CARACAS, Venezuela — Vice President Nicolas Maduro is taking over leadership of Hugo Chavez's political movement after the socialist leader died Tuesday at age 58 following a nearly two-year bout with cancer. Maduro now faces the daunting task of rallying support in a deeply divided country while maintaining unity within his party's ranks.
Maduro decidedly lacks the vibrant personality that made Chavez a one-man political phenomenon in Venezuela, but he has the advantage of being Chavez's hand-picked successor.
The mustachioed 50-year-old former bus driver won Chavez's trust as a loyal spokesman who echoed the president's stances. How Maduro will lead in Chavez's absence remains to be seen, although he's widely known as both a skilled negotiator and a leader who views upholding his mentor's legacy as his personal crusade and responsibility.
One of the biggest tasks Maduro will likely face is attempting to hold together a diverse movement that includes radical leftists, moderates and many current and former military officers.
Analysts have speculated that differences might emerge between factions led by Maduro and Diosdado Cabello, the influential National Assembly president who is thought to wield power within the military. But thus far both men have denied such divisions and vowed to remain united.
After Chavez's Dec. 11 cancer surgery, Maduro stepped up his public appearances to fill the void, providing regular updates on the president's condition, calling for unity among allies and lambasting the opposition.
Maduro also showed how he could attempt to continue Chavez's socialist-inspired project. Speaking at one December rally, he vowed in vague terms to maintain policies that have angered the country's leading business federation, Fedecamaras, which was long at odds with the president.
"We aren't going to give dollars to Fedecamaras. What we're going to give them is pains, headaches with this Bolivarian Revolution," Maduro shouted, his voice hoarse. "I swear to you ... we're never going to betray the people of Venezuela!"
Chavez's deteriorating health led him on Dec. 8 to announce Maduro as his chosen successor. He said that if his illness prevented him from being sworn in on Jan. 10, government supporters should rally around Maduro and elect him president.
Maduro is expected to keep promoting programs such as free medical clinics staffed by Cuban doctors and subsidized food stores, which have endeared the president with the country's vast numbers of poor. Maduro has vowed to block a return to past policies that he said had benefited the wealthy.
"Our people will never again see the bourgeoisie plundering this country," Maduro said, adding, "Better to be dead than traitors to the people and to Chavez!"
That loyalty made Maduro a logical choice, political observers said.
"Maduro combines two characteristics that influenced Chavez in his decision to designate him as successor: first, his loyalty to the party leadership, and second, his positions in favor of popular measures," such as social programs for the poor, said Steve Ellner, a political scientist at Venezuela's University of Oriente.
In his youth, Maduro drove a bus for the Caracas Metro transit system and later became a union leader.
It's unclear when Maduro and Chavez first met. But Chavez is thought to have first gotten to know Maduro in the 1980s, when Chavez was a lieutenant colonel and began a clandestine movement of disgruntled military officers that eventually carried out a failed coup attempt in 1992. Chavez was jailed on military rebellion charges and then released in 1994 when he was pardoned.
Maduro went on to become a leading member of Chavez's nascent political movement, growing closer to the budding politician and also getting to know Cilia Flores, who is now attorney general and was Chavez's defense attorney following his arrest for the 1992 coup attempt.
After Chavez was elected president in 1998, Maduro was selected to join a special assembly to draft a new constitution. He was later elected to the National Assembly and then became president of the legislature.
Maduro was named foreign minister in 2006 and oversaw international efforts such as consolidating the regional diplomatic blocs ALBA and Unasur, strengthening relations with countries such as Russia, Iran and China, and overseeing a rapprochement with U.S.-allied Colombia. He is thought to maintain close ties with Cuba's government.
Maduro "is perceived by Chavez as a negotiator with diplomatic skills who could potentially gather the support of the different factions and keep it united in the difficult months ahead," said Diego Moya-Ocampos, an analyst with the London-based consulting firm IHS Global Insight.
"Nevertheless, he is not necessarily perceived as such within all the top ranks of the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela and the armed forces," Moya-Ocampos added.
Jennifer McCoy, a political science professor at Georgia State University, described Maduro as an easygoing man who has shown a willingness to talk with government opponents.
