Usually the items on the agenda at the neighborhood committee meeting in Catia, one of the poorest barrios in Caracas, are to do with local schools or problems with rubbish. This week, the subject for discussion was how to defend the government of President Hugo Chavez.
The meeting place was a modest church with a corrugated roof, strip lighting and a wooden statue of Jesus bent beneath his cross. There were around 80 people there, from toddlers to elderly women and every age in between.
Similar meetings were taking place throughout the barrios that still support Chavez, who was elected in 1998 on a promise of helping the poor. Although his popularity has fallen, he still retains the support of about a third of the population who claim that the opposition are in the process of ushering in the second military coup of the year.
Chavez was removed from office in April but reinstated after 48 hours. This time, as the general strike approaches its second week and calls for his removal grow as deafening as the banging of the pots and pans that both sides use to show their allegiances, his supporters are preparing for what may be a last stand.
Ricardo Marques, the meeting's chairman, organized people into teams - transport, communications, first aid, security - that are to be activated if word comes through that the military or large crowds of opposition are approaching the presidential palace. Distributed at the meeting was a photocopied page showing the supposed salaries - about £500,000 - of some of Chavez's opponents, executives at the state oil company, PDVSA. A straw poll of people at the meeting indicated that their average wage was £15 a month.
It is this disparity that has fueled Chavez's popularity among those who see him as their champion, even as all the major institutions - business, the media, the unions, the church - call for his removal. The leading trade union federation, CTV, which represents skilled workers in a national workforce where 50 per cent are employed 'informally' and are not unionized, has been one of his most vocal opponents.
'Tomorrow, we need to be be near the palace,' said Marques, as he called for volunteers to man the teams. 'And we have to explain to people what we stand to lose if there is a coup.' Groups like these, the chavistas, are portrayed by the opposition as part of an dangerous lumpen mob, just as the chavistas see the opposition as an elite fighting to exclude the poor from power.
To turn on the television in Venezuela is to see these two polarized perceptions crystallized. While private stations broadcast calls to take to the streets and replace the 'dictator' and show closed shops to prove the strike is biting, the state-controlled station shows Chavez basking in the affection of his people.
The stand-off goes back 10 years to when Chavez, then an army colonel, took part in an abortive coup. He was jailed but re-emerged and entered politics, winning the 1998 election handsomely. He replaced what his supporters felt was a corrupt ruling elite that excluded the poor in a country where 80 per cent live below the poverty level. Last year, he introduced the '49 decrees', including a controversial Land Act that gave unused land to the poor. He installed his own personnel in PDVSA,damaging the efficiency of the company as far as its executives were concerned. He was also accused of interfering with the judiciary and using his powers autocratically.
Unlike the recently elected Latin American leaders of the left, such as Lula da Silva of Brazil and Lucio Gutierrez of Ecuador, he has made little attempt to trim his rhetoric. After 11 September, he irritated the US administration by saying the bombing of Afghanistan was to answer 'barbarity with barbarity'.
In April, following a strike and protests, Chavez was removed from office by the military who claimed the country was out of control. They installed Pedro Carmona, head of the chamber of commerce, as president, but the Organization of American States (OAS) refused to recognize the new government and Chavez's supporters took to the streets. Within two days he was back in power. It was this turnaround that seems to have convinced him that he can resist calls to quit now.
Cesar Vicente, captain of the Moruy, one of the striking oil tankers, said: 'To understand the Venezuelan situation it is important to know that although Mr Chavez was elected democratically and nobody contests that, he has betrayed the Venezuelan people by disrespecting the democratic principles and pretending to impose on our country a communist revolution inspired on the Cuban model.'
At the Hotel Gran Melia, across the street from where people queue for hours to get their money out of the bank amid incongruous Christmas nativity scenes, Cesar Gaviria, director-general of the OAS, and members of the Carter Center try to hammer out a compromise between the opposition, who want new elections now, and the government, who say they were elected for six years and do not see why they should leave office earlier.
The US was accused by the chavistas of approving the last coup and ambassador Charles Shapiro has been making calls for a peaceful resolution this time. He said yesterday there was a lack of will on both sides towards finding a solution. 'Each side believes that it is going to win, each over-estimates its own power and underestimates the other,' he said.
Few want a repetition of April when around 60 people died in clashes, but everyone knows the current impasse has a time limit. Three people have already been killed when a gunman opened fire on anti-government protesters. When the Colombian embassy starts telling its citizens to leave the country because they would be safer at home, as it did last week, you know something is awry.
The daily Tal Cual used its front page to call for 'Neither Cuba, Nor Chile', saying that one side was envisaging a country like Castro's Cuba and the other like Pinochet's Chile in 1973. 'This is the moment to abandon the language of Armageddon,' said the paper.
The military miscalculated the mood in April and have so far been discouraged by the OAS from taking action. But in the words of the former president Ramon Velasquez: 'In Venezuela, soldiers are loyal to the government only until the day they rebel.'
Whoever takes the country into the new year will have to recognize that the election of Chavez represented a call for a change that echoed through the barrios, and that 'business as usual' will no longer be good enough.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002