When Hugo Chavez urged Venezuelans in December to vote for Vice President Nicolas Maduro if Mr. Chavez became too ill to continue in office, the former bus driver and union negotiator was characterized as a committed Chavista, but decidedly more quiet and pragmatic than the boisterous and polarizing leader who was at the helm for the past 14 years.
But in the final months of Chavez's life, this soft-spoken politician made some indisputably "Chavezesque” moves in an effort to show the public that he's up to filling the iconic, polarizing leader's shoes. In the next month, ahead of a Venezuelan emergency election to pick a new president, a convincing rendition of the "I am Chavez" show will probably be delivered by Mr. Maduro to keep other Chavez stalwarts onside. Most observers believe that the politically dominant United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), founded by Chavez, will decide the winner of the election.
“He needs to show that he is … faithful to the Chavez tradition and style and that means being confrontational publicly,” said Michael Shifter, director of the Inter-American Dialogue, shortly before the announcement of Chavez's passing on Tuesday afternoon. Shifter says that Maduro has likely been trying to consolidate his support within the Chavez movement in recent months. “He has to show the base that he’s a hardcore Chavista and that he’s tough.”
On that front, Maduro has already been hard at work.
From announcing that the government was tracking opposition leader Henrique Capriles (who Maduro dubbed “the prince of Manhattan, the prince of New York” in a classic anti-imperialist jab) while Mr. Capriles traveled in the United States last week, to expelling two US Embassy officials today for reportedly attempting to destabilize Venezuela, Maduro’s actions are familiar. (The US denies that any staff is plotting against the Venezuelan government.)
"They're trying to do here what they were doing in Bolivia," Chavez said, accusing Washington of trying to oust him.
"That's enough ... from you, Yankees," Chavez said, using an expletive. Waving his fists in the air, he added: "I hold the government of the United States responsible for being behind all the conspiracies against our nations!"
Today, Maduro announced that Chavez was infected with cancer by “imperialist” enemies, something the president himself alleged last year. "We have no doubt that commander Chavez was attacked with this illness," Maduro said, noting that someday there will be scientific evidence to prove it.
When Chavez tapped Maduro as his vice president last fall there was a lot of talk about what kind of leader he would be. Javier Corrales, a political science professor at Amherst College, wrote in America’s Quarterly that Maduro was simultaneously everything that “Chavez represents, as well as its opposite.”
He is the revolution's most two-faced character. On the one hand, he is one of the most leftist and anti-imperialist figures in the PSUV – the architect of some of Venezuela's most radical foreign decisions such as close ties to Libya, Syria and Iran. On the other hand, he can be soft-spoken and conciliatory. He is the architect of the remarkable turnaround of relations with Colombia in the last two years and is the third longest-serving foreign relations minister in the Americas. He has acquired experience, and might have even learned, on the job, the importance of pragmatism. He also has a good relationship with the military, but unlike Chávez, he is not one of them.
Already the opposition has dubbed Maduro a “poor copy” of Chavez: He speaks regularly on TV, and can be longwinded. He trumpets public works projects and has been known to fire up his supporters by verbally attacking the wealthy and “bourgeois.”
Maduro publicly reveled in the opposition's poor showing in regional elections in December. In response, the opposition Democratic Unity coalition party put out a statement:
“Mr. Maduro, the country expects better from you than a bad imitation of your boss.... In his rhetoric, Maduro hides the leadership crisis in government given President Chavez's absence. He hides his weakness with shouts and threats,” the statement said. "Don't waste the opportunity to create a wide national consensus."
Mr. Shifter says that although Maduro is being publicly confrontational, in private he is quite approachable. “What is different is that he’s someone you can talk to and with Chavez that [was] impossible…. [He’ll be accessible] within the party, to the opposition, and the US."
“Maduro's a hard-liner and a man of the left, there are no doubts about that,” Shifter says. “But he’s a politician …The signs are that change is very close and he’s now positioning himself.”