Physically towering over many of his compatriots, Maduro is a member of the PSUV's more ideological clique, comprised of former Vice President Elías Jaua, Oil Minister Rafael Ramírez, and former Vice President José Vicente Rangel. He also has the symbolically important Cuban connection. While accompanying Chávez to Havana during the early stages of his treatment, the Cuban-educated Maduro reportedly became close to the Castro brothers.
As he has become indispensible to Chávez and his family as the president's health has worsened, he has also somehow kept a low profile, usually appearing in the background of photos and rarely speaking in public. That may have served him well in the past, but it now has the unfortunate result that many Venezuelans have no idea who he is or what he stands for, which could hurt his ability to prevent the party from falling apart in Chávez's absence.
According to Venezuela's constitution, if Chávez were to die or be unable to serve as president, fresh elections would have to be held within 30 days. Both the Chávistas and their opponents are anxious to avoid early elections. The opposition, which spent millions of dollars on Capriles's unsuccessful run, needs time to regroup and fund a war chest, says Neumann. Maduro, for his part, would want to avoid running at a time of mounting economic distress.
Venezuela's international reserves have fallen precipitously and the country's foreign exchange board has, for all intents and purposes, stopped selling dollars, which has hurt imports. The black market rate for the dollar has soared to about 16 bolivars, versus an official exchange rate of 4.3. Oil production remains steady at about 2.4 million billion barrels per day, yet roughly 25 percent lower than when Chávez took office in 1999.
Chávez was scheduled to present his government's plans for the next six years on Jan. 10, when he was to be sworn in for another term of office. Many had been expecting the president to announce a devaluation that would close the country's fiscal gap. Now, it's not even certain that event will happen and few expect any big changes for the present.
Die-hard Chávez supporters will likely fall into place behind Maduro, if only for lack of another option. "If El Comandante trusts him to take over, then so do I," says Elena Rodriguez, a 45-year-old housewife in La Victoria in the central state of Aragua, who voted for Chávez in October. "I want Chávez to come back and be president again. But if he can't, then I support Maduro." When asked who Maduro was, however, she said she wasn't sure.
But Chávez's endorsement is no guarantee that Maduro will actually be able to fill El Comandante's place. "Maduro is no Chávez," says Wilian Bravo, 28, who works in a hardware store and voted for the ailing leader. "He doesn't have the charisma nor charm of Chávez. I don't think Chávismo will last long."
"One nightmare may be ending," says Teolio Ramos, an elementary school teacher who voted for Capriles. "But I sure feel like another one is just beginning."