CARACAS, Venezuela — Nicolás Maduro is an unlikely leading man in Venezuela's unfolding soap opera. The country's vice president -- appointed to his post in October and officially tapped as successor by President Hugo Chávez on Oct. 10 -- is in the unfamiliar position of being center stage, trying to fill the void left by the ailing Chávez and to keep their supporters united before this Sunday's gubernatorial elections. At times, it seems the task is too overwhelming for him.
Maduro has often teared up in public, while stressing the importance of Chávez to the country in often reverential and near-religious fervor. "Chávez is love; Chávez is the fatherland," he told supporters during a rally Tuesday night just minutes after he said the president had successfully undergone a six-hour operation in Cuba, his fourth in an 18-month battle with cancer. The announcement came just five days before Venezuelans go to the polls to elect 23 state governors and 237 members of state legislatures, in what is being seen as a test of the opposition's staying power after losing the Oct. 7 presidential vote. The vote is also crucial for the governor of Miranda state, Henrique Capriles Radonski, the opposition leader who lost to Chávez and is now trying to win reelection. A defeat would almost certainly end his presidential hopes in the short term, and throw the opposition into disarray.
Analysts say the task facing Maduro is a difficult one. He needs to keep the various Chávista factions in line, while waiting to see what happens with the president. And as heir apparent, he also needs to protect his own position. But he's got big shoes to fill.
"It's impossible to expect Maduro to be another Chávez,'' says Miguel Tinker Salas, a professor of Latin American history at Pomona College and the author of The Enduring Legacy: Oil, Culture and Society in Venezuela. "Instead he represents continuity with the policies and programs that the president has promoted. This is still very much an evolving process with much still unclear."
Maduro, given his meteoric rise from bus driver to union leader, from president of the national assembly to foreign minister, and now vice president, has long been the poster boy for Chávez's vision of an all-inclusive Venezuela -- one that provides opportunities for the country's traditionally disenfranchised poor and working classes. "Look where he is going, Nicolás the bus driver," Chávez said when he appointed him vice president in October, a few days after winning his fourth presidential election.
Born in Caracas in 1962, Maduro joined a socialist league and studied politics for a year in Cuba. Returning to Caracas, he took a job driving a bus for the Metro de Caracas, where he had a record of frequent accidents and arriving late to work.
Despite this inauspicious start, he has shown a knack for being in the right place at the right time. "Maduro has certainly grown as a politician," says Vanessa Neumann, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. "I don't know what he did, or who schooled him, but he has changed for the better." He became involved in the company's union and eventually became leader. He backed Chávez during the latter's two abortive coup attempts in 1992 and worked to have him freed from prison. Former President Rafael Caldera pardoned Chávez in 1994. Three years later, El Comandante launched his bid for the presidency.