"He's always been someone who is easy to talk to," said McCoy, director of the Americas program at the Carter Center, which helped the Organization of American States facilitate dialogue between the government and opposition after a 2002 coup that briefly ousted Chavez.
Maduro was always willing "to discuss the issues, and I think that's really important going forward for Venezuela," McCoy said.
Before Chavez underwent his latest operation in December, he explained why he had chosen Maduro:
"He's one of the young leaders with the greatest ability to continue, if I'm unable to – God knows what he does – if I'm unable to, to continue with his firm hand, with his gaze, with his heart of a man of the people, with his gift for people, with his intelligence, with the international recognition he's earned, with his leadership, leading the presidency."
Associated Press writers Fabiola Sanchez and Ian James contributed to this report.
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June 30, 2011
Chavez says on television from Cuba that he had a cancerous tumor removed from his pelvic region. He later says the tumor extracted was the size of a baseball. <em>Caption: In this photo downloaded from the state media Cubadebate web site, Cuba's Fidel Castro, left, and his brother Cuba's President Raul Castro, right, pose for a photo with Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez in his hospital room in Havana, Cuba, Friday June 17, 2011. (AP Photo//Cubadebate)</em>
July 4, 2011
Chavez returns to Venezuela, but later travels to Cuba periodically for chemotherapy and medical tests. <em>Caption: Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez gestures after a meeting with Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Caracas, Venezuela, Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2011. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)</em>
Sept. 23, 2011
Chavez says he completed chemotherapy and calls the treatment successful. Says later that tests show no reappearance of cancer cells. <em>Caption: Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez greets supporters from a plane as he arrives to La Fria, Venezuela, Thursday Oct. 20, 2011. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)</em>
Feb. 21, 2012
Chavez says his doctors found a new lesion in the same place where the tumor was previously removed, and announces plans to return to Cuba for surgery. <em>Caption: An altar boy prays next to an image of Venezuelas President Hugo Chavez during mass supporting him in Managua, Nicaragua, Thursday March, 1, 2012. (AP Photo/Esteban Felix)</em>
Feb. 26, 2012
Chavez undergoes operation that removes the tumor from the same location in his pelvic region. Says later that follow-up tests showed the tumor was "recurrence of the initially diagnosed cancer." <em>Caption: A supporter of Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez holds up a sign that reads in Spanish "Pray for Chavez" during an event event honoring Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez at the Teresa Carreno theater in Caracas, Venezuela, Thursday, Feb. 23, 2012. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)</em>
March 24, 2012
Chavez travels to Cuba to begin radiation therapy. <em>Caption: In this photo released by Miraflores Press Office, Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez, center, and his daughter Rosa Virginia, left, review the honor guard prior to their departure to Havana, at the Simon Bolivar airport in Maiquetia, Venezuela, Saturday March 24, 2012. (AP Photo/Miraflores Press Office/Francisco Batista)</em>
April 14, 2012
Chavez travels to Cuba for second round of radiation treatment. <em>Caption: In this photo released by Miraflores Press Office, Cubas Vice President Jose Ramon Machado, left, receives Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez, center, and his daughter Rosa Virginia, right, upon their arrival at the Jose Marti International Airport in Havana, Cuba, Saturday April 14, 2012. (AP Photo/Miraflores Press Office)</em>
April 26, 2012
Chavez returns to Venezuela following cancer treatment in Cuba, saying his latest round of therapy was successful. <em>Caption: In this photo released by Miraflores Press Office, Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez, right, speaks with members of his staff including Vice President Elias Jaua, left, upon his arrival to the airport in Maiquetia near Caracas, Venezuela, Thursday, April 26, 2012. (AP Photo/Miraflores Press Office, Efrain Gonzalez)</em>
July 9, 2012
Chavez says at a news conference that tests show he is "totally free" of cancer. <em>Caption: In this July 5, 2012 file photo, Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez waves during a parade marking Independence Day in Caracas, Venezuela. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos, File)</em>
