On Saturday, the country’s electoral board said a presidential election, as mandated by the constitution after the death of a president, would take place April 14.
Minutes later, Venezuela’s coalition of opposition groups said it had decided to offer its candidacy to Henrique Capriles, a lawyer and governor of Miranda state who challenged Chavez in the presidential election in October.
Pollsters and political analysts say that Capriles’s charisma and seasoning as a campaigner could be too little to defeat Chavez’s chosen successor so soon after his death, which has left the country in an unprecedented state of loss. As Chavez’s loyal aide for a generation, the 50-year-old Maduro not only has the country’s sympathy vote but now controls the purse strings that have given the government a major boost in one election after another.
With the outcome of an election nearly foretold, many Venezuelans are asking themselves what kind of president Maduro might be — a conciliator open to healing wounds or a demagogue who uses his position to control all the levers of powers, as critics say Chavez did.
Once seen as reserved, Maduro has come out in recent speeches with not only the same bellicose rhetoric as Chavez but also a similar fire-and-brimstone cadence. He has pledged to keep alive El Comandante’s flame by saving the poor from greedy elites operating here and in the United States, which he calls Venezuela’s “historic enemy.”
“Sooner rather than later the imperialist elites who govern the United States will have to learn to live with absolute respect with the insurrectional peoples of America,” he said moments after receiving the presidential sash in Friday’s inauguration. “We’ve decided to be free, and nothing and no one will take that independence that was re-conquered with our commander Hugo Chavez at the helm.”
As Maduro became more visible in recent weeks, people here wondered if the beefy former bus driver would as president turn out to be the calm apparatchik some diplomats found him to be. That Maduro was said to be pragmatic, a negotiator with the patience to sit down with adversaries, a leader open to resolving the polarization Chavez helped create in 14 years in power.
But the picture that is emerging of Maduro — particularly in the past four days of mourning for Chavez, who died Tuesday afternoon — is of a leader who appears to be ready to accelerate the former president’s agenda. That is shaping up to mean insults and threats such as the ones Maduro has issued this past week. And for Venezuela’s beleaguered opposition and the press, it may mean renewed efforts to corral them.