Chavez's heir apparent, a favorite of Cuba

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez (R) swears in new ministers at the presidential palace in Caracas on October 13, 2012. AFP PHOTO/PRESIDENCIA

CARACAS: By picking foreign minister Nicolas Maduro as his new vice president, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has put in place a trusted heir apparent who is well-liked by his communist allies in Cuba.

Maduro, 49, was sworn in as the government's new number two on Saturday, one week after Chavez won re-election despite a strong opposition and questions over the leftist leader's health following a battle with cancer.

"Maduro's appointment was expected since last year due to (Chavez's) health situation," Ricardo Sucre, political scientist at the Central University of Venezuela, told AFP.

Maduro, a burly and mustachioed former bus driver, often visited Chavez while his mentor was being treated for cancer in Cuba after he was diagnosed with the disease in June 2011. Chavez declared himself cancer-free in July.

As the country's chief diplomat, Maduro represented Chavez at international events, like the summit of the Americas in Colombia in April, while the 58-year-old president was undergoing medical treatment.

"Look where Nicolas, the bus driver, is headed. He was a bus driver and they had mocked him," Chavez said last week when he named Maduro as his new deputy, replacing Elias Jaua.

Now Maduro holds both posts -- vice president and foreign minister.

Though the Castro brothers in Cuba appreciate Maduro, the new vice president is considered one of the moderate members of Chavez's inner circle.

"He is not loud. He appears, with his qualities as foreign minister, to be open to dialogue," Sucre said. "Plus, he is the option of the Castros."

But after 14 years of confrontation with the opposition, Maduro's appointment does not mean that the new Chavez cabinet will be more open to dialogue in the president's next six-year term, the analyst said.

During the president's absence, Maduro adopted the same anti-US rhetoric as Chavez, denouncing American "imperialism" while defending US foes such as Syria and the regime of late Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi.

As foreign minister since 2006, Maduro participated in political and economic talks with new partners such as Russia and China, and the creation of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC).

A former union leader, Maduro began his political career as legislator in 1999 as a member of the Fifth Republic Movement (MVR), a party founded by Chavez, and rose to become national assembly president in 2005 and 2006.

According to the constitution, the vice president takes the helm if the president dies, steps down or is mentally unfit in the last two years of his six-year term. But if a president is sidelined in the first four years of his mandate, new elections are called.

But analysts say Maduro's appointment also has to do with the fact that Chavez pushed several cabinet members to stand for public office in the December 16 gubernatorial elections.

"The cabinent changes have more to do with strategy for the regional elections than a change of course in the government," said Luis Vicente Leon, president of polling firm Datanalisis.

Jaua, the former vice president, will run for governor in the northern state of Miranda, facing off against Henrique Capriles, the opposition leader who lost the October 7 presidential election to Chavez after a strong campaign.

"It is a transitional cabinet in the run-up to the gubernatorial elections," said political scientist Nicmer Evans, stressing that more consequential changes will take place after the elections.

While Chavez named new ministers for the interior, agriculture and indigenous affairs, the president has yet to shake-up more crucial portfolios such as the economy and infrastructure -- weak areas for the government.

"We can't expect big changes in the way the state acts in this new Chavez period," Carlos Romero, another Central University professor, told AFP.

The Chavez government is marked by "a lot of personal rivalries, disorder, little management, lots of experimenting and the exclusion" of those opposed to Chavez, he said.





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