Much of Venezuela tunes in to the all-news television station just before dinner these days to watch two men announce that a crippling national strike to push President Hugo Chavez from power will last another day. The ritual has been repeated 11 times now, including this evening, to cheers from assembled supporters and pot-banging in the streets.
The man who usually makes the announcement is Carlos Ortega, the stout, grimacing head of Venezuela's largest labor federation. The microphones then move to the white-haired man next to him, Carlos Fernandez, who bears a passing resemblance to Phil Donahue -- without the glasses -- and heads the largest business federation.
"It's very strange, this union between us, but logical for Venezuela," said Fernandez, whose background as a construction executive brought him up against some of the trade unions that make up Ortega's federation. "The problem in this country is ideological, a president who wants to create a system based on Castro communism, and so the great majority of us, regardless of history, have come together against that."
The odd couple sit atop a diverse movement to unseat Chavez that includes radical leftist parties and mainstream mayors, dissident military officers and good-government activists, former guerrillas and housewives. The glue binding the various elements is a common antipathy for the twice-elected president, nurtured by national news media that advertise the movement more than cover it.
That common interest, however, will likely become a sea of competing interests if Chavez finally does leave, according to diplomats, analysts and a reading of recent history. The opposition has already proved to be a politically fractious movement, most recently in April when an interim government that replaced Chavez after his ouster in a military-led coup collapsed within two days, in part because of infighting.
Opposition leaders and some diplomats here say that, if the movement succeeds in removing Chavez, it will unite around a caretaker government pending new elections, much like the transition Peruvians made two years ago after forcing Alberto Fujimori from office. But Venezuela's civilian opposition is more politically diverse and has invested more time and money, suggesting a future power struggle that bodes poorly for the principal interest of the United States -- stability -- in a country that provides 15 percent of its imported oil.
"The number of available posts in the next government is far below the number of people who want them," said Janet Kelly, director of the Institute for Higher Administrative Studies, a research group here.
Dozens of members of the Democratic Coordinator, as the opposition umbrella group is known, aspire to high office in any post-Chavez government. Their ideological diversity helps explain why the opposition has yet to present an alternative program to Chavez's strident populism, which has won over much of the country's impoverished majority.
Opposition leaders agree that the next step must be drawing up a common program and picking someone to present it during the next elections. But they have not done either yet.
"We have a lot of good leaders inside the Democratic Coordinator," said Elias Santana, who represents civil society inside the group. "Now we need to choose a candidate, which is very different."
A former army officer and the son of teachers from the southern plains, Chavez was first elected in 1998 on a promise to better distribute Venezuela's vast natural wealth to the country's poor. He was elected again in 2000 with 57 percent of the vote. The victories remade Venezuela's two-party landscape -- a Social Democratic party, Democratic Action, and a Christian Democratic rival, Copei -- which had left little room for outside participation and enriched supporters, loyal unions and party leaders.
Employing fierce populist rhetoric, Chavez made enemies not only of the "rancid oligarchy," as he described the wealthy, but also Ortega's labor union; the middle-class members of Fedecamaras, the business alliance; and even the Catholic Church. Most important, perhaps, Chavez antagonized the military and the oil industry by trying to enlist both of the traditionally conservative institutions on behalf of his leftist political program.
Those forces united in April when a walkout by white-collar workers at Petroleos de Venezuela, the state oil company, prompted a national strike. The strike led to street marches that turned violent, and eventually to Chavez's brief ouster in the military-led coup.
Although he returned in triumph soon after, Chavez's support has since fallen to the mid-30 percent range in opinion polls, that number reflecting a hard-core group that has pledged to defend his "social revolution." His opponents include former allies from the left -- parties and disenchanted mentors -- as well as media barons who have turned against him for political and personal reasons.
They also include people such as Jose Bitar, 35, the owner of The Flower of Syria, a little-bit-of-everything shop in the lower-class Petare neighborhood. Bitar voted for Chavez in 1998, hoping his promised reforms might include credits for small businesses like his. But he has watched business fall steadily -- 40 percent this year alone, he said.
And the Chavez supporters outside Bitar's door have grown more radical, he said. "He speaks for all of them out there, not us," Bitar said, nodding outside to the sidewalk where street vendors were selling soap, socks and toothpaste.
The opposition also has grown more radical. What started as a call for Chavez to move up 2006 presidential elections has now become a war of attrition for his immediate resignation.
The focal point is the $40 billion-a-year national oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela. The company provides the government with $9 billion a year, its single largest source of income, and has been almost completely shut down by the strike. Today the government fired several executives leading the walkout and announced plans to oust 400 more.
That is likely to do little to undermine the political influence of the strike leaders. "No decision at the [Democratic] Coordinator will be taken without their consent," said Cesar Gaviria, the secretary general of the Organization of American States who is mediating talks between the government and the civilian opposition.
Those talks, focused on holding elections before April, are moving slowly. But the opposition has begun to discuss a transition should Chavez depart soon. Among the issues of concern is the probability that Chavez, if challenged by two or three other candidates, would win a new election.
Only partly joking, an opposition strategist said, "We have identified 1,748 people who want to be the next president. To make all of them happy, the best thing to do might be to put Velcro on the presidential sash so it could be torn off and put on someone new every day."
New parties such as Justice First, whose young, charismatic, middle-class leadership has emerged during the struggle, are bumping up against traditional power bases, such as Ortega's million-member Venezuela Workers Confederation and Fedecamaras.
Good-government advocacy groups, like the "We Want to Choose" organization that Santana leads, have toiled for years against traditional political parties, and now want a say in choosing the next candidate. On the other extreme, Bandera Roja, a leftist party with roots in an armed 1960s guerrilla movement, serves as the vanguard in most of the opposition street marches and also wants a say.
Then there is Pilar Campos, an architect and a mother from the comfortable Palo Verde neighborhood. Campos, 40, never voted for Chavez. She also never belonged to either of the political parties that Chavez campaigned against. It was only when Chavez decreed a year ago that the government could fire directors of private schools like the one her two children attend that Campos attended her first march.
"What brings us all together is a desire for democracy and his removal," said Campos, waiting today for the daily opposition protest to begin.