By FABIOLA SANCHEZ and IAN JAMES
CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) - A burly former bus driver who rose through leftist political activism to become Venezuela's top diplomat will be a key player as the vice presidential pick of President Hugo Chavez, who is heading into a new six-year term after a year of cancer treatment.
Nicolas Maduro has shown unflagging loyalty and become a leading spokesman for the socialist Chavez as foreign minister. His appointment as vice president had been widely expected.
Chavez named Maduro as his choice Wednesday, three days after winning re-election, and the announcement renewed speculation about whether the 58-year-old president could finally be grooming a successor in case his health worsens.
Since being named foreign minister in 2006, the mustachioed, 49-year-old Maduro has overseen many key international efforts, including consolidating the regional diplomatic blocs ALBA and Unasur, strengthening relations with countries including Russia, Iran and China, and achieving a rapprochement with U.S.-allied Colombia.
"He has been Chavez's best spokesperson. He appears strong, he's charismatic to some, and he is loyal," Eduardo Gamarra, a Latin American studies professor at Florida International University in Miami, said Thursday.
The vice presidential job has assumed new importance because of Chavez's recent struggle with cancer. After a year of treatment that included surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation treatment, Chavez said in June that tests showed he was cancer-free. He has said tumors were removed from his pelvic area but hasn't specified the exact location or type of cancer.
During Chavez's visits to Cuba for treatment, Maduro was among the few aides seen at his side, and that presence encouraged speculation he could fill in for Chavez if necessary. During one televised appearance in Cuba in April, Maduro was shown on television playing bocce ball with Chavez and the president's elder brother, Adan.
Maduro is an influential leader within Chavez's United Socialist Party, and before becoming foreign minister was National Assembly president.
David Smilde, a sociology professor at the University of Georgia who studies Venezuela, said Maduro's appointment is significant and shows the type of leadership Chavez wants to emphasize.
"He is among the true leftists in the Chavez government. He believes in state control of the economy, anti-imperialist foreign policy, and the predominance of the executive over other branches and levels of the government," Smilde said.
"My guess is that making Maduro VP has a lot to do with Chavez's health," Smilde said. "As a potential successor to Chavez, Maduro is someone who would continue with the leftist elements of Chavez's project, keep the base happy, continue close relations with Cuba, but perhaps be more comfortable in political negotiations than other potential successors or Chavez himself."
Some observers consider Maduro to be the official within Chavez's inner circle with the closest links to Cuban leader Raul Castro, his brother Fidel and the island's government.
Chavez's close friendship with Maduro goes back to the 1980s, when the Venezuelan leader was an army officer and formed a clandestine movement that eventually carried out a failed 1992 coup attempt.
In his youth, Maduro belonged to a small political group called the Socialist League and traveled to Cuba for training in union organizing. He became a union organizer when he was working as a bus driver in Caracas.
"Look where Nicolas is going, the bus driver," Chavez quipped as he announced the appointment. Maduro smiled in the audience as the president said: "Look how they've mocked him. The bourgeoisie makes fun."
Chavez regularly chides many of his government ministers during televised meeting, questioning them about perceived mistakes or unfinished projects. But Chavez always speaks affectionately of Maduro.
Chavez sometimes jokes that Maduro eats excessively, saying he should cut back on the submarine sandwiches he likes to devour.
Maduro has proven adept at speaking on Chavez's behalf without getting ahead of his boss' public statements. Still, like most of Chavez's aides, Maduro doesn't stand out as an orator and usually keeps his public statements short and to the point.
As vice president, he replaces Elias Jaua, who is running for a state gubernatorial seat in Dec. 16 elections against Henrique Capriles, the opposition candidate Chavez defeated in the presidential race.
During Chavez's nearly 14-year-old presidency, he hasn't anointed any clear successors, and has rotated various allies through the vice president position. Maduro is his eighth vice president.
"The interesting thing to watch now will be whether Maduro takes on more responsibility than his predecessors and gets involved in a more substantive way in government business, which would be a sign that Chavez is indeed grooming him as his successor," said Nicholas Watson, a Bogota-based analyst for the consulting firm Control Risks, headquartered in London.
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