Updated Tuesday, December 11, 2012 at 03:58 PM
He once drove a bus across the gritty streets of Venezuela’s capital, Caracas, while rising through the ranks of the trade-union movement.
Now Nicolas Maduro, Venezuela’s tall, broad-shouldered, 50-year-old vice president, has been anointed as the possible successor to President Hugo Chávez, should Chávez’s recurring cancerous tumor force him from power.
The president’s decision to name Maduro as his heir astonished the oil-rich country, where many people have become accustomed to viewing Chávez as a messiahlike leader with no equal.
But in a dramatic televised address Saturday, Chávez extolled Maduro as having the “heart of a man of the people.”
With Maduro seated at his left, Chávez said he had proved his mettle by loyally serving the government for years, the past six as foreign minister, hopscotching the globe.
“He is a complete revolutionary, a man of great experience despite his youth, with great dedication and capacity for work,” Chávez said.
Political analysts said the announcement appeared designed with two purposes in mind: to signal Chávez’s strong support for one man, and to quell Maduro’s rivals.
Twenty-seven hours later, early Monday, Chávez boarded a flight to Cuba, where he is to undergo his fourth operation in 18 months on the stubborn cancer that has stricken his pelvic region.
“He has to make sure those inside will respect him, that he is able to control and tame the internal monsters,” Luis Vicente Leon, who runs the Datanalisis polling firm in Caracas, said of Chávez. “There are divisions in Chávismo (the Chávez movement), and strong ones, and they can be dangerous in the future if not managed.”
Leon said that in Maduro, the president has a time-tested leader who has risen from street-level socialist activist to president of the National Assembly to foreign minister, a post he continues to hold. In October, Chávez named Maduro his vice president, giving him even more prominence in a government where Cabinet members are juggled and ousted frequently.
“Look where Nicolas is going, the bus driver,” Chávez said at the time.
Chávez had other choices — his older brother, Adan, who introduced him to radical politics; his former vice president, Elias Jaua, a former university activist; and the president of the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello, a former military man and coup plotter whose name means “God-given hair.”
Leon, of Datanalisis, said Maduro makes the most sense.
“I’d say he’s the best option,” Leon said. “He’s a negotiator, a political operator, infinitely more open than the others, more moderate. He’s in the middle between the most radical and most moderate groups.”