Venezuela’s president, Nicolás Maduro, has spent much of his political life in the shadow of his predecessor, Hugo Chavez, noted the BBC in 2015. Despite a dramatic public endorsement by Chavez in 2012 (“My firm opinion, as clear as the full moon – irrevocable, absolute, total – is… that you elect Nicolás Maduro as president”), he was “derided as a poor copy of his mentor” when he took over on the latter’s death in 2013.
Yet those who predicted Maduro’s imminent ousting underestimated him. He “narrowly” won power, and has retained a strand of popular support, by emphasising his “political, emotional and sometimes even spiritual bond with his pugnacious predecessor”, says The Guardian. He once claimed that the spirit of his “father” Chavez “had visited him in the form of a bird and invoked tribal curses on his political enemies”.
Maduro was born in 1962, and raised in El Valle, a working-class neighbourhood on the outskirts of Caracas. His earliest political influences were solidly left: his father was a trade union leader. He never graduated from high school – he was too busy fulfilling his duties as president of the student union.
“He didn’t speak much, but what he did say was usually poignant”, says a former classmate. Maduro was a big Led Zeppelin fan in his teens, and reportedly considered a career in a band. Instead, he joined the Socialist League and worked as a bus driver for the Caracas Metro. He got around the company’s ban on unions by founding an informal labour syndicate.
In the early 1990s, he joined the MBR-200, the civilian wing of Chavez’s insurrectional military movement. He made himself indispensable when Chavez ran for president in 1998, and came to be seen as one of the ruling PSUV party’s “most convinced leftist, anti-imperialist” radicals.
He sealed his links with the Chavistas’ inner circle by marrying Cilia Flores, an ex-lawyer on Chavez’s campaign team. On gaining power, Maduro lost no time in naming his wife attorney general, labelled the domestic opposition “fascists”, and railed against the “economic war” waged against Venezuela by the US. Now he wants to rewrite the constitution.
Maduro “needs to undermine democracy because he is so unpopular”, says The Times, due to “the hash” he and Chavez have made of Venezuela’s economy with their “daft left-wing populist policies”. These policies go hand-in-hand with rampant corruption, notes John Paul Rathbone notes in the FT. Of the “$1tn windfall” made when oil prices were booming, “more than $300bn was stolen or misappropriated,” according to estimates by an ex-minister.
Even as food shortages grip the nation, wealthy Venezuelans spent nearly $900m on South Florida real estate last year. “Malnutrition in Venezuela is a problem of corruption, not a lack of money,” as Maritza Landaeta, of the Caracas-based Bengoa Foundation, tells the FT. Democracies across the region “have much to gain if Maduro makes a quiet exit”, says the FT. But on current form, there’s not much chance of that.