CARACAS (Reuters) – He uses Hugo Chavez’s bombastic language, brandishes the constitution and showers opponents with vitriol at every turn.
But Venezuelan Vice President Nicolas Maduro is struggling to replicate the extraordinary charisma of his boss, who is battling to recover from cancer surgery in Cuba.
Named as heir apparent by Chavez just before the president returned to Havana for his fourth surgery in December, the 50-year-old former bus driver has become the face of the socialist government in South America’s top oil exporter.
Though diplomats say he is easy-going in conversations behind closed doors, in public he can be just as caustic and combative as Chavez, the former soldier who has led Venezuela for the past 14 years.
Having made few notable decisions so far during his three-week tenure as stand-in president, Maduro has not offered many clues as to how he would lead if he were at the helm of a post-Chavez Venezuela.
“Every day, Hugo Chavez makes us better patriots and better Venezuelans. He has created a generation of revolutionaries and blazed a trail for us,” Maduro told one rally last week, lionizing Chavez in gushing and quasi-messianic terms.
“We swear on the constitution that we will be loyal to his leadership … that we will confront all US imperialist aggression, and dismantle the lies of the bourgeois traitors.”
Chavez, 58, has not been seen in public nor heard from since early December, adding to speculation that his polarizing rule could be coming to an end. Late on Sunday, Maduro said the president was suffering a third set of complications after surgery, and remained in a “delicate” state.
If Chavez died or had to step down, new elections would be held within 30 days. Maduro, who also served as foreign minister for the last six years, would be the candidate of the ruling Socialist Party, or PSUV.
Sometimes dressing casually like Chavez in a track suit to address supporters, he has taken on the president’s hectoring style too, slamming opposition leaders as “miserable traitors.”
His day-to-day-activities have been dominated by swearing-in ceremonies for governors elected in a regional vote in which the PSUV won 20 of 23 state governorships.
In one particularly vituperative attack, he excoriated opposition candidate Henrique Capriles for having the nerve to campaign in Chavez’s hometown of Sabaneta during his failed presidential bid earlier this year.
“He dared profane the sacred revolutionary earth of Sabaneta,” Maduro said at the inauguration of Chavez’s older brother Adan as governor of their home state, Barinas.
“He came here to offend the people. He had the gall to say he would win even in Sabaneta, the bourgeois rich kid,” Maduro said, spitting out the final phrase like a playground insult.
Several times he has sounded choked up with emotion, and he cried as he told one crowd the president could count on them forever. “Beyond this life we will be loyal to Hugo Chavez!”
He has peppered his speeches with references to a state-backed campaign called “I am Chavez.” During the inauguration of one public transport project he strayed into an awkward metaphor by saying: “Chavez is the cable car.” But his daily appearances on state television have lacked the relaxed, man-of-the-people charisma of his boss, who was always ready to hug a child or crack a joke with workers during his many tours of building sites, hospitals and oil refineries.
The opposition has called him a “poor copy” of Chavez.
Maduro has made no major decisions despite a consensus among business leaders and economists that Venezuela desperately needs a currency devaluation to shore up a yawning fiscal deficit and ease import bottlenecks caused by a shortage of hard currency. He has made no apparent use of ample powers granted by Chavez this month that include authorizing debt issues and approving congressional budget allocations to ministries.
At best, he has offered vague hints of policy changes, including a veiled suggestion to limit costly subsidies for public services such as electricity and a one-sentence comment that Venezuela’s exchange control system could be “improved.”
When the nation’s main business chamber, Fedeca-maras, applauded that statement, within a day Maduro responded: “We’re not going to give dollars to Fedeca-maras. What this revolution is going to give them is headaches.”