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Mystery man to lead Venezuela

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CARACAS, Venezuela -- After winning Venezuela's presidential election, Nicolas Maduro will be completing the late Hugo Chavez'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 50 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).

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

One of the failures in this campaign is that we have yet to learn much about Maduro's life prior to politics. A recent 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 1980s 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 Valdas. It is widely believed that Chavez 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 Chavez's heir. Maduro talks about Chavez 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 Chavez's death on March 5.

The Capriles campaign, meanwhile, focused on Maduro's political and administrative flaws. They pointed 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.

Venezuelans have elected a man whose only claim to fame is being hand-picked by Hugo Chavez 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. And it is all that matters.


Juan Nagel is the Venezuela blogger for Transitions and author of Blogging the Revolution.


-- Foreign Policy

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 16, 2013 A9

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