When Honduran President Manuel Zelaya was ousted in 2009 and took temporary refuge in Nicaragua, it was Maduro who rushed to his aid. The two men were often seen tooling around in Zelaya’s white jeep.
It was during this time that Maduro consolidated his ties with Cuba. Analysts and opposition leaders have portrayed Maduro as the candidate preferred by Raúl and Fidel Castro, and the man who is most likely to continue the subsidies and economic support that the island depends on.
While Maduro was certainly a capable foreign minister, he was never a stellar one, said Agustín Blanco Muñoz, a political science professor at the Central University who has interviewed Chávez extensively.
“He just followed the orders of President Chávez and never took any initiative,” Muñoz said. “He’s basically stuck to the anti-Yankee, anti-imperialist, socialist line…There was no reason to be a particularly talented foreign minister.”
Where Maduro has shown a talent, is keeping power in a volatile administration. Chávez burned through five foreign ministers — one only lasted 10 months — before keeping Maduro in the post for six years.
In October, shortly after winning the presidential election, Chávez moved him into the vice presidency. In December, before traveling to Cuba, Chávez asked the country to hold new elections if he didn’t survive and to rally around Maduro.
“I think Chávez chose Maduro because he is a civilian, a man coming from the left and because he’s known outside the country,” said Margarita López, the head of the Development Studies program at the Central University of Venezuela. “Here’s a man ideologically aligned with the ideals of [Chávez’s] Socialism of the 21st Century.”
Stocky and mustachioed, Maduro is quick to flash a smile and is thought of as the laid-back member of the presidential team.
“Maduro is far more interesting in person than he has come across in his public appearances,” said Oscar Schemel, with the Hinterlaces polling firm, who has met the vice president in social settings. “He’s a good negotiator and is very likeable and personable.”
A December poll by Hinterlaces gave Maduro a favorability rating of 59 percent, compared to 44 percent for National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello, also considered a likely successor.
Several sources also mentioned Maduro’s unusual religious background. Maduro and his partner have been followers of the Indian guru Sathya Sai Baba. The organization’s website says the Maduro and Flores “were blessed with a private audience with the Swami” in 2005. It also has a picture of the political power couple crouched at the feet of the orange-clad mystic.
Calls and emails to the vice presidency seeking comment were not returned.
On the streets of Caracas, emotions are mixed. While many appreciate Maduro’s loyalty, others accuse him of aping Chávez.
“We don’t know who the man is,” said Teobaldo Morales, a 43-year-old doctor. “He seems to be reading from the script they gave him. When I hear him I feel like I’m listening to Chávez.”