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Venezuela’s Chávez starts new term, but VP Maduro holds reins

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.

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.”