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CARACAS, Venezuela – President Hugo Chavez gathered his closest Latin American allies to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Venezuela’s independence movement — denouncing U.S. meddling while hurling harsh words at the leading presidential candidate in neighboring Colombia.
Raul Castro of Cuba, Evo Morales of Bolivia and other leaders accompanies Chavez on Monday as he presided over a parade that included troops, Amazonian Indians carrying bows and arrows, flag-waving supporters and civilians who have joined government militias.
Wearing the trademark red beret of his army paratrooper years, Chavez reiterated his accusations of U.S. government meddling in Latin America while praising Venezuela’s move toward "democratic socialism."
"The moment has come for us to reach true sovereignty and independence" in the region, Chavez said.
Russian-made fighter jets roared overhead, and special forces troops shouted in unison: "I’m an anti-imperialist socialist!"
At a summit later of his left-leaning Bolivarian political bloc_ which is aimed at boosting Latin American integration and countering U.S. influence — Chavez complained about the leading candidate to succeed Colombian President Alvaro Uribe.
Flanked by his allies, Chavez warned that Colombia would become a serious threat to its neighbors if former Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos wins the presidential election.
"This is a threat to all of us, especially for Ecuador, Venezuela and Nicaragua," Chavez said.
Chavez said he is convinced that Santos would be willing to launch cross-border raids or bombardments if Colombian authorities suspect rebel groups are seeking refuge in neighboring countries.
Colombia’s war against Marxist guerrillas has spilled over into neighboring countries, leading to regional antagonism toward Bogota, especially since March 1, 2008, when Colombian warplanes wiped out a rebel camp in Ecuador.
The raid prompted Ecuador and Venezuela to break diplomatic relations with Colombia. Chavez, along with Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa, have re-established relations with Bogota, but they remain fiercely critical of Uribe.
Correa said his government is still "trying to patch up our bilateral relations" with Bogota. He warned against another military raid on Ecuadorean territory, saying: "We will know how to respond."
Colombian leaders accuse Chavez of actively collaborating with the rebels and complained that Ecuador had done too little to deny them shelter before the raid.
Venezuela celebrates two dates for independence: April 19, 1810, when revolutionary-minded citizens decided to rule themselves until Spanish King Ferdinand, who had been unseated by France, was restored to the Spanish throne.
More than a year later, on July 5, 1811, Venezuela decided for a more definitive break with Spain and signed an official declaration of independence.
Opposition politician Pablo Medina criticized the government-organized celebration, saying Venezuela is less independent than ever because Chavez’s administration "is falling under the growing influence of communist-led Cuba" and its leaders, Raul and Fidel Castro.
"Venezuela is headed toward a dictatorship, and the Castro brothers are helping him establish it," said Medina, a former Chavez ally.
Chavez, who was first elected in 1998 and is up for re-election in 2012, insists he is committed to democratic principles.