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Chavez's heir: from bus driver to president-in-waiting
Hugo Chavez's terminal illness and ultimate death have thrown his designated political heir, Vice President Nicolas Maduro (pictured), into the international spotlight. FRANCE 24 takes a look at the new face of "chavismo".
Before heading to Cuba for his latest bout of surgery, Venezuela's late president Hugo Chavez said he was handing the country’s “high political command” to his deputy Nicolas Maduro, publicly anointing the vice president as his chosen political heir.
Since then, Venezuela's second-most-powerful man has led an outpour of support for the ailing president. On Tuesday, the task of announcing Chavez's death naturally fell on his shoulders.
"We have just received the most tragic and awful information. At 4:25pm (8:55pm GMT) today March the 5th, President Hugo Chavez Frias died," Maduro announced in a televised address, his voice choking.
While his broken voice was no doubt down to sorrow, he could have been forgiven for choking at the task that lay ahead.
Chavez’s larger-than-life personality has dominated not just Venezuelan, but all Latin American politics for more than a decade. The prospect of an abrupt transfer of power to Maduro – a onetime Caracas city bus driver – raises questions about the future health of “Chavismo” under a new face.
Maduro, part of Chavez’s inner circle
The 50-year-old Maduro was appointed vice president only in October of 2012, after Chavez’s successful re-election bid. But with his bushy, dark mustache, Maduro has made a name for himself at home as one of the most visible faces of the ruling PSUV party and in diplomatic circles as Venezuela’s foreign minister since 2006.
He is renowned for relaying Chavez’s “anti-imperialist” discourse abroad, encouraging developing countries to resist the influence of the United States and Europe, and working to strengthen regional cooperation between Latin American countries under the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA) group.
As Caracas’ top diplomat, Maduro has also earned criticism for defending the governments more questionable alliances. In a wide-ranging interview with Russia Today in 2011, Maduro slammed the US- and NATO-imposed no-fly zone over Libya that was instrumental in toppling Muammar Gaddafi. He also voiced support for Venezuela’s ongoing economic and energy cooperation with Iran.
Maduro has also served as a symbol for Chavez’s "Bolivarian revolution", which has heavily invested the country’s oil wealth into programmes to uplift its poorest sectors. A former union leader for the Caracas metro with no university training, he entered politics as a fervent Chavez campaigner in the mid-'90s.
His wife, lawyer and lawmaker Cilia Flores, defended Chavez when the leader faced charges over a failed 1992 coup. Later, Maduro served as a member of Venezuela’s constitutional assembly in 1999, an MP from 2000, and the president of congress in 2005.
Unwavering loyalty throughout that time earned Maduro a place in Chavez's inner circle, and he is thought to be one of the few people to know exactly what prognosis and treatment Chavez has been given by his Cuban doctors.
A new lifeline for Capriles?
Despite his devotion to Chavez, analysts view Maduro as an ideological moderate within the PSUV, and say he has keen negotiating skills that have been honed by the work involved in keeping Chavez’s varied constituencies united over the years.
Within the PSUV, congress president Diosdado Cabello, a former military man and hardliner, and José Vicente Rangel, a former vice-president and defence minister, may eventually challenge Maduro for Venezuela’s top job, but for now both seem to have rallied behind Chavez’s personal pick.
Under Venezuela's constitution, elections must be held within 30 days if the president dies or becomes incapacitated either before being sworn into office or in the first four years of his term.
New elections could be a fresh opportunity for opposition leader Henrique Capriles, who is currently bidding to return as Miranda state governor after losing to Chavez in the presidential vote. Capriles was soundly defeated in October but claimed the fractured opposition’s best score in a presidential election since Chavez rose to power.