“Campaigns are campaigns,” Meeks said of Maduro’s anti-U.S. rhetoric. “In my brief conversation with him [at the funeral], he was very open to the idea of better ties.”
Charles Shapiro, the U.S. ambassador to Venezuela from 2002-2004, disputes that view. He recalls when then-legislator Maduro created a stir by passing around a video he claimed showed the regional CIA chief arriving in Venezuela. It turned out to be a U.S. business executive interested in buying a paper company, Shapiro said.
“My sense is that Maduro is deeply suspicious of the United States, of capitalism and of the international democratic community,” Shapiro said. “The idea that he would be a pragmatist would surprise me.”
Maduro was born in Caracas in 1962 to a Colombian mother. More interested in activism than the classroom, he left college without a degree and worked as a bodyguard and bus driver before becoming a union organizer for the Caracas Metro system. His political path ultimately led him to Chávez, the young military officer who tried to overthrow President Carlos Andrés Pérez in 1992. That’s where Maduro also met his longtime partner Cilia Flores, who is also the attorney general.
When Chávez won the presidency in 1998, Maduro was by his side and went on to help rewrite the constitution and eventually become the head of the National Assembly. But he became an international figure in 2006, when Chávez tapped him to be foreign minister. There, Maduro helped oversee the creation of regional blocs designed to mitigate U.S. influence in the region.
As foreign minister, he wasn’t known for being a consensus builder, said Eloy Torres, a career-diplomat from 1984-2012 who worked extensively with Maduro.
“He doesn’t look for agreements unless he absolutely has to,” Torres said. “And now he’s a prisoner to his own rhetoric and the radical groups that are supporting him.”
On the campaign trail Maduro has one distinct advantage: Chávez’s blessing. On Dec. 8, shortly before travelling to Cuba for his final round of cancer treatment, Chávez asked the nation to rally behind his recently appointed vice president if new elections were triggered. On the stump, Maduro has been showing that video. He has called himself Chávez’s “son” and told crowds that the late leader appeared to him as a bird and urged him to victory.
“Maduro is invoking Chávez’s name every chance he gets,” Torres said. “It’s as if the dead leader is his passport to victory.”
The day after Maduro kicked off his campaign in Barinas, Chávez’s home state, Capriles followed. The size and energy of the crowds in the government stronghold surprised many.
Capriles told the throngs that he “respected” their hometown hero but that Maduro wasn’t entitled to the presidency.
“Leadership is not inherited,” Capriles said. “You have to sweat for it and build it alongside the people.”
As the governor of Miranda, Venezuela’s second-most populous state, Capriles has honed a reputation as a workaholic willing to cross party lines to get things done. During last year’s campaign, he was often charged with being too conciliatory.