Venezuela Remembers Chavez, Inaugurates His Ally

Host Scott Simon speaks with NPR's Juan Forero about Venezuela's mourning period for its late president, Hugo Chavez.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

GROUP: (Singing in foreign language)

SIMON: Venezuelans said goodbye to Hugo Chavez yesterday, the colorful, bombastic, beloved and feared leader who brought socialism and, many say, authoritarianism to his nation.

PRESIDENT NICOLAS MADURO: (Foreign language spoken)

SIMON: Nicolas Maduro praised Chavez, as he took the oath of office and assumed the presidency. Mr. Maduro is a former bus driver and union leader. He had been at Chavez's side for 20 years. NPR's Juan Forero has more for us from Caracas. Juan, thanks for being with us.

JUAN FORERO, BYLINE: Thank you.

SIMON: And tell us about Nicolas Maduro's inauguration.

FORERO: Well, the country was focused on two men yesterday. First, it was Hugo Chavez - and he was glorified all day - and then there's Maduro. He was sort of the MC for the whole thing. So, in the morning, Maduro eulogized Chavez, saying he was something of a Christ-like figure - this was at the funeral - and that he was a savior for Venezuelans, so forth. And then in the evening, Maduro was inaugurated in a packed congressional hall. And now he is the leader of Venezuela, which is one of the world's great oil powers.

SIMON: Tell us more about Nicolas Maduro. Inevitably, people point out that he's a former bus driver, but I bet it's been a few years since he's actually been at the wheel.

FORERO: Yes. Well, Nicolas Maduro came from the slums of Caracas, and he did drive a bus. That was a long, long time ago. And then later, he became a union organizer. He started to get involved in politics, though, in the early '90s when Hugo Chavez became a household name. This was after Chavez, as a military officer, attempted an overthrow of the government. And then during Chavez's presidency, which began in 1999, Maduro became one of the most visible Chavistas. He's been head of the congress, he was a foreign minister. And lastly, he was the vice president.

SIMON: Is it possible, Juan, as close as Maduro and Chavez have been, that different political circumstances and environment might lead Maduro to take at least a slightly different direction?

FORERO: Well, I think he'll follow Chavez. In fact, he says that what Chavez has done here in Venezuela and his grand designs will continue. That means in general, a lot of nationalism, a heavy state control of the economy. It means nationalization of farms and businesses. And it's also meant working with other countries to counter the United States. Remember that under Chavez, Venezuela has been friends with countries like Libya under Moammar Gadhafi, with Syria, with Iran. And in fact, at yesterday's funeral, Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was here and so was Alexander Lukashenko from Belarus, a country the U.S. says is Europe's last dictatorship.

SIMON: Nicolas Maduro didn't seem to be concealing his feelings about the United States this week.

FORERO: No. Actually, all week Maduro has said quite a lot about the U.S. On Tuesday, Chavez was dying and Maduro gave a rambling speech in which he implied that the country's historic enemy - by which he means the United States - had a hand in Chavez's death. This was kind of shocking. But he said that Chavez was infected by his adversaries with cancer. And he also spoke about how elites were ruling the United States and that they needed to show more respect for Latin America. It was pretty fire and brimstone revolutionary rhetoric.

SIMON: And, Juan, how do you think the Obama administration views this?

FORERO: Well, the United States had been hopeful that it would improve relations with Venezuela. And there was an initiative late last year after Chavez had won re-election but when he was very sick. The United States began an effort to try to talk to the Chavez government. And there had been some contacts. And Maduro had even spoken on the phone with the State Department's top Latin America officer. But the latest comments by Maduro didn't help. The U.S. sent a very low-level delegation to Chavez's funeral. It was a former congressman and also a current congressman from Brooklyn, and that was about it.

SIMON: So, Nicolas Maduro is now president. What happens next politically in Venezuela?

FORERO: Well, there's going to be an election. Electoral authorities are set to announce when an election takes place. But it could happen within 30 days. And a snap election is supposed to benefit Maduro because his government will likely be riding high in the short term because of the outpouring of grief for Chavez. In other words, a sympathy vote helps. And one of the country's more respected pollster's data analysis says that in a vote Maduro would win and he'd win pretty handily.

SIMON: Who would likely be his opponent?

FORERO: It's going to be a guy named Henrique Capriles. He's a 40-year-old governor. He ran against Chavez in October and lost. But he's been an effective campaigner. He ran a smart, effective campaign against Chavez. He lost though, and then in December, the opposition lost several governorships. It seems to me that they're in quite a bind right now. And that's not good, because the state has the money, they have control of a huge media apparatus. It's a very potent machine, I think. And it looks like now it'll be put to Maduro's use. And if Maduro wins, it means he'll be in office another six years.

SIMON: NPR's Juan Forero in Caracas. Thanks so much.

FORERO: Thank you.

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