1:58am

Tue March 12, 2013
Latin America

In Upcoming Venezuelan Vote, Hugo Chavez Looms Large

Originally published on Tue March 12, 2013 3:17 am

The tall and imposing Nicolas Maduro stepped forward last week to be sworn in as Venezuela's interim leader following the death of President Hugo Chavez.

Before the country's packed congressional hall, he swore to complete Chavez's dream to transform the OPEC power into a socialist state, allied with Cuba and decidedly opposed to capitalism and U.S. interests in Latin America.

It's a dream Maduro says will not die, even with the death of El Comandante. Maduro told the country that he wasn't taking the oath because of ambition, vanity or because he comes from the Venezuelan elite.

The lawmakers and Chavista rank and file responded with cries of, "With Chavez and Maduro, the people are safe."

Maduro, to be sure, is solidly in charge of the government. Chavez, in his last public comments in December, told Venezuelans that Maduro was his political heir — and that gives Maduro a big advantage over the opposition in a snap election scheduled for April 14.

Still, Maduro is in for a scrap.

On Sunday, opposition leader Henrique Capriles accepted the nomination to take on the new president. Addressing Maduro, Capriles said he wouldn't step aside and allow Chavez's successor to have an easy road to long-term power.

Capriles said the government knew Chavez was in his death throes for weeks, and had been planning for this election. He also accused Maduro of using Chavez's death for political gain and to bolster support from the former president's die-hard loyalists.

The government hasn't stopped talking about Chavez or showing his image on its many state television stations. Chavez still sings guitar-laden llaneras on TV — the music of the great southern plains where he was born.

In one hagiographic spot, a poem is read about how Chavez is still here, in spirit, leading the country and his self-styled revolution. He wades into crowds, kissing babies and singling out poor followers for hugs.

It's powerful imagery, and it helps Maduro.

Out on the streets, where revolutionary songs still play, the president's supporters recall Chavez's last public words on Dec. 8: "Vote for Maduro if I'm not here."

Watching TV that day, 54-year-old Maria Andrade says that if the election were tomorrow, "I'm sure all Venezuelans would be in the street to vote for Maduro.

"That's what the president told us to do," she says.

That sentiment is perhaps shared by millions. But Maduro, once a reserved apparatchik, is also adopting the same intonation and fiery rhetoric as Chavez. He calls his opponents part of a rancid oligarchy out to sack the country, a favorite Chavez put-down.

Madura has also suggested that Venezuela's historic enemy — by which he means the U.S. — has something to do with Chavez getting cancer.

Reacting angrily to Capriles' accusations, Maduro said Sunday he'd remain loyal to the principles of the late president and the guiding light of the revolution — Simon Bolivar, hero of the independence era.

He also had a warning for what he called "ambitious oligarchs and imperialists."

"There are no imperialist claws that can handle this sacred land," Maduro said. "This sacred land of Simon Bolivar and Hugo Chavez."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

After 14 years of tempestuous rule under Hugo Chavez, Venezuela has a new president. Nicolas Maduro, former vice president, was sworn-in late last week as the interim leader of Venezuela. Maduro is a one-time bus driver and union leader who had been at Chavez's side since the early '90s. Now Maduro is sounding more and more like his old boss.

NPR's Juan Forero reports.

JUAN FORERO, BYLINE: Tall and imposing, Nicolas Maduro stepped forward in the country's packed congressional hall on Friday night.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

NICOLAS MADURO: (Spanish spoken)

FORERO: And then he swore to complete Hugo Chavez's dream for Venezuela, invoking the late president's name over and over. That dream is to transform this OPEC power into a socialist state, allied with Cuba, and decidedly opposed to capitalism and American interests in Latin America. It's a dream Maduro says will not die, even with the death of El Comandante a week ago, following a long ordeal with cancer.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

MADURO: (Spanish spoken)

FORERO: Maduro told the country that he wasn't taking the oath because of ambition, vanity or because he comes from the Venezuelan elite.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHANTING)

FORERO: The lawmakers in Chavista rank and file responded with cries of "with Chavez and Maduro, the people are safe." Maduro, to be sure, is solidly in charge of the government. Chavez himself, in his last public comments in December, told Venezuelans that Maduro was his political heir, and that gives Maduro a big advantage over the opposition in snap elections that'll be held on April 14th.

Still, Maduro is in for a scrap. On Sunday, opposition leader Henrique Capriles accepted the nomination to take on the new president. He said he'd fight.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

HENRIQUE CAPRILES: (Spanish spoken)

FORERO: And addressing Maduro by his first name, Capriles said he wouldn't step aside and allow Chavez's successor to have an easy road to long-term power. Capriles said the government knew Chavez was in his death throes for weeks, and had been planning for this election.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

CAPRILES: (Spanish spoken)

FORERO: And he also accused Maduro of using Chavez's death for political gain to bolster support from the former president's die-hard loyalists. The government hasn't stopped talking about Chavez or showing his image on its many state television stations.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV BROADCAST)

PRESIDENT HUGO CHAVEZ: (Singing in Spanish)

FORERO: Chavez still sings guitar-laden llaneras on TV, the music of the great southern plains where he was born.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV BROADCAST)

CHAVEZ: (Singing in Spanish)

FORERO: In one hagiographic spot, a poem is read about how Chavez is still here in spirit, leading the country and his self-styled revolution. He still wades into crowds, kissing babies and singling out poor followers for hugs. It's powerful imagery, and it helps Maduro.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in Spanish)

FORERO: Out on the streets, where revolutionary songs still play, the president's supporters all recall Chavez's last words on December 8th: Vote for Maduro if I'm not here.

Maria Andrade, age 54, was watching on TV that day.

MARIA ANDRADE: (Spanish spoken)

FORERO: If the election were tomorrow, Andrade said, I'm sure all Venezuelans would be in the street to vote for Maduro. That's what the president told us to do.

That sentiment is perhaps shared by millions. But Maduro, once a reserved apparatchik, is also adopting the same intonation and fiery rhetoric as Chavez. He calls his opponents part of a rancid oligarchy out to sack the country, a favorite Chavez put-down.

And he suggested that Venezuela's historic enemy - by which he means the United States - has something to do with Chavez getting cancer. Sunday, reacting angrily to Capriles' accusations, Maduro said he'd remain loyal to the principles of the late president and the guiding light of the revolution. That's Simon Bolivar, hero of the independence era.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

MADURO: (Spanish spoken)

FORERO: And he had a warning for what he called ambitious oligarchs and imperialists.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

MADURO: (Spanish spoken)

FORERO: There are no imperialist claws that can handle this sacred land, he said, this sacred land of Simon Bolivar and Hugo Chavez. Juan Forero, NPR News, Caracas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Related Program