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CARACAS: Vice President Nicolas Maduro is moving quickly to fill the vacuum left by President Hugo Chavez’s prolonged absence, gaining valuable exposure and clout while the ailing Venezuelan leader battles cancer in Cuba.
In a week of seesawing uncertainty and change, Chavez’s handpicked political heir appears to have broken through the paralysis gripping the country since Chavez underwent surgery in Havana nearly a month ago.
Sent off with a handclasp by the hospitalised president, Maduro returned to Caracas on Thursday and in three frenetic days rallied his party, attacked the opposition and overrode constitutional qualms about Chavez’ status.
And while implicitly making it understood that Chavez is too sick to be sworn in to a new term on January 10, the burly, mustachioed Maduro has been all over the state-run media in a quasi presidential role.
Venezuelans have seen him making speeches to red-shirted followers, watching from the visitor’s gallery as Chavistas reasserted their dominance over the National Assembly, and talking in emotional tones about Chavez’s difficult battle with cancer.
Under the constitution, new elections must be held within 30 days if the president dies or is permanently incapacitated either before he takes office or in the first four years of his six-year term. “For the Chavista movement it is fundamental that if Maduro is to be the candidate in presidential elections because of Chavez’s exit, that he do so from the position of head of state or some advantageous position, with an aura of power and control over all the institutions,” said Luis Vicente Leon, the head of the polling firm Datanalisis.
That transition is tricky, however, because throughout his 19-month-long sickness, including four rounds of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation treatment, Chavez has refused to give up power, even on a temporary basis.
Maduro, 50, denies he has “personal ambitions” and has been careful to play the role as the faithful number two, effusively praising Chavez at every turn.
“I think of Chavez as president,” Maduro said on Friday.
The vice president, a man of humble origins who for a brief time was a bus driver before becoming a union organiser, owes his spectacular rise to Chavez.