When Chávez eventually won the presidency in 1998, Maduro was elected to an assembly tasked with rewriting the country's constitution and was later elected as a deputy to the new National Assembly created after 1999, where he rose to president. In 2006, Chávez tapped Maduro as the country's foreign minister -- to the consternation of many. At the time, he had no diplomatic experience. His wife succeeded him as assembly president, leading to carping among the president's supporters about a family dynasty.
As foreign minister, however, Maduro carried out Chávez's policy initiatives in a competent manner -- if not always diplomatically. In 2008, he called U.S. Undersecretary of State for Latin America John Negroponte "a little bureaucrat" as relations between the two countries cooled. In a 2007 speech to the U.N. General Assembly, delivered in Chávez's place, Maduro decried the "total madness" of U.S. leaders and accused them of plotting war against Iran. It's not the only time Maduro has had trouble controlling his temper. During the presidential campaign, Maduro called Capriles, Chávez's opposition challenger and a 40-year-old bachelor, a "faggot," provoking an uproar among gay Chávistas, several of whom are in the cabinet.
Not that that's a problem for the often voluble Chávez. "He is a complete revolutionary, a man of great experience despite his youth, with great dedication and capacity for work," Chávez said when naming Maduro his heir apparent on Dec. 8, before departing for treatment.
Maduro's appointment was greeted with polite enthusiasm by Chávez's supporters and criticism by the country's opposition about the country's political processes. "This isn't Cuba where the leaders anoint their successors," said Capriles during a campaign stop. "Here, the people decide."
Maduro's appointment did resolve one issue that has vexed Chávez's supporters, especially given the threat of a long battle between various party factions. But the news was also somber, a very clear reminder that Chávez is fighting for his life. Canal 8, the state television station, stoked those fears by running a constant stream of laudatory pieces about the president and his life. The coverage had the feeling of a memorial and heightened suspicion that Chávez's condition is far graver than has been announced.
For many, Maduro -- who shows little of his mentor's charisma and touch with voters -- seems an unlikely choice to be Chávez's heir. But then again, El Comandante has always been reluctant to share the limelight with anyone. In his 14 years in power, Chávez has cycled through eight vice presidents, always replacing them as soon as they get too powerful or wealthy.
"Maduro was chosen as he is completely loyal to Chávez and has the blessings of the Cubans to boot," says Neumann. "Maduro's greatest strength is ironically his weakness. He was chosen as he is the most palatable option. And all of the various factions in Chávismo think they can have a piece of him."
Maduro has had another advantage in his rapid rise to the top -- he is one half of the Bolivarian revolution's foremost power couple. His wife, Cilia Flores, is currently attorney general and previously served as the first female president of Venezuela's National Assembly. The two met while she was leading Chávez's defense team after his 1992 coup arrest. According to one member of Chávez's United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) who didn't want to be named, "Cilia is the brains of the operation. Nicolas has the presence."