When Needed, Ex-Bus Driver Could Succeed Chavez

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez won't be back for Thursday's inauguration. He's too sick after undergoing surgery for cancer in Cuba. If, in the end, he doesn't return, Chavez has said his successor should be Nicolas Maduro, who went from bus driver to union leader to vice president.

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Venezuela's Hugo Chavez will not make it to his own presidential inauguration today. He's still recovering after undergoing another round of cancer surgery in Cuba. If, in the end, Chavez does not return, he has said his successor should be his vice president, a man who's gone from being a bus driver to union leader, to becoming the heir apparent for the nation's top job.

NPR's Juan Forero has this profile of him.

JUAN FORERO, BYLINE: One of the distinguishing features of Nicolas Maduro is his unbending loyalty to Hugo Chavez, readily apparent in a speech he gave last month praising Chavez, right after the ailing leader had flown to Havana for his latest cancer surgery.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

VICE PRESIDENT NICOLAS MADURO: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: Unable to hold back tears, Maduro said Chavez would always have the people at his side.

Maduro, of course, is one of El Comandante's most disciplined followers. In an interview a week ago on state television, Maduro said he had no thirst for power.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV INTERVIEW)

MADURO: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: I have no personal ambitions of any kind, he added. I'm foreign minister because Chavez had that job for me. And if he wants me to one day drive a bus again, I'll do that, too.

But the reality is that Chavez is battling for his life. He's so incapacitated by his latest operation in Cuba that he won't be back to Venezuela today for his own inauguration. The Supreme Court said yesterday that's OK. Chavez can return to be sworn in when he's well enough.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FORERO: But there are many Venezuelans watching Maduro give nationally broadcast messages who assume he will lead the country one day soon.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

MADURO: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: He's the official who most often has gone on national television to provide details about Chavez's health. And he's frequently seen criticizing the opposition, which argues that Chavez can't miss his inauguration and still be president.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

MADURO: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: Those who know Maduro well describe a man who grew up in a working-class neighborhood with a thirst for learning about the world, about government.

Ismael Garcia remembers campaigning for Chavez, with Maduro at his side back in 1998.

ISMAEL GARCIA: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: Garcia says Maduro, who didn't go to college, wanted to learn about history in their long drives into the countryside.

Maduro also became a voracious reader, while rising through the ranks of the president's movement, Chavismo. He played a key role in writing the new constitution. But it was as foreign minister - a post he still holds - where Maduro made his mark - so says his old friend, Vladimir Villegas, a former deputy foreign minister.

VLADIMIR VILLEGAS: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: He's best interpreted what Chavez wants in his foreign policy, Villegas says.

That policy, though, has been worrisome to the United States. It includes building tight links with countries like Syria and Iran, which the Obama administration wants to isolate.

Michael Shifter, a policy analyst in Washington, says that Maduro is strongly ideological - close to Communist Cuba, fearful of American motives. But he says that a Maduro government could have a more pragmatic relationship with Washington. Shifter says that's because Maduro has long been known as a negotiator.

MICHAEL SHIFTER: He's somebody who is open, who you can talk to, and I think the United States would be interested in pursuing a channel of communication with the Venezuelan government. And Maduro would be seen as somebody they could talk to.

FORERO: The big question observers are asking themselves, though, is if Maduro could replace the larger-than-life president. Could he hold the disparate factions of Chavismo together?

Charles Shapiro is a former American ambassador here, and knows both Maduro and Chavez.

CHARLES SHAPIRO: And there's no one, as far as I'm aware, who can rival him at all, who has the same profile, and no one who has the same charisma or abilities to communicate with the base of support of Chavez.

FORERO: Shapiro says it's too soon to know if you can have Chavismo without Chavez.

Juan Forero, NPR News, Caracas.

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