, CARACAS, Apr 15 – Venezuela’s newly elected President Nicolas Maduro was by Hugo Chavez’s side for two decades — from his first electoral triumph in 1998 to his last breath when he died of cancer last month.
Now the one-time bus driver turned union activist and foreign minister who called himself Chavez’s “son” and “apostle” has a new title: successor, after being declared the winner of Sunday’s election by the narrowest of margins.
Election officials put Maduro’s total at 50.66 percent of the vote to 49.07 percent for opposition rival Henrique Capriles, who however has thus far refused to recognize the results.
Handpicked by Chavez as his political heir, Maduro ran a campaign that wrapped itself in the Comandante’s image, turning the late leftist leader into a saint-like figure — even calling him “Christ the redeemer of the poor.”
“I never imagined this. Sometimes I feel like I am imagining it, as if the absence of the comandante was just a nightmare,” Maduro — a towering, mustachioed burly 50-year-old — told AFP in an interview last month.
Since Chavez’s death, Maduro has emulated the late president’s bombastic style, vowing to continue the oil-funded socialist revolution while deriding Capriles as a “little bourgeois.”
Taking a cue from Chavez, who often accused the US “empire” of conspiring against Venezuela, Maduro accused former US officials of plotting to assassinate him.
He has regularly appeared surrounded by Chavez’s family and named the late leader’s son-in-law, Jorge Arreaza, as his vice president.
But he has also brought his own style, driving his campaign bus to rallies, playing the bongo before huge crowds and mocking Capriles at every turn. He kissed his wife, former attorney general Cilia Flores, at most campaign events.
Maduro was the target of jokes, too, when he said that Chavez’s spirit had visited him in the form of a “little bird,” and that he had whistled back to the bird. After the opposition mocked him, he sought to turn it to his advantage, whistling at every rally while releasing parakeets.
After voting on Sunday, he said: “I gave my vote to this little bird that is flying freely. I voted for him.”
Although Chavistas appeared to have fulfilled the comandante’s last wish, many said they will make sure Maduro dutifully follows their hero’s self-styled revolution.
“I expect the best from Maduro, for him to continue the legacy of my president,” Elizabeth Martinez, a 48-year-old mother of six, said as Chavistas celebrated Maduro’s victory in a historic square late Sunday.
Born in 1962, Maduro played guitar in a rock band called Enigma when he was a teenager. He went on to drive buses in the capital’s metro system before becoming a union organizer.
After Chavez led a failed coup in 1992, Maduro served as one of his bodyguards and then they comrades within a leftist political party.
Maduro was president of the National Assembly from 2005 to 2006 before becoming foreign minister, a job he held until Chavez named him vice president last year.
As the nation’s chief diplomat, Maduro led Venezuela’s courtship of anti-Western regimes in Iran, Syria and Cuba while forging a leftist bloc with like-minded Latin American states.
He was considered a moderate and pragmatic member of Chavez’s inner circle who honed his diplomatic skills during his six years as foreign minister, but he took a hardline tone during the campaign.
Chavez named Maduro as his successor two days before he flew to Cuba in December for his fourth round of cancer surgery in 18 months, urging Venezuelans to elect Maduro if he never returned.
“He’s a man with a lot of experience despite his youth,” Chavez said.
In October, when he made Maduro his vice president, Chavez declared: “Look where Nicolas is going… He was a bus driver, and how they mocked him.”