IN THE weeks leading up to his mentor’s death, Venezuela’s vice-president Nicolas Maduro’s imitations of president Hugo Chávez became ever more apparent.
He has taken on many of Chávez’s vocal tics and speech rhythms, and has eagerly repeated the slogan “Yo soy Chávez” (“I am Chávez”) to crowds of supporters.
He has also mimicked the late president’s favourite themes – belittling the opposition and warning of mysterious plots to destabilise the country, even implying that the United States was behind the terminal cancer which claimed the life of the 58-year-old president last week.
Maduro, 50, has also adopted the president’s clothes, walking beside his coffin in an enormous procession last week wearing a windbreaker with the national colours of yellow, blue and red, as Chávez often did.
But now Chávez is gone, the big question being raised here is whether Maduro, his chosen successor, will continue to mirror the president and his unconventional governing style – or veer off in his own direction.
“He can’t just stand there and say: ‘I am the Mini-Me of Chávez and now you have to follow me,’” said Maxwell A Cameron, of the University of British Columbia, in Vancouver.
The puzzlement over what sort of leader Maduro will make extends to Washington, where US policy-makers have been sounding him out for months – years even – to determine whether he might provide an opening for closer ties between the two nations.
US officials say that Chávez, despite his very public denunciations of Washington, worked behind the scenes to keep trade relations between the two countries, especially in the oil sector, strong.
They recalled how Chávez once picked up the phone and dialled a US diplomat to talk policy – an odd move for a leader who more than once barred American ambassadors from Caracas and regularly denounced Washington and its leaders.
“The United States needs to fix this,” Chávez said during the call, which concerned the ousting of the Honduran president in 2009. “You are the only ones who can.”
Beneath the bluster, American diplomats and analysts said, Chávez could be a pragmatist, albeit a sometimes bombastic one, and they hope Maduro will prove even more pragmatic.
“I know Nicolas Maduro well,” said William D Delahunt, a former Massachusetts member of the US Congress. “I know he’s a pragmatist.”
The US reached out to Maduro in November to gauge interest in improving the relationship. He responded positively, and the two nations held three informal meetings in Washington, the last one taking place after it was clear that Chávez’s illness was severe.
“Maduro is just beginning to govern and create his own identity,” said a US state department official. “I don’t believe we had ever concluded one way or another whether he was a moderating influence. Our effort to reach out and create a more productive relationship was not based on a belief that he would be easier to deal with necessarily.”
Most diplomats and political analysts agree that the start of the post-Chávez landscape looked bleak; Maduro accused the US of plotting against Venezuela and expelled two American military attachés. But some observers saw the moves as a calculated attempt by Maduro to unify a traumatised populace bracing for Chávez’s death, appeal to the president’s supporters and propel his own chances of winning an election to succeed him.
“Maduro has to be careful about every step he takes, and every word he utters about the United States,” said one senior official who is closely watching developments. “How he is going to handle that pressure is the big unknown. We’re about to find out.”
Recently, Maduro has shown himself as a hard-liner, lashing out at his political enemies and lambasting Henrique Capriles, the state governor he is expected to face in the election, for his recent trip to New York.
Among oil executives and analysts, there was cautious optimism that Chávez’s death could soften the hostility his government had toward foreign investment in exploration and refining.“It makes sense that Maduro will be more pragmatic to get the country going,” said Jorge R Pinon, former president of Amoco Oil Latin America. He said he had talked with several oil executives and had come away surprised by their optimism.
“Industry executives believe that there is a high probability that a Maduro administration will be a bit more realistic on what is needed to increase the country’s oil production,” Pinon added, “and change the investment model to attract more foreign investment.”
On the streets, the vast majority of Chávez supporters say they will vote for Maduro, often for the simple reason that Chávez told them to before he succumbed to cancer. At the procession on Wednesday, some chanted as the coffin passed: “Chávez, I swear it, I will vote for Maduro!”
But there are some Chávez loyalists who say they are unhappy with Maduro – at times for reasons that illuminate the drawbacks inherent in his political mimicry.
In the eastern city of Cumana last week, some ardent Chávez supporters said they found Maduro’s constant attacks on the political opposition too jarring – a startling assertion, since Maduro uses virtually identical language to the phrases popularised by Chávez, repeating the same insults and put-downs, calling his opponents “good-for-nothings” and accusing them of selling out Venezuela to the United States.
But coming from Maduro, the same words seem to have a different impact. “I don’t like Maduro because I feel that he does things that incite hatred,” said Luis Marcano, 67, an unemployed cook in Cumana.
Maduro’s main rival, Capriles, is a baseball-loving state governor from a wealthy family who models his economic and social manifesto on booming Brazil.
Maduro, whose father was involved in left-wing politics and comes from a more working class background, became a political activist as a young man, joining a group called the “Socialist League”, travelling to Cuba at one point for political training. Back in Caracas, he took a job as a bus driver and then shifted to trade union activities.
Eventually, he became involved with Chávez, who staged a failed coup in 1992. Maduro fought to have Chávez released from prison and then worked on his first presidential campaign in 1998. He became a legislator and then president of the National Assembly.
He later served six years as Chávez’s foreign minister before he was named vice-president following the president’s re-election in October. During that long career by Chavez’s side, Maduro earned a reputation as an agile survivor of the inner circle, where absolute loyalty was a prerequisite.
“Nicolas Maduro is a soldier that has to obey orders, just like any other,” said Rommel Salazar, 40, a teacher and musician in Cumana. “I will vote for him because I must obey Chávez’s instructions.”
But he warned that if Maduro does not adhere to the line set by Chávez, he would be held accountable: “He will
have nailed himself to the cross.”