When President Hugo Chávez announced that he was traveling once more to Cuba for another surgery to battle cancer, he left Venezuela in the hands of one of his most trusted confidants.
Nicolás Maduro, Venezuela’s vice president and successor to the Bolivarian Revolution if Chávez should die, is a trusted and faithful ambassador of Chávez's views, but could not be more different than the Andean nation’s leader in character.
Quiet and soft-spoken with a bushy mustache, the former bus driver and trade unionist became close with the Venezuelan president when a young Chávez was serving time in a prison for an attempted coup against the presidency of Carlos Andrés Pérez in 1992. Maduro began campaigning for Chávez’s release –which happened in 1994– and eventually met his wife Cilia Flores, who was on Chávez’s defense team.
“Flores now serves as the country's attorney general,” Reuters reported. “She and Maduro are seen as a 'power couple' in government circles."
In 2000 Maduro was elected to the country’s National Assembly, where he gained the favor of other so-called Chavistas for his defense of the president’s policies and quickly became a respected member of Chávez’s inner circle. His trade union background also posited him as strong symbol for Chávez’s base of working-class supporters.
Maduro then served as foreign minister (2006-2012), becoming a staunch supporter of Chávez’s socialist world view and anti-American rhetoric. He has played an important role in Venezuela distancing itself from the U.S. and moving toward closer ties with Cuba, Iran and Russia, among other nations.
With Maduro as foreign minister, the country also forged and maintained ties with beleaguered Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad as well as firm tight alliances with other left-leaning Latin American nations such as Bolivia and Ecuador.
He is, however, considered more of a pragmatist than the fiery Chávez, and is noted as a key player in relieving the long-strained tensions with neighboring Colombia.
"He's the smoothest and least prickly of all the top Chavistas to deal with," one European envoy said, according to Reuters.
Chávez anointed Maduro as his vice president after his election victory in October and named his successor to the presidency last Saturday.
"Look where he is going, Nicolás the bus driver... How they mocked him, the bourgeoisie," Chávez said of Maduro, according to the BBC.
With Chávez’s health failing, Maduro’s appointment as successor shows the faith the Venezuelan leader has in the 50-year syndicalist to win a snap election if he were to die.
Maduro’s appointment has also sidelined the political ambitions of a number of Chávez insiders, first and foremost of which is Diosdado Cabello. Widely regarded before Maduro’s appointment as the man who would fill in for the ailing Chávez, Cabello is a military man with support from the country’s armed forces and business sector.
Cabello, however, is not as well-liked among the masses as Maduro is. He immediately pledged support to Maduro and Chávez after the announcement.
If Chávez does die, Venezuelan law states that a snap election must be held. Maduro, who would run for Chávez’s position, would most likely come up against challenger Henrique Capriles. Handily beaten by Chávez in the October presidential election, Capriles now leads the latest opinion polls over Maduro.
Some analysts, however, see the tide shifting to Maduro after the announcement that he would be his successor.
"All of the people who are potential successors of Chávez are people who are polarizing and confrontational," said Michael Shifter, president of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue think tank.