CARACAS Venezuela shut down an opposition television channel on Monday and replaced it with one promoting President Hugo Chavez's self-proclaimed socialist revolution in a move widely criticized as a threat to democracy.
Chavez has long sparred with opposition channels, which he calls "horsemen of the apocalypse" for backing a botched coup against him in 2002.
His opponents say the internationally condemned closure of RCTV will damage freedom of expression in the OPEC nation.
"This has exposed the abusive, arbitrary and autocratic nature of Chavez's government, a government that fears free thought, that fears opinion and fears criticism," said Marcel Granier, chief of RCTV, the country's oldest broadcaster.
The closure of the channel exposed the country's sharp political divide -- thousands of Chavez supporters held street parties while opposition demonstrators faced cordons of police, chanting anti-government slogans.
In a tearful farewell program, RCTV staff packed a studio and prayed together.
"Do not lose hope. We will see you soon," RCTV presenter Nelson Bustamante told viewers.
Twenty minutes after RCTV was pulled off air, the state channel started transmission with the national anthem conducted by Gustavo Dudamel, the 26-year-old Venezuelan who was appointed as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
Programming started with a concert of traditional melodies, interspersed with government trailers. After the concert, the channel planned to show a film on 19th-century commander Simon Bolivar, Chavez's hero who freed much of South America from Spain.
CENTRALIZING THE STATE
Since becoming president in 1999, Chavez has centralized power, politicizing the judiciary, military and oil industry.
But before the closure of RCTV, political analysts had identified Venezuela's critical media as one of the main guards against him forging a Cuban-style system in the footsteps of his mentor, communist leader Fidel Castro.
The closure was condemned by the U.S. Senate and the EU Parliament, but Chavez's supporters justified the move by criticizing the journalistic ethics of the channel.
RCTV ran movies and cartoons when the tide turned in Chavez's favor in the 2002 coup, and refused to show huge crowds of the president's supporters rallying against the coup leaders.
Pollster Datanalisis found almost 70 percent of Venezuelans opposed the shut-down, but most cited the loss of their favorite soap operas rather than concerns about limits on freedom of expression.
Among the Chavez supporters swigging beer and dancing in the streets of central Caracas, some thought the president should go further and shut down the few remaining opposition networks, such as Globovision.
"They all participated in the coup and incited violence," said shopkeeper Jose Quijada, 58, wearing the hallmark red T-shirt of Chavez supporters.
But Wilmer Granadillo, a cameraman doing his last shift at RCTV, said: "It is sad, so sad. This was my second home."