Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has dropped dramatically in public opinion polls, but he remains a hero to his core constituency and political allies. The ideological divide between supporters of the Chavez government and its equally fervent opponents could lead the country to the brink of catastrophe in the months ahead.

Since coming to power in a democratic election three years ago, President Hugo Chavez has seen his popularity ratings in polls drop from over 80 percent to under 30 percent. He has clashed with every important sector of society, from the Catholic Church to the labor unions to the business community.

Mr. Chavez and his supporters say rich and powerful oligarchs are responsible for the campaign against him and they vow to fight on for what they call their "revolution."

Juan Mendoza, a 32-year-old member of Congress who supports the Chavez program says this government has accomplished things for Venezuela's poor majority that opponents tend to overlook.

Mr. Mendoza says the opposition ignores the social programs that President Chavez has initiated. He says one million children now attend school thanks to this assistance and that the military is helping to deliver food, medicine and other aid to poor communities.

Political analyst Anibal Romero sees things differently. He says President Chavez has wasted money and brought the nation close to ruin. "He has mismanaged the economy," he said. "He has actually spent 70 thousand million dollars in three years $70,000 million dollars in three years! and you cannot see where this money has gone."

Mr. Romero says that Chavez programs are merely populist ploys that rely on government funds to buy support from poor, downtrodden sectors.

"These are the poorest people, the marginalized people, of this country, who, let us face it, have very little to lose and they have placed all their hopes in Chavez," Mr. Romero said. " He has given them something in return. He has been trying to assist them in meeting their basic needs. That means giving away money, to put it in a nutshell."

The woman leading the fight for the Chavez program in the National Assembly is Cilia Flores. She says opponents need to remember that Hugo Chavez was elected by a large majority of people from all classes and that he has continued to receive support from voters in various referenda.

Ms. Flores says there have been seven opportunities for people to express their support for the president's programs since he came to office and that on each occasion the people voted in favor of these programs.

Ms. Flores, who heads the congressional delegation for President Chavez's Fifth Republic movement, says opponents have conspired to obstruct the president's agenda and have abused their freedom. Still, she adds, the president has done nothing to deny opponents their freedom of expression.

The Fifth Republic movement has 89 seats in the 165-seat National Assembly, but opponents and many independent analysts say that the president's coalition is beginning to fracture. Part of the reason for this has to do with political maneuvering by the various parties within the bloc, but the deterioration of the Venezuelan economy has also eroded confidence in the president's policies.

A few days ago, the New York-based Moody's financial group downgraded Venezuela's debt rating because of concerns over political instability in the country. According to Anibal Romero, the recent devaluation that occurred when Mr. Chavez allowed the national currency, the bolivar, to float, has left all Venezuelans poorer.

"The fact is that we are on the brink of financial collapse," said Mr. Romero. "In spite of the economic measures taken by the government two weeks ago, the floating of the currency, the flow of capital outside the country and the crisis in our balance of payments continues."

Mr. Romero and other opponents of the Chavez government stress that the situation is now so critical that the country could face violent confrontation in the near future. A major public worker's union is organizing a work stoppage for sometime later this month.

So far protests and marches have been, for the most part, peaceful, but if widespread opposition to Mr. Chavez leads to a complete shutdown of the economy, clashes between avid supporters and firebrand opponents are likely. Whatever the outcome, such widespread violence would be tragic for Venezuela and its people.