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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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