Waiting to See if a ‘Yes Man’ Picked to Succeed Chávez Might Say Something Else
Published: December 22, 2012

CARACAS, Venezuela — Nicolás Maduro, the handpicked successor of Venezuela’s ailing president, Hugo Chávez, stood on a stage this month and gave a barn burner of a speech in classic Chávez style. He shouted until his voice gave out, swore an oath of loyalty to the revolution and blasted its opponents. But when the crowd started to chant his name, he quickly cut them off, shouting into the microphone: “Chávez! Chávez! Chávez!”
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One thing Mr. Maduro has certainly learned in his years at Mr. Chávez’s side: do not outshine the boss.

That remains true even with Mr. Chávez, 58, in delicate health in Cuba after surgery for cancer, and even after Mr. Chávez told the nation that if illness prevents him from governing, Mr. Maduro, 50, currently the vice president, should lead in his place.

“He’s known as a yes man, and he’s somebody that has never shown an independent streak,” said David Smilde, a senior fellow of the Washington Office on Latin America, a research organization. “That’s what has been key for him, always put the light on Chávez.”

But for all Mr. Maduro’s faithfulness, some see signs that he may be a different sort of leader, someone more moderate and willing to negotiate than the combative Mr. Chávez. Not only could that open up the possibility of dialogue with the political opposition inside the country, but it could also mean a softening of Venezuela’s strident foreign policy and its antagonistic relationship with the United States.

“He is a moderate man, a pragmatic man,” said María Emma Mejía, a former Colombian foreign minister who worked closely with Mr. Maduro when she was secretary-general of Unasur, an organization of South American nations. She credited him with helping to improve Venezuela’s relations with Colombia after years of tension. “He is not dogmatic in a way that rejects other people’s positions,” she added.

Still, others say that he has adhered to Mr. Chávez’s policies so closely for so long that it is hard to know what his own choices would be — if he even has the latitude to make them.

A former bus driver and transit union leader, Mr. Maduro has been a supporter of Mr. Chávez at least since the aftermath of Mr. Chávez’s failed 1992 coup. He became a legislator when Mr. Chávez became president in 1999, then helped write a new Constitution, and by 2005 he had become the head of the National Assembly. He was made foreign minister in 2006 and continues in that post today.

He often travels with Mr. Chávez, and in the last year and a half, as Mr. Chávez has spent weeks in Cuba receiving treatment for cancer, Mr. Maduro was often there with him. After Mr. Chávez was elected to a new six-year term in October, he made Mr. Maduro his vice president.

That is a record of unusual constancy in a government with a merry-go-round of ministers who come and go at Mr. Chávez’s whim, often shunted aside for displeasing their boss or for showing a taste for the spotlight.

“He was able to be in the government, never threaten Chávez, never be marginalized, and it will be interesting to see what happens when he actually has to have an independent voice,” Mr. Smilde said.

A former South American diplomat who met often with Mr. Maduro in recent years said that more than most foreign ministers, Mr. Maduro seemed held back by his president’s micromanagement.

“I always saw him as being glued to Chávez,” the ex-diplomat said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the topic. “I always saw him as a messenger, and I never had a signal that would make me think he was a leader. But I think he’s learned a lot from Chávez, being so close.”

Now Mr. Maduro needs to win over the party faithful, who have a deep emotional connection with Mr. Chávez and often blame his lieutenants for the inefficiency and corruption that bedevil the government.

And while Mr. Chávez can give him his political blessing, he cannot give him his charisma. Mr. Maduro has been very much in the public eye since Mr. Chávez left for surgery in Cuba, often speaking before large crowds of loyalists. Early on, with emotions high over the president’s condition, his audience responded. But last week, as Mr. Maduro spoke at oath-taking ceremonies for newly elected governors, his speeches were often greeted with polite applause rather than full-throated devotion.

“I don’t see Maduro as a presidential candidate,” said Carlos Bolívar, 40, a street vendor in Caracas who supports Mr. Chávez. “He doesn’t have the skill. He’s too sealed up.”

But, he added, “If that’s what the president says, we have to accept it.”

Mr. Maduro grew up in Caracas in what a friend said was a family of modest means. His father was involved in left-wing politics and the labor movement. As a youth, Mr. Maduro became active in left-wing politics, too.

After high school he went to Cuba for political training, then returned and eventually went to work as a bus driver.

Fairly or not, that job has often defined him. Mr. Maduro’s critics sometimes dismiss him as unqualified to hold higher office. Mr. Chávez mocked that perception in October when he announced Mr. Maduro’s appointment as vice president, saying, “Look where Nicolás has gotten to, the bus driver,” he said. “How they have made fun of him.”

But the friend said that Mr. Maduro did not stay a bus driver for long (the job does not even appear on his résumé, which is posted on the Foreign Ministry’s Web site) and that he soon went to work at the union that represented transit workers.

After the failed coup that landed Mr. Chávez in prison in 1992, Mr. Maduro worked in Mr. Chávez’s movement. At that time he also got involved with the woman who would become his longtime partner, Cilia Flores, a young lawyer who was working to free Mr. Chávez from prison.

Ms. Flores is now the attorney general, making the pair one of the premier power couples of Mr. Chávez’s movement.

Friends and other diplomats describe Mr. Maduro as amiable, a man who laughs loudly, who likes to eat submarine sandwiches and overfilled arepas, who enjoys cigars and baseball.

But he also has a mystical side. He has been a follower of the late Indian guru Sathya Sai Baba. Mr. Maduro and Ms. Flores visited the guru in India in 2005. A photograph on a Sai Baba Web site records the visit, showing Mr. Maduro crouched at the feet of the orange-clad guru. A friend confirmed the visit, which was also reported at the time in El Nacional, a local newspaper, and said that Mr. Maduro had kept a picture of the guru in his office.

As foreign minister, Mr. Maduro has faithfully pursued Mr. Chávez’s goal of moving Venezuela outside the orbit of the United States, forging strong relationships with China and Russia and defying attempts by the United States to isolate countries like Iran and Syria. He has also helped build alliances with other Latin American countries aimed at reducing the influence of the United States in the region. He is seen as being close to Cuban government officials.

But it is not clear what path Mr. Maduro would follow on his own. As a diplomat and former union leader, he is seen as appreciating the value of negotiation.

Yet many veteran Venezuelan diplomats also blame him for weakening the country’s diplomatic corps, arguing that before he took over the Foreign Ministry, prospective career employees took the equivalent of a Civil Service test and went through extensive training. Critics say that Mr. Maduro discarded that system and that new employees were judged instead by their loyalty to Mr. Chávez.

“The diplomatic profession was politicized in the extreme,” said Eloy Torres, a former diplomat who now teaches at Santa María University in Caracas. “Today there are no more professionals; there are propagandists of the revolutionary process.”

Within Mr. Chávez’s movement, Mr. Maduro stands at the head of a faction of lifetime leftists committed to the goal of transforming Venezuela into a socialist society.

His main rival for power appears to be Diosdado Cabello, the head of the National Assembly. Mr. Cabello, a former officer who served in the army with Mr. Chávez, is considered the leader of a more conservative wing within the government, with strong roots in the military.

Since Mr. Chávez left for his most recent surgery in Cuba, Mr. Maduro and Mr. Cabello have frequently appeared together, following the president’s dictum that unity must be maintained.

But there are other factions and competing interests in Mr. Chávez’s movement, and if he dies, many question whether Mr. Maduro will be able to hold it together.

A version of this article appeared in print on December 23, 2012, on page A6 of the New York edition with the headline: Waiting to See if a ‘Yes Man’ Picked to Succeed