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With Hugo Chavez’s Health in Question, He Names Close Friend Maduro as VP

Chavez and Maduro

With concerns about the long-term health of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, the world is turning its attention to his best friend and new Vice President, Nicolas Maduro, a former bus driver who is poised to become the most powerful man in Venezuela if Chavez were to succumb to the cancer that forced him to have three operations in the past year.

Though no one really knows the condition of Chavez’s health, since the mercurial leader had refused to release details of his cancer treatments—the public hasn’t even been told what kind of cancer he has—there is no doubt that he was not as robust during his recent presidential election campaign as people have come to expect.

Maduro has been a close friend and confidante of Chavez’s for 20 years—he was among the tiny circle who accompanied Chavez to Cuba for his cancer operation. With uncertainty over how long the 58-year-old Chavez will be around, observers are wondering what kind of leader Maduro would prove to be. Genial and well-liked, Maduro is considered a more moderate force in the Socialist regime than many other hard-liners.

“Look where Nicolás is going,” Chavez said when he proudly announced his new No 2. “Nicolás was a bus driver on the metro, and look how the bourgeoisie make fun of him.”

Despite being viewed as a consensus builder in Venezuela, Maduro is just as eager as Chavez to take shots at the United States whenever he’s given the opportunity. He went in hard on President Obama earlier this year during the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia, when Maduro was still foreign minister.

“Obama does not know the reality of our country,” Maduro said. “He acts with great cynicism, great wickedness. He has inherited, unfortunately, after having spent three years in government, the cynicism and wickedness [of George W Bush].”

As foreign minister, Maduro negotiated agreements with some of the U.S.’s most prominent adversaries, including Cuba, Iran, Russia and Belarus.

As vice president, Maduro clearly won’t have a lot to do toiling under the domineering Chavez, even if they are best friends. But he will be in the strange position—though common for vice presidents—of always being on the verge of going from extreme impotence to extreme power.

The friendship between Chavez and Maduro is undeniable. In a recent TV appearance, the two men joked about their growing waistlines, with Chávez challenging Maduro to stay away from the oversized “submarine” sandwiches and Maduro responding by sarcastically congratulating the President for losing “a few grams.”

The way the Venezuelan constitution works, Maduro would oversee new elections if Chavez became incapacitated in the first four years of his six-year term. If Chávez fell seriously ill or died in the last two years of his term, Maduro would automatically become President. There is also another clause that would allow the Vice-President to temporarily stand in for the President for up to two successive 90-day periods if necessary.
And then there’s the specter of Henrique Capriles, the man who lost to Chavez last week by 9 points, which was Chavez’s closest margin in the two elections he has won since he took office in 1999. Capriles is clearly waiting in the wings for Chavez  to leave office and is considered a favorite to take over when he does.
Chavez’s supporters, perhaps as a way to discredit Capriles in the eyes of voters, accused Capriles of being a “stalking horse” candidate for the interests of the U.S. because he pledged to tear up the agreements that Chavez has cut with China and Russia to send much of Venezuela’s massive oil supply to these nations.

“I gave it my all and I’m proud of what we built,” a subdued Capriles told supporters at his campaign headquarters after he lost. “I will continue to work for Venezuela.”

Venezuela owns the world’s largest proven oil reserves, nearly 297 billion barrels, according to OPEC, and has overtaken Saudi Arabia to become the world’s number one source of proven oil reserves—with 10 percent more oil than Saudi Arabia and 18 percent of the world’s total. According to a report by the Guardian, Venezuela’s reserves would last another 100 years at the nation’s current levels of productions.

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