Meet The Former Bus Driver Who Could Take Over For Cancer-Stricken Hugo Chavez

Nicolás Maduro
Nicolás Maduro
Maye Primera

BUENOS AIRES - When Nicolás Maduro was named president of the Venezuelan National Assembly, in January of 2006, Cilia Flores – his “life partner” – hung amulets above all the doors. “They are to ward off the bad vibes,” Flores said in an interview.

She was right to worry. Maduro’s gradual rise within the governing party had indeed generated bad vibes among his colleagues, especially in the military wing, the same sector that may now want to challenge his status as Hugo Chávez’s chosen successor.

Chávez, Venezuela’s cancer-stricken ‘presidente-comandante,’ made his succession wishes official this past Saturday. “If something happens that should hinder me in any way, Nicolás Maduro should complete my term, as called for by the Constitution. Not only that, but it is my strong, irrevocable, absolute, total, clear-as-a-full-moon opinion that in the case new presidential elections are required, you should elect Nicolás Maduro as president,” he said in nationally broadcast remarks.

Chávez made the announcement after revealing that he would have to undergo surgery – for the fourth time – to treat recurring cancer. He was first diagnosed with the illness in June 2011.

During the presentation, Maduro sat to the left of the president, his face contorted into a grimace of both sadness and dread. Gone was the smile he wore, just below his black mustache, on Oct. 10, when Chávez – fresh off his reelection victory – designated him as vice president. Maduro, who already served as the government’s foreign affairs minister, will hold both posts. “Take a look at where Nicolás is headed. Nicolás the bus driver. He used to drive buses. How they used to make fun of him,” said Chávez.

Since first falling ill, Chávez hasn’t missed an opportunity to recall his foreign affairs minister’s modest beginnings. He likes to talk about how Maduro never went to university, about how he worked as a driver for the “metro-busses,” which operate as part of the Caracas Metro system. What Chávez doesn’t talk much about is Maduro’s tenure as a union organizer within that same company.

Natural leadership capabilities

The president insists that Maduro, despite his humble background, is one Venezuela’s “most capable” young leaders, someone who is ready to guide the government forward “with a strong hand, with vision, with his talent for relating to people, his charisma, his intelligence, with the knowledge of international affairs he has acquired, and with his natural leadership abilities.”

Maduro, 50, has grown up with Chavez’s “revolution.” He first delved into politics while still in high school, as an activist in a group known as the Socialist League. In the 1990s he began working as a labor organizer. From there he became involved in the Bolivarian Revolutionary Movement 200, or MBR-200, the first political party Chávez founded. One of his first tasks was to set up a worker movement capable of challenging the then-powerful Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (CTV), which remains to this day in the hands of the opposition.

Maduro went on to become a member of the National Constituent Assembly, which, in 1999, drafted Venezuela’s current Constitution. For a few months in early 2006 he served as president of the Assembly before agreeing to work as Chávez’ foreign affairs minister. Maduro has been faithful in that role to the “anti-imperialist” discourse of the president, taking a hostile attitude toward the United States while defending regimes like that of Muammar Gadhafi, the fallen ex-leader of Libya, or of Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

During the time Chávez spends receiving treatment in Havana, Cuba, Maduro will be in charge of the Venezuelan presidency, just as he was during Chávez’s most recent trip there. If Chávez dies in the coming weeks and thus cannot complete his current term – his third – Maduro will take over as president until the term expires, on Jan. 10.

If Chávez dies after Jan. 10, the day he will be sworn in for this fourth term, the presidency – as the Constitution dictates – will go temporarily to Diosdado Cabello, the current head of the National Assembly. Cabello must then organize new elections. Chávez, should that scenario arise, would like Nicolás Maduro to run as the candidate for the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV). From there it would be up to Venezuela’s chavistas themselves to decide if they’re willing to shift their votes over to Maduro and let the former bus driver take the wheel of the revolution for the next six years.

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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