He once drove a bus across the gritty streets of Caracas, Venezuela’s capital, and later rose through the ranks of the trade union movement.
Now Nicolas Maduro, Venezuela’s tall, broad-shouldered 50-year-old vice president, has been anointed as the possible successor to President Hugo Chavez, should the populist leader’s recurring cancer force him from power.
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.”
An old friend and associate of Maduro, Vladimir Villegas, said that choosing the vice president made the most sense.
“He is a leader who has credibility on the street, who comes from the union movement, who has been a diplomat, who brings together all the conditions,” said Villegas, a former deputy foreign minister who broke with the government in 2007. “I think it is a good decision by the president. This calms those who fear a military man who’s not Chavez.”
Venezuelans are accustomed to seeing a serious-sounding Maduro inaugurate infrastructure projects or make revolutionary pronouncements from foreign capitals. But Maduro can also get emotional about Chavez’s self-described revolution and his loyalty to the president.
“Chavez has a people at his side. He has us and he will have us always in this battle, from one victory to another!” Maduro, holding back tears, said Monday in an address in Venezuela. “Beyond this life we’ll be loyal to Hugo Chavez!”
Unlike several Chavez associates who served in the military, Maduro was in the Socialist League movement in the 1970s and traveled to Cuba for lessons in union organizing. After serving on the assembly that rewrote Venezuela’s constitution after Chavez took office, Maduro began his rise in government.
But it has been as foreign minister that he has won even the respect of some of the government’s adversaries. Maduro worked to build close ties to powers such as Russia and China, which has given billions in loans to Venezuela. Officials in Colombia, meanwhile, say Maduro has played an important role in President Juan Manuel Santos’s nascent peace process with a 48-year-old communist guerrilla movement.
Despite Chavez’s public show of confidence, Maduro does not face an easy road to power, should the president resign or die. The most apparent challenge is that he is not Chavez, nor does he have the charisma or same mystical connection with the poor that the president enjoys.
“Charisma is something that is earned and it’s not passed down just through an election or tapping someone as your successor,” said Susan Eckstein, director of the Latin America studies program at Boston University. If the cancer forces Chavez aside, Maduro faces an energized opposition led by Henrique Capriles, a 40-year-old lawyer who was defeated handily by Chavez in an October presidential election. But Capriles has done well in past polls against Chavez’s associates, including Maduro.
Some observers also say that even with the president’s call on Saturday for “unity, unity, unity” among his associates, Maduro may be unable to hold together the divergent political interests evident in Chavismo.
Some of Chavez’s lieutenants – perhaps most notably Cabello, who is close to the powerful military wing – have their own supporters and resources, said Raul Salazar, a former general who once worked closely with the president.
“I don’t think it will be very easy for Maduro because groups that had been repressed will awaken,” Salazar said. “The power is concentrated for Chavez and if Chavez is there it’s there for him. But once he’s gone, it dilutes.”