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Amid 'spy' quarrel, Venezuelan leader calls Obama 'grand chief of devils'

Tracy family via AP

A family photo shows Tim Tracy in Venezuela. The 35-year-old California filmmaker was arrested by Venezuelan authorities and accused of spying for the U.S., setting off a diplomatic battle between the countries.

CARACAS, Venezuela -- Venezuela brushed off criticism from President Barack Obama on Sunday and maintained its accusation that an American detainee in Caracas is a spy pretending to be a filmmaker.

During his visit to Latin America, Obama said on Saturday the allegations against Tim Tracy, 35, were "ridiculous."

This came a day after Venezuela's new socialist leader, Nicolas Maduro, labeled Obama "the grand chief of devils."

Venezuelan Interior Minister Miguel Rodriguez Torres insisted that intelligence agents tracking Tracy since late 2012 had uncovered ample evidence he was plotting with militant anti-government factions to destabilize Venezuela with violence.

Juan Barreto / AFP - Getty Images

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro had harsh words for U.S. President Barack Obama over the weekend. Obama says the Maduro government's allegation that a California filmmaker is a spy is "ridiculous." Maduro says Obama is the "grand chief of devils."

"When you want to do intelligence work in another country, all those big powers who do this type of spying, they often use the facade of a filmmaker, documentary maker, photographer or journalist," he told state TV.

"Because with that facade, they can go anywhere, penetrate any place."

Obama's comments about Tracy, and others questioning socialist Maduro's democratic credentials after last month's disputed presidential vote, have infuriated the government and revived accusations of "imperialist meddling."

Late on Saturday, Maduro's government issued a formal protest note, with Maduro's "devils" remark reminiscent of the tirades his mentor, late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, made against the U.S.

Maduro, a 50-year-old former bus driver who rose to be Chavez's foreign minister and vice president, has alternately railed against Washington in the same terms as Chavez and fanned prospects of a rapprochement by offering dialogue.

"I think he actually wants to improve relations with the North, but because he's vulnerable domestically right now, he needs to revive the old blood-and-thunder rhetoric to shore up support," said a Western diplomat in Caracas.

The Tracy case is a crucial test of Maduro's intentions toward a country that remains the main export market for the OPEC member's oil despite years of political hostility.

Friends and family of Tracy say he became passionately interested in Venezuelan politics and had excellent relations on both sides.

"Understandably, we have been living in a nightmare since a week ago last Thursday, when we feel our son/brother Timmy, a filmmaker, was mistakenly detained by Venezuelan authorities while attempting to return to the United States to attend his/our Dad's 80th birthday party," Tracy's family said in a written statement released to Reuters.

The family said that they had been communication with him and had that he had been treated well.

"We love and miss our son/ brother very much and want nothing more than to have him home safely as soon as possible," Tracy's family said.