Published by USA Today
As Venezuela awaits news of its president's health, Hugo Chávez's heir apparent, a mustachioed, affable and Cuba-trained politician, is hoping to come out from under "El Comandante's" shadow.
Nicolás Maduro, 50, has already provided one example of the difference between himself and Chávez. He took 10 minutes to give this month's state of the union address in Chávez's absence. Chávez delivered a 10-hour oration last year.
"Look at where he's headed, Nicolás, the bus driver! How the bourgeoisie laughed at him!" Chávez said as he appointed Maduro, then foreign minister, as his successor in December just before flying to Cuba for surgery on an undisclosed cancer.
The operation led to bleeding and a pulmonary infection, and Chávez has not been seen or heard from since. Should he succumb after 14 years as president, power will supposedly pass to a man whom few Venezuelans know much about.
"The majority of Chavistas want Chávez," said 22-year-old student Daniella Contreras at a recent opposition protest. "Maduro isn't Chávez. There's no Chavismo without Chávez."
Alberto Barrera Tyszka, who co-wrote Without Uniform, a biography of the president, says Chávez has always exercised an egocentric leadership that Maduro lacks, which means no one can predict how he would rule.
Chávez, he says, is "surrounded by people who are less prepared and less effective," and Maduro is the least independent of Chávez's inner circle.
Maduro started in politics as a bus driver, representing workers of the Caracas Metro when unions were banned. He was a supporter of Chávez's unsuccessful coup in 1992 and helped win his release from prison in 1994. His wife, Cilia Flores, is a lawyer and Venezuela's attorney general who defended Chávez in court.
Chávez picked Maduro as one of his campaign operatives for his successful presidential election in 1998. Maduro won a seat in the Venezuelan congress in 2000 and 2005. In 2006, Chávez named him his foreign minister.
"Maduro has a strong relationship with Chávez, but also with the Castros (in Cuba)," Barrera said.
That link to Cuba has worried many members of Venezuela's opposition.
"The capital of Venezuela has moved to Havana," said Leopoldo López, a prominent opposition leader who is banned from taking political office here.
In a sign of how well he takes criticism, Maduro hit back at opponents and threatened "forceful actions" should the opposition not "watch (its) words."
The ever-faithful Maduro was appointed deputy to the National Assembly in 2000 before becoming its president. He left no doubt where his aims lay then.
"The contribution of this new assembly will be to strengthen the revolution, to legislate so that Chávez governs not until 2021 but until 2030," he said. Four years later, the assembly stripped presidential term limits from the constitution.
"Maduro was chosen for his loyalty," said Carlos Romero, a political analyst at the Central University of Venezuela in Caracas. "He has been approved by the Castro brothers. He is also well-received in international diplomatic and business circles."
As foreign minister, a job he held until earlier this month, he carried out some of Chávez's more questionable diplomatic policies such as alliances with Syria and Iran. But he has also warmed relations across the region, notably with Colombia, which was threatening war with Venezuela over Chávez's backing of communist guerrilla fighters there.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said last week that he was "optimistic" should Maduro come to power.
Diplomats describe Maduro as more pragmatic than Chávez, owing to his trade union background as opposed to Chávez's military history. Venezuela's former ambassador to Mexico, Vladimir Villegas, expects relations to warm somewhat.
"He's always followed Chávez unconditionally, but not because he's not smart enough to do otherwise," he said.
Maduro seems to have a similar low opinion of the United States, as does his boss.
President Obama "ignores the reality of our country," he said, speaking at the Summit of the Americas last year. "Sadly, he has inherited the cynicism and perversion of George W. Bush."
Alberto Vivas worked as a driver on the Caracas Metro system alongside Maduro in the late 1980s, and is disappointed in his path.
"We played baseball together," he said. "Maduro was an excellent third baseman. But, sadly, his love of sport gave way to politics and he joined the Socialist League."