CARACAS -- The day President Hugo Chávez was whisked away to Cuba for more cancer surgery, his vice president and anointed successor Nicolás Maduro broke down as he talked about his boss.
“Chávez has been a father to us,” he told a crowd, fighting back tears. “Our loyalty to Hugo Chávez goes even beyond this life.”
In a political environment where cabinet members and advisers are shuffled faster than a blackjack deck, Maduro’s loyalty has been rewarded.
On Thursday, as the ailing Chávez begins another six-year term in absentia, it’s Maduro — a former union organizer and foreign minister who has a spiritual past and close ties to Cuba — who will remain the most visible leader of this oil-rich nation.
The Supreme Court removed the last hurdles Wednesday, when it ruled that Chávez has the right to an indefinite absence as he convalesces. It also rejected demands that a delegation of doctors be sent to the island to evaluate the president’s health.
The decision shutdown those who argued that Chávez’s absence on inauguration day required National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello, another Chávez loyalist, to take the helm until the Comandante returns. If Chávez dies or steps down, however, elections will have to be called within 30 days.
Miranda Gov. Henrique Capriles, who is likely to face Maduro if new elections are triggered, said the court’s decision was politically motivated to deal with the reported Cabello-Maduro power struggle that has paralyzed the government.
“The excuses are over,” Capriles said. “Mr. Maduro, you have to step up and govern, and solve the problems of all Venezuelans now.”
Born in Caracas in 1962 to a working-class family, Maduro was a student leftist and a bus driver before becoming a union organizer for Caracas Metro workers.
José Albornoz used to run a leftist print shop, where the young Maduro ran off union pamphlets.
“He was very consistent about what he believed in,” said Albornoz, who now leads a political party at odds with the government. “He seemed to be a hard worker and was a team player.”
Maduro’s political wanderings ultimately led him to Chávez, the young military officer who was in jail after trying to overthrow President Carlos Andrés Pérez in 1992. It was at the prison that Maduro also met his longtime partner, Cilia Flores, a lawyer working on behalf of Chávez and who is now the attorney general.
When Chávez won the 1998 election, Maduro was by his side and has remained an integral part of his team ever since. In 1999, he helped rewrite the constitution; he became a member of the National Assembly in 2000 and eventually the president of the legislature. But he became known internationally in 2006, when Chávez plucked him from the job to become foreign minister.
At the time, many questioned how a former bus driver with no college degree and who speaks no second language would fit into the world of international diplomacy. But there, Maduro helped oversee the creation of regional blocs like the Union of South American Nations and the CELAC — which includes every nation in the hemisphere but the United States and Canada — to pushback against what the administration sees as undo U.S. influence in the region.