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.
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."
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."