The Loyal Lieutenant: In Hugo Chávez’s Absence, Nicolás Maduro’s Stature Grows

Vice President Nicolás Maduro is cancer-stricken President Hugo Chávez's designated successor, but can he fill el comandante's boots?

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RAUL ARBOLEDA / AFP / Getty Images

A man walks past a mural of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in Caracas, Jan. 11, 2013.

On Jan. 10, as he led the presidential inauguration that wasn’t, Venezuelan Vice President Nicolás Maduro—the heir apparent of cancer-stricken socialist President Hugo Chávez—addressed the crowd in his boss’ grandiose style. “Chávez is all of us!” Maduro shouted to tens of thousands of red-clad supporters. “Chávez is Venezuela!” Days earlier, the tall, moustachioed Maduro had even publicly cried as he spoke of his love for el comandante. “Beyond our own lives, we will be loyal to Hugo Chávez,” he yelled as Chávez lay—and continues to lie—in a Cuban hospital bed after undergoing his fourth cancer surgery In Havana on Dec. 11.

Maduro’s own life has certainly been a showcase of loyalty to the President ever since Chávez, then an army paratrooper officer, burst on the scene in 1992 leading a failed coup against Venezuela’s corrupt government. Maduro, a former bus driver and union leader, and his wife Cilia Flores, who is today Venezuela’s attorney general, helped win Chávez’s release from prison two years later and were at his side when Chávez was elected President in 1998. After Chávez was re-elected for a third time in October, he made Maduro Vice President. And then, before leaving for Cuba last month, he named Maduro his successor in the event, should Chávez die, that a new presidential election has to be held under Venezuela’s constitution.

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Chávez has not been heard from since. He could not attend his own inauguration, which the constitution designated for Jan. 10 but which Venezuela’s Supreme Court, packed with Chávez loyallists, said could be delayed until the President is healthy again. Now Maduro, who this month delivered a state-of-the-union address in Chávez’s stead, has been forced to fill the boots of the populist, anti-U.S. firebrand who is a demigod to his supporters and a demon to his opponents. Whether or not Chávez ever returns, the central question in Venezuela and much of Latin America now is whether Maduro is up to the task of keeping Chávez’s left-wing revolution in power—and keeping the western hemisphere’s most oil-rich nation from succumbing to crises ranging from South America’s worst violent crime to one of the world’s highest rates of inflation. “Our revolution has enough weight and ability,“ Maduro insisted to the Spanish news agency EFE last week, “to confront any scenario.”

That socialist self-assuredness has served Maduro well on his rise from the bus routes of Caracas to the corridors of the Miraflores presidential palace. As he anointed Maduro last month, Chávez joked, “Look at where he’s headed, Nicolás, the bus driver! How the bourgeoisie used to laugh at him!” Maduro’s proletarian past has endeared him to many of the working-class faithful in Chávez’s United Socialist Party (PSUV). Fellow transit worker Alberto Vivas, who attended school with Maduro, remembers a serious, analytical but affable young man who shone at baseball, just as Chávez did. But sports gave way to politics when Maduro joined the Socialist League. “We’d have long political discussions,” says Vivas, who found Maduro smart even if he didn’t always agree with his leftist ideology.

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After aiding Chávez in the 1990s, Maduro was elected to the National Assembly in 2000. He became its President—and in 2005 helped stoke fears that Chávez was bent on creating a Cuba-style regime when he told the Assembly that its role was “to strengthen the revolution [and] legislate so that Chávez governs not until 2021 but until 2030.” (Chávez got presidential term limits eliminated in 2009.) The following year Chávez named him to the Foreign Minister post, where Maduro is credited with executing some of el comandante’s more controversial foreign policy strategies, such as alliances with global pariahs like Iran, Syria and Belarus and a campaign of perpetual vitriol directed at Washington.

Still, as a former trade unionist, Maduro is more used to diplomatic negotiation than the peremptory command m.o. Chávez brought from the military. As a result, many political observers hope a more pragmatic government might be on the way. As Foreign Minister, Maduro thawed relations with next-door neighbor Colombia after the nations seemed on the brink of war five years ago, and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said recently he’ll be “optimistic” if Maduro becomes President. Contrary to widespread opinion, says Vladimir Villegas, Venezuela’s former ambassador to Mexico, Maduro “is not a yes man. He’s always followed Chávez unconditionally, but not because he’s not smart enough to do otherwise. He will become his own person should he come to power.”

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As Venezuela’s leadership crisis drags on, however, Maduro has become the symbol of the revolution’s less than open and often browbeating response to questions about Chávez’s true condition and whether the government is adhering to the constitution in his absence. Maduro has accused opposition leaders, who say Chávez is no longer President since he wasn’t sworn in Jan. 10, of trying to destabilize the country if not stage a coup themselves—warning them to “watch your words and your actions” lest the government take “forceful actions.”

Alberto Barrera Tyszka, a Caracas political columnist who co-wrote the 2004 biography Chávez Sin Uniforme (Chávez Out of Uniform), says Maduro remains an enigma. “Until now, he’s lived in the shadow of Chávez in silence, with a low profile,” says Barrera, who adds that Maduro’s chief challenge is to find his own voice. That might be easier now that Chávez has shattered the successor hopes of other PSUV honchos like National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello, a more pragmatic military man who is regarded as Maduro’s chief rival, and Energy Minister Rafael Ramírez. “[But] of the three,” says Barrera, “Maduro is perhaps the least independent.”

Which is why pundits like Luis Vicente León, head of the Caracas polling firm Datanálisis, are also quick to suggest that Maduro is “the Cubans’ guy.” Maduro did receive much of his political training on the communist island—where Chávez has sought cancer treatment because he’s assured of more secrecy. That Cuban influence has led the opposition to complain that Venezuela’s capital has been relocated to Havana, a charge Maduro calls “offensive.” But if he eventually should have to run for President in a special election, Maduro won’t be helped by perceptions, fair or not, that he somehow answers to the Castros. The reality is that Maduro is auditioning Chavismo Without Chávez for Venezuelan voters right now—and there’s no guarantee that he and the revolution will get the job if and when the time comes.

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