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Anti-Chavez and anti-Uribe protesters face off

Social networking organizes international protests against the Venezuelan president.

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.