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Maduro leans on Chavez's charisma for popularity

Sunday - 3/10/2013, 4:44am  ET

In this image released by the office of Mexico's Presidencia, Venezuela's Vice President Nicolas Maduro, left, holds a replica of Simon Bolivar's sword next to the flag-draped coffin of Venezuela's late President Hugo Chavez during the funeral ceremony at the military academy in Caracas, Venezuela, Friday, March 8, 2013. Chavez died on March 5 after a nearly two-year bout with cancer. (AP Photo/Presidencia de la Republica de Mexico, Daniel Aguilar)

Associated Press

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) -- Nicolas Maduro so far has led by imitation, seeking to fill the shoes of a president whose uncanny vigor, mischievous humor and political wiles sowed a revolution and transformed a nation.

As Hugo Chavez did during his 14-year presidency, Maduro has stoked confrontation, and shed tears.

While steering Venezuela through the trauma of Chavez's death, Maduro has pinned his move to the top on his beloved predecessor.

Yet there are doubts, even among die-hard Chavistas, about his ability to lead the nation.

At his swearing-in Friday evening as acting president, Maduro pledged his "most absolute loyalty" to Chavez.

Then he launched into another fiery, lionization-of-the-masses speech punctuated by tears, Chavez-style harangues and attacks on capitalist elites and the international press.

"This sash belongs to Hugo Chavez," he said, choked up, after assembly speaker Diosdado Cabello slid the presidential band over his head. Hours earlier at Chavez's state funeral before more than 30 foreign leaders, Maduro delivered a speech similarly strident in content and tone.

Maduro, 50, hasn't stopped idolizing the outsized leader who made him Venezuela's foreign minister, then vice president and, before going to Cuba for a final cancer surgery in December, publicly selected him presidential successor.

The National Electoral Council was expected on Saturday to set a date for a special presidential election as early as April.

While Maduro has filled the leadership void since Chavez disappeared from public view after his surgery, many Venezuelans find him bland and uninspiring. Some blame his lack of education, noting the former bus driver never went to college.

Others say it goes much further. After all, Brazil's hugely popular former president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, also started out as a worker and union leader with limited education.

"Nicolas Maduro does not embody Chavismo. He's not in touch with the people," said Carlos Borola, a 57-year-old member of a "colectivo," a radical pro-Chavez citizen's group.

"You can try to imitate the aggressivity of speech. You can try to imitate the conjuring of imaginary enemies. But you can't imitate Chavez's charisma," said Luis Vicente Leon, president of the respected Datanalisis polling firm.

"Chavez was a showman. Maduro is not," he said.

Many worry that Maduro may not be capable of managing the economic challenges of rising public debt, inflation above 20 percent, endemic crime responsible for the world's second-highest murder rate and nagging food shortages.

As Chavez's political heir, he had three months to establish himself as the face of Chavismo. It fell to him to announce Chavez's death, and he sweated through the hours-long walk Wednesday as the funeral cortege crawled through adoring crowds, some shouting "with Chavez and Maduro, the people are secure."

When Maduro was sworn in, boisterous lawmakers shouted "Chavez lives, Maduro carries on." The ceremony was mostly boycotted by the opposition, which called it illegitimate because Venezuela's constitution says the assembly speaker should be interim president.

For the socialist Chavista movement, Maduro's leftist credentials, at least, are unassailable.

He joined the now-defunct Socialist League at a young age, got some revolutionary schooling in Cuba and later, as Chavez's foreign minister, became close to Fidel and Raul Castro.

Chavez named him vice president after defeating opposition leader Henrique Capriles in the Oct. 7 election. Capriles won 45 percent of the vote, however, in Chavez's closest presidential re-election.

Once Chavez fell from sight as his health failed after Dec. 11 surgery, Maduro began wielding the huge state media machine built by his mentor, mindful that Chavez was unlikely to live much longer and that a snap presidential election was likely.

He began to crisscross the nation and show up on state TV presiding over the distribution of apartments and buses for university students.

As Chavez's death drew nearer, Maduro's rhetoric grew more incendiary, while criminal investigations of opposition leaders for alleged financial irregularities were opened. He launched blistering personal attacks against Capriles, accusing him of "conspiring against the homeland" with far-right U.S. putschists and fugitive bankers.

Maduro expelled two U.S. military attaches for allegedly trying to destabilize the nation, just hours before he announced Chavez's death Tuesday, surprising analysts who had thought a rapprochement between the two nations might be possible under the new leader.

"There was a sense that perhaps Maduro was a more pragmatic person, would be amenable to exchange ambassadors," said Cynthia Arnson, director of the Latin American Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. "The statement he made Tuesday threw a huge bucket of cold water on those hopes."

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