The president’s decision to name Maduro as his heir astonished the oil-rich country, where many view Chavez as a messiah-like leader with no equal after 14 years in power.
In a dramatic televised address Saturday, Chavez extolled Maduro as having the “heart of a man of the people.” With Maduro seated at his left, Chavez said he had proved his mettle by loyally serving the government for years, the past six as foreign minister, hopscotching the globe.
“He is a complete revolutionary, a man of great experience despite his youth, with great dedication and capacity for work, for leading, for handling the most difficult situations,” said Chavez, 58, a former lieutenant colonel who took office in 1999. “I’ve seen it. We’ve all seen it.”
The president said that it was his “firm opinion, clear like a full moon, irrevocable, absolute, total” that Venezuelans should vote for Maduro should Chavez’s condition sideline him and trigger a new presidential election. The constitution requires an election within 30 days of a president being forced from office.
Political analysts said the announcement appeared designed with two purposes in mind: to signal Chavez’s strong support for one man and to quell Maduro’s rivals within the president’s movement, known as Chavismo. Early Monday, 27 hours after his address, Chavez boarded a flight to Cuba, where he is to undergo his fourth operation in 18 months on the stubborn cancer in his pelvic area.
“He has to make sure those inside will respect him, that he is able to control and tame the internal monsters,” Luis Vicente Leon, who runs the Datanalisis polling firm in Caracas, said of Chavez. “There are divisions in Chavismo, and strong ones, and they can be dangerous in the future if not managed.”
Leon said that in Maduro, the president has a time-tested leader who has risen from street-level socialist activist to president of the National Assembly to foreign minister, a post he continues to hold. In October, Chavez named Maduro his vice president, giving him more prominence in a government where cabinet members are juggled and ousted frequently.
“Look where Nicolas is going, the bus driver,” Chavez said at the time.
Those who’ve known Maduro describe him as jovial and friendly, a man who enjoys socializing and eating sub sandwiches. But he also apparently has a spiritual side: He used to travel to India with his wife, Cilia Flores, also a Chavez loyalist, to hear the advice of Sathya Sai Babaa, a guru who had a worldwide following until his death in 2011.
Chavez, who met Maduro in the 1980s when he led a clandestine group of rebellious army officers, had other options. His older brother, Adan, introduced him to radical politics. His former vice president, Elias Jaua, who rose up from university rabble-rouser, has been a fixture. Then there is National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello, a former military man and coup plotter whose name means “God-given hair.”