The leafy square on the front line of Venezuela's unrest

President Chávez and his opposition are meeting with negotiators this week.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

The Plaza Bolívar is Venezuela writ small.

Many of the events that shaped the country's history occurred in this leafy square in the heart of Caracas, including the country's first declaration of independence in 1811. Independence hero Simon Bolivar was born just a few of blocks away, and his statue adorns the center of the square that, like hundreds more across Venezuela, bears his name.

Today, the front line in the increasingly bitter struggle between the embattled leftist government of President Hugo Chávez and his opposition runs right down the middle of the picturesque plaza. The plaza has become a symbol of just how physically close – yet ideologically far apart – the pro- and anti-Chávez camps are.

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This week, delegates from the Organization of American States and the United Nations are here meeting with Mr. Chávez and the opposition about reopening dialogue between two sides. After a meeting on Tuesday, Chávez said that he would not allow early presidential elections, despite continuing calls for him to step down. The opposition, which accuses the president of authoritarianism and driving the economy into recession, says that Venezuelans are too split to wait until August 2003, when the Constitution would permit a referendum.

Facing each other a little more than 100 paces apart are the respective offices of two men who embody the ferocity of the political battle. They are metropolitan mayor Alfredo Peña, and Freddy Bernal, the mayor of central Caracas. Neither is more than 5-feet, 6-inches tall, but what they lack in height they make up for in political intensity.

"On a personal level," says Mr. Bernal, a wiry, 40-year-old ex-policeman, "our relationship has broken down," referring to when the two once served side by side in the Chávez administration.

When Chávez took office in 1999, he appointed Mr. Peña, former editor of the newspaper El Nacional, to be his minister of the presidency. "I was his right-hand man," says Peña.

But the capitalist Peña and the populist Chávez never quite meshed. Shortly after Peña was elected to the newly created post of metropolitan mayor in 2000, he switched sides.

Bernal, a former member of an elite corps of the metropolitan police (PM), joined the Chávez's "Bolivarian Revolution" after Chávez's failed 1992 coup. Now he is widely regarded as one of its so-called talibanes – the ultrarevolutionaries. The opposition accuses Bernal of arming and training radical, pro-Chávez groups. Bernal denies the charge.

Today, the PM is controlled by Peña, a fact that irks the government. The chavistas say that police killed and wounded government supporters on April 11 when an opposition march on the presidential palace ended in bloodshed. Peña and the opposition blame civilian gunmen organized by Bernal. Either way, 19 died, the military withdrew support for the president, and a provisional government took power. Chávez, however, was restored to office just two days later.

Peña says his Plaza Bolivar headquarters was attacked around that time by chavistas toting automatic weapons. There was rioting in and around the square in mid-August after the Supreme Court (TSJ) threw out the case against four senior military officers accused of rebellion over the April events. Buildings still bear the scars, and blue PM crush-barriers now block the northern side of the plaza.

The northeast corner used to be the hot corner. "One day a young man went past and said, 'Down with Chávez!' " says an assistant in a nearby shop, who asked that her name not be used. "They started kicking him, and threw stuff from a fruit stall at him. He had to run for it."

Now the hot corner has moved across the square where the 'Bolivarian circles' – described by the government as "social organizations" and by the opposition as an embryonic militia – gather signatures for a referendum to revoke Peña's mandate. On a noticeboard is an article by one of the government's favorite intellectuals, Mexico-based Heinz Diederich, who argues that the Chávez "revolution" has reached its "final offensive." The TSJ decision, Mr. Diederich says, shows the counterrevolution has taken over the state and that the revolutionaries must not be bound by its rules.

Rafael Otero, an unemployed administrative assistant, stands in the shadow of Bolívar's statue and contemplates the future. Born the very day in 1958 that the country's last dictator, Gen. Marcos Pérez Jiménez, was overthrown, he is the same age as Venezuelan democracy. He wonders if the system that shares his birthday will stand the strain.

"If they throw Chávez out, things will be worse. There are still the people, his supporters," Mr. Otero says, noting that the revolution is bigger than the man who now occupies the presidential palace.

It is one of the few points both sides concede: whatever the outcome of the current crisis, it may be years before the wounds are healed.

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