Oct. 7, 2012
Chavez wins re-election to another six-year term, beating challenger Henrique Capriles. <em>Caption: Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez greets officials after a ceremony declaring him winner of Sunday's presidential elections at the Electoral Council in Caracas, Venezuela, Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2012. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)</em>
Nov. 27, 2012
Chavez announces he will travel to Cuba for more medical treatment. He says doctors have recommended he "begin special treatment consisting of various sessions of hyperbaric oxygenation." <em>Caption: In this photo released by Miraflores Press Office, Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez holds a sword that once belonged to independence hero Simon Bolivar at a meeting with his Cabinet, at Miraflores Presidential palace in Caracas, Venezuela, Monday, Dec 10, 2012. (AP Photo/Miraflores Press Office, Marcelo Garcia)</em>
Dec. 9, 2012
Chavez announces that cancerous tumor reappeared and that he must travel to Cuba for another operation. He says the surgery could be complicated and that if he is unable to stay on as president, Vice President Nicolas Maduro should run in an election to take his place. <em>Caption: Backdropped by a portrait of independence hero Simon Bolivar, Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez talks during a press conference at the Miraflores palace in Caracas, Venezuela, Tuesday, Oct. 9, 2012. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)</em>
Dec. 10, 2012
Chavez travels to Cuba and undergoes surgery the next day. <em>Caption: In this Dec. 10, 2012 file photo released by Cuba's state newspaper Granma, Cuba's President Raul Castro, right, receives Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez at the Jose Marti International airport in Havana, Cuba. (AP Photo/Granma, File)</em>
Jan. 10, 1013
Chavez misses his scheduled swearing-in ceremony, which was indefinitely postponed by lawmakers. Supporters stage symbolic inauguration in the streets of Caracas, swearing themselves in in their leader's place. <em>Caption: In this Jan. 10, 2013 file photo, supporters of Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez carry a life-size cut out image of him during a symbolic inauguration ceremony for Chavez, who was in Cuba for cancer treatment at the time, in Caracas, Venezuela. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos, File)</em>
Jan. 20, 2013
Maduro says he is optimistic that Chavez will return to Venezuela "sooner rather than later." <em>Caption: In this Jan. 21, 2013 file photo, Venezuela's Vice President Nicolas Maduro listens a speech by Luisa Estella Morales, president of Supreme Court, during a special session marking the start of the judicial year in Caracas, Venezuela. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano, File)</em>
Jan. 22, 2013
Information Minister Ernesto Villegas says no date has been established for Chavez's return. <em>Caption: In this photo released by Miraflores Press Office, Venezuela's Communications Minister Ernesto Villegas speaks during news conference in Caracas, Venezuela, Thursday, Jan. 24, 2013. (AP Photo/Francisco Batista, Miraflores Press Office)</em>
Feb. 13, 2013
Maduro says Chavez is undergoing "extremely complex and tough" treatments. <em>Caption: Venezuela's Vice President Nicolas Maduro holds up a letter that he said it was sent by Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez to his supporters during a demonstration commemorating the anniversary of a failed coup attempt led by Chavez in 1992, in Caracas, Venezuela, Monday, Feb. 4, 2013. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)</em>
Feb. 15, 2013
Government shows first photos of Chavez in more than two months, says he is breathing through a tracheal tube. <em>Caption: In this photo released Friday, Feb. 15, 2013 by Miraflores Presidential Press Office, Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez, center, poses for a photo with his daughters, Maria Gabriela, left, and Rosa Virginia as he holds a copy of Cuba's state newspaper Granma at an unknown location in Havana, Cuba, Thursday, Feb. 14, 2013. (AP Photo/Miraflores Presidential Press Office)</em>
March 5, 2013
Vice President Nicolas Maduro announces Chavez has died. <em>FILE - In this April 13, 2010 file photo, members of the National Revolutionary Militia, also called Bolivarian militias, hold up their guns and a painting of Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez at an event marking the 9th anniversary of Chavez's return to power after a failed 2002 coup, in Caracas, Venezuela. Venezuela's Vice President Nicolas Maduro announced on Tuesday, March 5, 2013 that Chavez has died. Chavez, 58, was first diagnosed with cancer in June 2011. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos, File)</em>