Vice President Nicolas Maduro is taking over leadership of Hugo Chavez's
political movement after the socialist leader died Tuesday at age 58 following a nearly two-year bout with cancer. Maduro now faces the daunting task of rallying support in a deeply divided country while maintaining unity within his party's ranks.
Maduro decidedly lacks the vibrant personality that made Chavez a one-man political phenomenon in Venezuela,
but he has the advantage of being Chavez's hand-picked successor.
The mustachioed 50-year-old former bus driver won Chavez's trust as a loyal spokesman who echoed the president's stances. How Maduro will lead in Chavez's absence remains to be seen, although he's widely known as both a skilled negotiator and a leader who views upholding his mentor's legacy as his personal crusade and responsibility.
One of the biggest tasks Maduro will likely face is attempting to hold together a diverse movement that includes radical leftists, moderates and many current and former military officers.
Analysts have speculated that differences might emerge between factions led by Maduro and Diosdado Cabello, the influential National Assembly president who is thought to wield power within the military. But thus far both men have denied such divisions and vowed to remain united.
After Chavez's Dec. 11 cancer surgery, Maduro stepped up his public appearances to fill the void, providing regular updates on the president's condition, calling for unity among allies and lambasting the opposition.
Chavez's deteriorating health led him on Dec. 8 to announce Maduro as his chosen successor. He said that if his illness prevented him from being sworn in on Jan. 10, government supporters should rally around Maduro and elect him president.
Maduro is expected to keep promoting programs such as free medical clinics staffed by Cuban
doctors and subsidized food stores, which have endeared the president with the country's vast numbers of poor. Maduro has vowed to block a return to past policies that he said had benefited the wealthy.
"Our people will never again see the bourgeoisie plundering this country," Maduro said, adding, "Better to be dead than traitors to the people and to Chavez!"
That loyalty made Maduro a logical choice, political observers said.
It's unclear when Maduro and Chavez first met. But Chavez is thought to have first gotten to know Maduro in the 1980s, when Chavez was a lieutenant colonel and began a clandestine movement of disgruntled military officers that eventually carried out a failed coup attempt in 1992. Chavez was jailed on military rebellion charges and then released in 1994 when he was pardoned.
Maduro went on to become a leading member of Chavez's nascent political movement, growing closer to the budding politician and also getting to know Cilia Flores, who is now attorney general and was Chavez's defense attorney following his arrest for the 1992 coup attempt.
After Chavez was elected president in 1998, Maduro was selected to join a special assembly to draft a new constitution. He was later elected to the National Assembly and then became president of the legislature.
Maduro was named foreign minister in 2006 and oversaw international efforts such as consolidating the regional diplomatic blocs ALBA and Unasur, strengthening relations with countries such as Russia, Iran and China,
and overseeing a rapprochement with US-allied Colombia. He is thought to maintain close ties with Cuba's government.
Before Chavez underwent his latest operation in December, he explained why he had chosen Maduro:
"He's one of the young leaders with the greatest ability to continue, if I'm unable to – God knows what he does – if I'm unable to, to continue with his firm hand, with his gaze, with his heart of a man of the people, with his gift for people, with his intelligence, with the international recognition he's earned, with his leadership, leading the presidency."
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