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Anti-Chavez and anti-Uribe protesters face off

Social networking organizes international protests against the Venezuelan president.

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."