Transitions

Maduro, man of mystery

Unless opposition challenger Henrique Capriles pulls off an upset, Venezuela’s acting president Nicolás Maduro will wake up Monday morning as Venezuela’s president-elect. He would be completing the late Hugo Chávez’s term, which lasts until 2019. But despite their willingness to have Maduro lead the country for the next six years, many Venezuelans are asking themselves: ...

JUAN BARRETO/AFP/Getty Images
JUAN BARRETO/AFP/Getty Images

Unless opposition challenger Henrique Capriles pulls off an upset, Venezuela’s acting president Nicolás Maduro will wake up Monday morning as Venezuela’s president-elect. He would be completing the late Hugo Chávez’s term, which lasts until 2019. But despite their willingness to have Maduro lead the country for the next six years, many Venezuelans are asking themselves: Who is this man exactly?

Not much is known about Maduro, really. He is fifty years old, and has been part of the chavista movement from the beginning, along with his partner, Cilia Flores. (It’s not even clear if they’re married or not). That’s Maduro in the 2009 photo shown above, just to the left of Chávez.

Flores and Maduro joined the chavista movement when Flores, an attorney, took it upon herself to assist Hugo Chávez’s legal defense following his failed coup in 1992. Maduro, a driver for the Caracas subway and a union activist, tagged along and quickly gained Chávez’s trust.

Since the Bolivarian Revolution began, Maduro has been a visible public figure. He was part of the Constituent Assembly that wrote the nation’s charter in 1999. He was also a member of Congress until 2005. After that, he was named Foreign Minister and held the post until late last year. As such, he was in charge of Hugo Chávez’s visible but controversial foreign policies, crisscrossing the globe and frequently seen hobnobbing heads of state.

In spite of this apparently extensive public record, there is little indication that any of the government’s initiatives were actually his own. He has few, if any, public opinions on the country’s pressing policy issues, and those he has are indistinguishable from Chávez’s.

One of the failures in this campaign is that we have yet to learn much about Maduro’s life prior to politics. Earlier this week, a document presuming to be Maduro’s work evaluation from his days on the subway circulated extensively on the Internet. In it, Maduro comes across as having spent relatively little time on the job and plenty of time working in the unions and taking sick leave. In an interesting side note, the document says Maduro has not graduated from high school; the Maduro campaign has yet to comment on the document’s veracity.

Another interesting aspect is the yet-to-be-refuted claim that Maduro spent considerable time in the 80s living in Cuba. The nature of his alleged stay there has not been explained, but some opposition activists have little doubt that it meant he was part of an indoctrination program run by the Cuban Communist Party, under the guidance of hardline General Ramiro Valdés. It is widely believed that Chávez picked Maduro as his heir because he is trusted by the Castros. So far Maduro has done little to counter that belief. The broadcast of the Cuban National Anthem during an official act on TV a few days ago, simultaneously broadcast over all TV and radio stations in the country, raised eyebrows. It is however, not clear if Maduro actually sang it as some in the opposition claim.

Instead of offering a compelling biography of the candidate, the Maduro campaign has focused on one thing only: Establishing him as Chávez’s heir. Maduro talks about Chávez all the time, in every speech, frequently calling himself "his son." There is even a website that has taken to counting the number of times Maduro has said the late president’s name: By the last count, he had mentioned it more than 7,200 times since Chávez’s death on March 5th.

The Capriles campaign, meanwhile, has focused on Maduro’s political and administrative flaws. They point to the shaky state of the economy — the currency has been devalued twice in the last few months, inflation and scarcity are up sharply, and the country faces enormous public deficit problems. Forced by the Capriles campaign to address the issue of rampant crime, Maduro has not offered a vision on how he would tackle the problem, simply saying that he would be "the safety president" and that he would make it a priority.

Capriles’ relentlessly negative campaign appears to have paid some dividends. The gap between the two candidates is now in the single-digits, down from about twenty points just a few weeks ago. However, consensus in Caracas seems to be that while the gap is closing, the abbreviated nature of the campaign means Capriles will not have enough time to catch up.

The closing gap may also have something to do with Maduro’s underwhelming campaign. As would be expected from an untested candidate, Maduro has made a series of gaffes on the trail. He said Chávez appeared to him in the form of a bird, insists that the president’s cancer was somehow "inoculated," and has even taken to muddling basic geographical facts about the country he intends to be president of.

In spite of his falling popularity, it appears as though he is headed for a win. If this happens, Venezuelans will be electing a man whose only claim to fame is being hand-picked by Hugo Chávez to continue at the helm. This is a shame, and it points to serious questions in the Venezuelan electorate’s sophistication and political maturity.

An opposition tweet recently said: "Venezuelans are electing an incompetent man … to please a dead one." Given Maduro’s unwillingness to define himself as his own man in the public eye, it would be hard to argue with this.

But in the end, if he wins, that will be all that matters.

Juan Nagel is the Venezuela blogger for Transitions and author of Blogging the Revolution. Read the rest of his blog posts here.

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