has taken place.

The relationship between Chavez and Colombia's U.S.-backed conservative government has bristled with tension for a long time. But now, said Rangel, “the glass has really been filled to the brim because of recent statements and developments.”

Chavez has been accused of giving refuge to FARC leaders, and Colombia further accused Venezuela in July of supplying arms to the guerilla group. Then, news that Colombia will grant the U.S. access to seven of its military bases prompted an outcry from Chavez, who saw the agreement as a direct threat to Venezuela, as well as strong concerns from other South American leaders who met at a summit in Argentina at the end of August to discuss the agreement.

Chavez has responded by threatening to break off diplomatic and commercial relations with his neighbor. Colombia exported more than $6 billion worth of goods to Venezuela in 2008, according to Ministry of Commerce statistics.

Demonstrators at Friday’s march resoundingly accused Chavez of meddling in Colombia’s domestic affairs. “The insults, the daily attacks on our president and our people, it’s too much” said Vicente Poros, a 52-year-old architect who used to live in Venezuela.

The worldwide demonstration came together in 11 days thanks largely to the power of social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter. The largest demonstrations occurred in Venezuela, Colombia and Honduras, according to media reports.

When Gutierrez was struck with the idea, he contacted Oscar Morales, the 32-year-old Colombian who was behind the march against the FARC in February 2008 that drew millions worldwide. “Oscar, help me,” Morales recalls Gutierrez writing to him on Facebook, “I want to do this march. Let’s work together." Morales was only too keen, and lent his database of supporters in the march against the FARC.

Within days, a counter-demonstration sprung up on Facebook: The Global March Against Uribe, which planned for marches in at least 15 Colombian cities as well as Berlin and Toronto, among other cities.

Lorena Montes, 19, an organizer of Medellin’s anti-Uribe march, said the idea of the march was not to support Chavez, but to show “there's a lot of Colombians who aren't supportive of Uribe's government.” Organizers criticized the choice of protesting a foreign president instead of drawing attention to problems happening in Colombia. “While they condemn a dictator in Venezuela, this legitimizes the dictatorship here in Colombia,” said Arturo Arroyave, a 25-year-old law student and creator of the Facebook group that has drawn 25,000 members since its inception 6 days ago. Arroyave accused Colombian media outlets of giving major publicity to the No Mas Chavez march in its lead-up while ignoring that of his group, a factor he attributes to a low turnout in Bogota of a couple hundred people.

The polarization that runs deep within Colombian society flared when protesters from both camps faced off at a blocked-off intersection in Bogota’s downtown core. A line of police separated the few dozen anti-Uribistas from more than a thousand anti-Chavistas as vociferous insults were lobbed back and forth and pointed umbrellas were waved threateningly.

Several times, individuals holding a sign for the Democratic Pole, Colombia’s left-leaning party, were charged by a stampede of anti-Chavistas who were kept at bay by some of the 500 police officers stationed at protest sites.

Tensions escalated as each side labeled one other as armed groups: ‘Guerilleros, guerillos!” (guerilla) called out the anti-Chavistas to the anti-Uribistas’ retort of “Paracos!” (paramilitary).

Chavez has called the marches “stupid.” Rangel of the Security and Democracy Foundation predicted they could prompt the Venezuelan government to promote pro-government marches. “The Venezuelan government will be very alert to the capacity that exists to organize against Chavez."