Plaza Sucre is a cramped, filthy square in the downtrodden western reaches of Caracas, little more than a wide part in a road that runs through a jumble of brick and concrete houses set on a steep valley wall.
The square sits a half-hour subway ride away from the middle- and upper-class revolutionaries of Plaza Francia, in the eastern part of the capital where for the past month dissident military officers have staged a sit-in to demand President Hugo Chavez's resignation.
The crowds have gathered there, covered breathlessly by Venezuela's opposition-run media, and turned Plaza Francia into a nucleus of civil disobedience to the twice-elected president. But in Plaza Sucre, a rear-guard resistance has emerged as a counterweight in defense of a president whom many still consider a populist hero.
A man with a bullhorn denounces the "fascist coupsters" across town and declares that no one intends to participate in the Dec. 2 national strike set last week by the opposition. Behind a card table, volunteers gather signatures to recall the city's anti-Chavez mayor, Alfredo Pena, whose face appears on posters with a Hitler-style mustache.
"There is another country inside the one we live in, one of privilege for the military and for the oil workers," said Edith Mezzich, 38, a bespectacled former nurse who sells vitamins and gold jewelry from a stall off the plaza. "No one here is going to participate in the political things that the people with big businesses and big money living in the east want. Chavez will always exist for us, no matter what."
The plaza protests on either end of this chaotic city point to Venezuela's ideological, class-based confrontation as the opposition ratchets up pressure on a president who still enjoys a large, devoted following among the poor, if perhaps not the majority he once did.
The organized opposition is a diverse federation of labor and business groups, wealthy housewives and socialist parties, old-guard politicians and new parties born of the movement. It has staked its campaign to depose Chavez on the contention that a majority of Venezuelans support his ouster. Members say he has ignored the constitution's separation of powers, adopted a Cuban-style governing model and single-handedly turned Venezuela into a near-pariah on the international stage.
But it is unclear how most poor Venezuelans, a majority of the country's 24 million people, would react if Chavez were forced from office. In visits to Plaza Sucre and other low-rent districts in western Caracas, angry Chavez supporters warned they would take to the streets in potentially violent protests to resist any replacement government.
An imminent national strike, the Plaza Francia occupation and a pending request for a nonbinding referendum on the administration each has the potential to spark political violence similar to what preceded Chavez's brief ouster in April. Both sides agree such violence should not be repeated, but are doing little to prevent it.
But the fervent politics practiced in both plazas also reflect Chavez's most lasting legacy to date, the political awakening of Venezuelans, regardless of social position, who had long ignored the corrupt two-party system that shared power here for four decades.
Chavez, a former army colonel and failed coup leader, promised before his 1998 election to end the partisan spoils system that siphoned much of the country's vast oil wealth to party supporters. But his potent class-based rhetoric and early embrace of Cuba's president, Fidel Castro, alienated many of his supporters, terrified the already suspicious wealthy classes and brought the conservative armed forces into national politics.
After a protest march in April left 18 people dead, senior military officers removed Chavez from power in a coup d'etat tacitly endorsed by the United States. Chavez returned three days later as the military withdrew its support for the interim government; several of those same officers now occupy what they call "liberated territory" in Plaza Francia in declared rebellion to the government.
"There are 8,000 plazas in Venezuela," said Chavez, who has rejected early elections and calls for his resignation in recent weeks. "And we are not going to be blackmailed by a group of coup leaders in one of them."
Several thousand people gathered Friday in Plaza Francia to celebrate the one-month anniversary of the occupation. The protest, already understood by its participants as a historic happening to be related someday to grandchildren, has severely strained negotiations being mediated by the Organization of American States to reach a political settlement.
The dissident officers are treated like rock stars, signing autographs and receiving blown kisses from strangers. An anthem has been written to the tune of "Ode to Joy" celebrating the protest. Coleman tents sit in the shade of an obelisk. Booths bearing opposition party insignia line the edges, and media tents have sprouted up alongside the stage. T-shirts and compilations of anti-Chavez spoof songs are for sale.
Vice Adm. Daniel Comisso Urdaneta, implicated in the April coup before the Supreme Tribunal dismissed the charges against him three months ago, joked that "we have been having the most entertaining coup in the world here for the past month" as he autographed Venezuelan flags for souvenirs.
But the opposition movement has yet to outline a detailed alternative to Chavez's populist program. Opposition strategists worry privately about who will emerge as a viable political leader from a group in which many aspire to the job, but none has achieved national stature.
Gen. Enrique Medina Gomez, the highest-ranking of the 127 dissident soldiers on the square, is in the running. With dark skin and humble roots in the eastern plains, Medina would seem to have more in common with Chavez than his lighter-skinned and better-heeled plaza supporters. His most recent post was military attache in Washington until he was removed after the April coup.
"We have a lot of support in the barracks right now," said Medina, who still wields a general's baton when he appears on stage. "The United States now seems to understand the serious crisis in this country, that a crazy eccentric is running it. They now need to help us consolidate this process to create a solution without violence."
If Plaza Francia is liberated territory, Plaza Sucre is still very much occupied. There, the skin is darker, the music a cacophony of competing sound systems, the air filled with the smell of bus fumes and barbecue. Among the stalls squatting illegally on pedestrian shopping promenades, posters of a uniformed Chavez with a red beret and drawn sword are for sale, along with bootlegged videos and CDs.
The people distribute their own polemic newspapers, praising Chavez's efforts on land reform, and pass out pamphlets decrying the "fascist conspiracy" against them.
"This other plaza is a small group that has everything," said Lilian de Sanchez, a 49-year-old journalist whose daughter, Carolina, just graduated from the Florencio Jimenez Bolivarian School. "We respect their right to protest, but they don't respect our right to choose our president."