Nicolas Maduro, loyal spokesman, to succeed Chavez

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) -- 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.

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Chavez's cancer fight

-- 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.

-- July 4, 2011: Chavez returns to Venezuela, but later travels to Cuba periodically for chemotherapy and medical tests.

-- Sept. 23, 2011: Chavez says he completed chemotherapy and calls the treatment successful. Says later that tests show no reappearance of cancer cells.

-- 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.

-- 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."

-- March 24, 2012: Chavez travels to Cuba to begin radiation therapy.

-- April 14, 2012: Chavez travels to Cuba for second round of radiation treatment.

-- April 26, 2012: Chavez returns to Venezuela following cancer treatment in Cuba, saying his latest round of therapy was successful.

-- July 9, 2012: Chavez says at a news conference that tests show he is "totally free" of cancer.

-- Oct. 7, 2012: Chavez wins re-election to another six-year term, beating challenger Henrique Capriles.

-- Nov. 27, 2012: Chavez says 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."

-- Dec. 9, 2012: Chavez announces that a 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.

-- Dec. 10, 2012: Chavez travels to Cuba and undergoes surgery the next day.

-- 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.

-- Feb. 13, 2013: Maduro says Chavez is undergoing "extremely complex and tough" treatments.

-- Feb. 15, 2013: Government shows first photos of Chavez in more than two months, says he is breathing through a tracheal tube.

-- Feb. 18, 2013: Chavez returns from Cuba, tweets, "We will live and we will triumph!!" Supporters celebrate in streets. But Chavez heads immediately to a military hospital, making no public personal appearance.

-- Feb. 22, 2013: Foreign Minister Elias Jaua reads long letter from Chavez to summit of African and South American leaders.

-- March 1, 2013: Maduro says Chavez is receiving chemotherapy and "continues his battle for life." He describes the treatments as "intense and tough."

-- March 4, 2013: Communications Minister Ernesto Villegas says Chavez has "a new and severe infection" and is in a "very delicate" condition.

-- March 5, 2013: The government announces that Chavez has died.

*Source: The Associated Press

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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."

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Associated Press writers Fabiola Sanchez and Ian James contributed to this report.
 

 

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