Anti-Chávez groups barely united

As Venezuela's strike enters its fourth week, 40 different groups work to oust the president.

The opponents of President Hugo Chávez agree on one thing: They want Mr. Chávez out. Beyond that, they spend almost as much time fighting among themselves as they do fighting the current government.

The more than 40 political parties and nongovernmental organizations that make up the country's opposition say that President Chávez has ruined Venezuela's economy and moved the country toward a tyrannical, Communist-type state. These groups have been a driving force behind the three-week-old nationwide strike, which has virtually shut down the the world's fifth-largest oil producer and led to widespread gas shortages.

But these opponents are becoming increasingly worried that an anti-Chávez platform is not enough. Though they want to reduce poverty, improve education, and bolster the economy - positions similar to the platform Chávez ran on five years ago when he swept into power - opposition leaders say that without a clear message, a strong candidate, and a unified front, removing Chávez could be just the beginning of their troubles.

"Having five presidents in five weeks like Argentina, that's a real possibility if we don't pull ourselves together," says Leopoldo Lopez, the young mayor of Chacao, a district of metropolitan Caracas, and a member of Justice First, an opposition party made up of young professionals. "There is a lot of obsession right now on who is the alter ego to Chávez, but that is not the real issue. The real issue is how we are going to put the country back together. That is going to be very difficult, regardless of who is president."

Mayor Lopez says that a priority for opponents is to convince Chávez to call early elections because, right now, many people still support the strike. Chávez says that early elections are unconstitutional, and points to the Venezuelan Constitution, which says that a referendum on his presidency can take only take place in August 2003.

But as gas grows increasingly scarce and other necessities run out, people may begin to blame the opposition for their worsening situation, says Lopez at a funeral for a police officer killed last week. "We're walking a fine line."

Over the weekend, Chávez took steps to keep the gasoline flowing. A replacement crew took control of a tanker containing 280,000 barrels of gasoline on Friday and two other ships on Saturday that had been idled off shore by striking crews. Some 40 other tankers remain anchored off ports.

The Supreme Court has ordered all oil workers to immediately return to work, leading to the seizures by the government. Oil production is at 10 percent its typical 3 million barrels a day.

People should blame Chávez for the situation because he has the power to end the strike by calling for early elections, says Enrique Mendoza, the governor of Miranda state and the leading name being thrown about for president. He says it's important to remember why Chávez came to power in the first place.

"Chávez was the product of frustration of the people for the old way of doing things. We need to come up with new ways to do things," he says. "We cannot simply change one shoe for another."

To be successful in their efforts, the opposition must do three things, he says. First, it must be united. Second, it must have real answers to societal problems. And third, it must have active participation by the people in the economic process.

"Mine is the only state in the country where participation is a state policy," says Mr. Mendoza, adding that 60 percent of the hospitals are owned by the people.

Experts say that a divided opposition may not be able to beat Chávez at the ballot box - and even if they can, they may have difficulty pulling Venezuela out of chaos once that common goal is met.

"The opposition is not very well organized. They may be good at getting people into the streets, but putting together a coherent coalition doesn't seem to be their strong point," says Terry McCoy, director of the Latin American Business Environment Program at the University of Florida in Gainesville. "One thing is certain: The post-Chávez Venezuela is not going to be a very stable place."

Chávez's opponents run across the political spectrum. Some are traditional parties that were in power before Chávez took office, such as the Democratic Action party and COPEI.

Others are left-leaning parties, such as Más and Bandera Roja, which evolved out of the 1960s guerilla movement. Still others swing more to the right, such as Venezuelan Project and Justice First. In between, there are dissident military officers, civil activists, business leaders, and labor unions - each with their own ideas and agendas.

"The opposition is a very diverse group of people, no doubt about it. And there is a certain amount of distrust among them," says Janet Kelly, director of the Institute for Higher Administrative Studies, a research group here. "With all their infighting about issues, they are bound to fight about candidates as well."

One of the documents produced by the Democratic Coordinator, the opposition's umbrella group, details some of the major issues it wants to tackle, and interestingly enough, poverty tops the list. That was Chávez's No. 1 priority when he ran in 1998 - and it continues to be his rallying cry.

Beyond beginning to work out issues and candidates, the opposition says it is helping people in real ways.

For instance, Democratic Action leaders say they are distributing food and gas to meet growing demand, launching voter registrations aimed mostly at young people, and throwing a massive Christmas party for children in Caracas.

Sitting at a pool-side table at a hotel on the east side of Caracas, Mr. Mendoza takes turns spinning his three cellphones on the table and sometimes puts his head down to rest, clearly worn out from this long process. But this may be just the beginning of a new political journey for Mendoza.

"I have accepted every challenge in my life. If the time comes and it happens, I would have no problem running for president," he says. "But in the end, we'll have to chose our next government based on what the people want."

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