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Maduro: Little-known heir to Chavez's Venezuela


Nicolas Maduro, the hand-picked successor to Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, will now have to fill the void left by the larger-than-life leftist firebrand he loyally served for more than a decade.

Maduro began adopting the role even before Chavez's death, calling an opposition leader the "prince of the parasitic bourgeoisie," and giving rambling speeches on state-run television capped with "Viva la revolucion!"

"We swear that no little bourgeois will ever screw the people again," Maduro said during a rally last week. He has also denounced the "decadent" opposition and the US "empire," retreading political jabs Chavez had copied from ally Communist Cuba.

Before announcing the "historic tragedy" of Chavez's death at the age of 58 on Tuesday, Maduro expelled two US military attaches, accused "historical enemies" of infection Chavez with cancer and lashed out at the opposition.

The broad-shouldered former bus driver and union activist with a thick moustache was once considered a moderate figure who honed his diplomatic skills when he was foreign minister.

But the 50-year-old vice president has shown his hardcore Chavista side since he began running day-to-day operations in this OPEC member country after Chavez underwent his fourth round of cancer surgery on December 11.

"It is clear that the tactic used by Maduro is to consolidate his power," Luis Vicente Leon, director of pollsters Datanalisis, told AFP. "It is a tough tactic of radicalization and intimidation of internal and external rivals."

"The main reason for this is that he has to fill the void. In the short-term, it is important to prevent internal and external rivals from taking advantage of Chavez's absence to sow instability."

Maduro has frequently appeared on the VTV public channel, handing keys to subsidized homes to families, showing off a refurbished hospital or driving a bus being donated to university students.

But he has also taken shots at the opposition, using salty language to needle Miranda state Governor Henrique Capriles, who lost to Chavez in October and appears his most likely rival if a snap election is called.

He accused his rival of "conspiring" against Venezuela during a weekend trip by Capriles to the United States and warned that he was being monitored, going as far as giving the address of the New York apartment where he was staying.

"The decadent prince of the parasitic bourgeoisie has gone to Miami and then New York. I challenge him to refute me," Maduro said. Capriles responded with a photo on Twitter showing him visiting his young nephews.

It was the kind of class-conscious political theater mastered by Chavez, who once used his TV pulpit to call for a judge to be jailed in 2009.

Within the president's ideological fold, National Assembly speaker Diosdado Cabello, a former soldier who participated in Chavez's failed coup in 1992, is seen as Maduro's main potential rival, but both men deny any rift.

Political consultant Farith Fraija says Maduro's message has not changed from his days as a legislator and foreign minister.

"Even though I don't agree that he's from the radical wing, if he's identified as being from the radical wing, it's because his speech has always been the same," Fraija said.

In the bustling streets of Caracas, many Chavistas say Maduro is doing a good job and that they would vote for him in a snap election, but they say Chavez is the kind of leader who only comes around once in a lifetime.

Chavez, 58, forged a deep bond with the country's long neglected poor, connecting to them with his charisma and bombastic speeches while using the country's oil riches to fund popular social programs.

"I have never seen a president like this one. He is the only one who has given power to the people," said Jesus Toledo, 62, who was among a dozen retirees and workers talking under a red tent of Plaza Bolivar square, a renowned Chavista meeting point.

"I am with Maduro. Chavez said it very clearly: 'Support Maduro.'"

Critics say Maduro is the head of an illegitimate government since Chavez, who was re-elected in October, missed his swearing-in ceremony on January 10. The Supreme Court approved the delay.

"He's a bad imitation of Chavez," said Amanda Escalante, 61, a retired congress worker who had joined an opposition march on Sunday. "He has the same speech, but he hurls insults and makes threats. He's fooling the people and the world."