Supporters of President Hugo Chavez marched through Caracas on Sunday, demanding respect for Venezuela's sovereignty following U.S. criticism and Colombia's acknowledgment that it paid a bounty to capture a rebel on Venezuelan soil.
To mark the 47th anniversary of Venezuelan democracy, critics of Chavez staged a smaller march, accusing him of threatening freedoms gained with the Jan. 23, 1958, overthrow of Gen. Marcos Perez Jimenez, Venezuela's last dictator.
"Venezuela must be respected!" Chavez told a massive crowd outside Miraflores presidential palace. "Nobody can deny that what Colombia has done is a violation of international law ... (but) the only government that has defended this vulgar error is the imperialist government of the United States."
The crowd chanted, "Chavez makes them crazy!"
Chavez blamed the United States for the crisis with Colombia. "This provocation came from Washington. It is the latest attempt by the imperialists ... to ruin our relations with Colombia," he said.
Chanting pro-Chavez slogans and carrying banners reading "Bush: Venezuela Is Not Iraq (news - web sites)!" and "Colombia, Stay Out of Venezuela," tens of thousands of loyalists danced to traditional folk music booming from loudspeakers on flatbed trucks.
Supporters said Chavez had championed national sovereignty, involved the masses in politics and established social programs to benefit the poor.
"Venezuela's democracy is an example for the world, and with Chavez as president it's more alive than ever," said 59-year-old Francisco Pabon, who came to Caracas by bus from southern Amazonas state to join the pro-government march.
A row between Caracas and Bogota arose when Colombia's defense minister, Jorge Uribe, acknowledged that Colombia paid bounty hunters to arrest a wanted guerrilla in Venezuelan territory.
Chavez called the capture of Rodrigo Granda, a member of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, a "kidnapping" and "bribing" that "gravely violated Venezuela's sovereignty."
Chavez recalled Venezuela's ambassador to Bogota and froze all economic deals between the two countries. He also demanded an apology from Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, which was not forthcoming.
Uribe accuses Chavez of harboring FARC guerrillas and says Colombia has a right to hunt down "narcoterrorists."
"Chavistas," as the president's supporters are known, marched from a massive slum in eastern Caracas to Miraflores, on the other side of town.
"We have nothing against our Colombian brothers, but their government has made an unacceptable mistake," Pabon said.
Hundreds of Chavez opponents marched in the upscale Chacao district. Many government adversaries blame Chavez for the spat with Colombia, saying he has either ignored the presence of Colombia's Marxist rebels in Venezuela or offered them shelter.
"Chavez is the cause of this problem with Colombia, not Uribe, because he has given protection to Colombian rebels," Francis Ordonez, a 55-year-old housewife said as she waved a red, yellow and blue Venezuelan flag.
Last week Secretary of State nominee Condoleezza Rice (news - web sites) accused Venezuela of meddling in its neighbors' affairs and expressed concern about its friendship with Cuba.
Chavez said he would send Rice Cuban materials his government uses in a nationwide literacy program so she can read the news about "what is really happening" in Venezuela.
Holding up a U.S. dollar bill, Chavez also challenged President Bush (news - web sites) to wager which president will remain in office longer.
"I challenge you to a bet Mr. Bush, one dollar, who will last longer? You in the White House or me in Miraflores?" said Chavez, who has repeatedly accused the United States of conspiring to oust him.