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Tuesday, 7 May, 2002, 14:46 GMT 15:46 UK
Rift in Venezuelan society
Two Venezuelan national guardsmen as they patrol the working class neighbourhood of Catia in Caracas
Upheavals have left the country tense
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By the BBC's Nick Miles
In Caracas
High up on the steep hillside overlooking downtown Caracas Alicia Gomez is making a pot of tea.

From my vantage point on her bougainvillea-covered terrace in the plush Bello Monte neighbourhood I can make out the shanty towns of the capital on the far side of the valley - simple red brick shacks with corrugated iron roofs.

The sombre tones of a local television reporter waft out onto the balcony. There is a reference to the Venezuelan president, and then a pause as the journalist searches for the right name, a sackable offence in normal times.

But times are anything but normal in Venezuela with the presidency changing hands three times in as many days.

Palace stormed

Alicia returns with the tea. A lawyer in her forties she looks drained after several nights without much sleep.

"I watched what happened on Saturday with horror," she tells me, referring to the dramatic events which saw the presidential palace stormed by Chavez supporters and then hours later their hero sworn back into office.

President Chavez: Citizens divided
"He is a communist and he's a disaster for Venezuela," she said. "He sets the country's different groups against each other. He still thinks Che Guevara is in fashion."

Alicia's views are not uncommon amongst many middle class Venezuelans.

Since Hugo Chavez first came to power three years ago, thousands of Venezuelans have emigrated - worried at what they see as his harsh left-wing views.

Alicia is going back into the city centre to meet a group of friends to talk about their future plans. She offers me a lift.

As we are driving we pass through almost-deserted streets, through the working-class neighbourhood of Petare where tyres are still burning from the weekend's protests, and spray-painted graffiti on every available wall calling on the Venezuelan military to "end the unconstitutional junta" and "bring back our president".

Security passport

I point out where I want to be dropped off and she gives me a concerned glance. In a country with one of the widest income disparities in the world there is precious little social mixing between the 80% of the population that live in poverty and the wealthy elite.

I'm not worried though because I have one of the best passports to security in the shanty towns - a meeting with the head of a Bolivarian Circle.

Named after Hugo Chavez's hero, the 19th Century Latin American independence activist, Simon Bolivar, they are neighbourhood groups set up by the president to, supposedly, create direct links between the government and the urban poor.

Soldiers on Miraflores Palace, Caracas
Soldiers loyal to Mr Chavez occupied the roof of the presidential palace
Jose Luis Arnal, the head of the circle in this part of Petare, is waiting for me by the entrance to a local market. Although we have only met once, he welcomes me like a long-lost friend. With much of the Venezuelan media vehemently opposed to Hugo Chavez, the attention of a foreign journalist is much prized.

He too is looking tired but elated at the return of his hero.

" What other president has ever taken the time to go into the shanty towns and meet the people " he asks me.

"Of course we're pleased he's back. This country has got huge oil wealth but so many of us still live in poverty."

Certainly this was why so many people - more than 60% of the population - voted for Hugo Chavez in elections three years ago.

Society at odds

For four decades Venezuela had been dominated by two political parties, Democratic Action and COPAY. They were widely seen as cesspools of corruption favouring the elite.

Hugo Chavez has started to put more emphasis on helping the poor, setting the army to work in social projects, building new schools in the shanty towns and passing a radical new law that allows the expropriation of idle land from large farmers for it to be residtributed to the landless.

Little wonder then that the president's levels of support in areas like Petare are still sky-high.

It is difficult to see how the two different Venezuela's - the rich on the hills and the poor in the slums - can reconcile their different agendas.

But after this near escape from political oblivion a perhaps chastened and more humble Hugo Chavez will bring about a more inclusive society here in Venezuela.

The BBC's Nick Miles
"It's difficult to see how the two Venezuelas can reconcile their different agendas."
See also:

15 Apr 02 | Americas
Washington's Chavez dilemma
15 Apr 02 | Business
Oil prices rise on Chavez return
14 Apr 02 | Media reports
Chavez calls for national unity
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