Nicolas Maduro, Hugo Chavez’s anointed successor in Venezuela, is running for president by imitating his patron in every possible manner.
The shadow of Mr. Chavez, who ruled the country for 14 years and died on March 5, hangs heavy over an election campaign that is shaping up to be the nastiest in the country’s history.
Mr. Maduro, now the acting president, has assumed Mr. Chavez’s casual shirtsleeves style for his public appearances. His speeches draw heavily on the late president’s populist rhetoric and are peppered throughout with recognizable Chavez gestures and trademark rants about American imperialism. Fist-pumping the air with Mr. Chavez’s signature salute, he rallies his crowds with chants of “We are all Chavez.”
With less than three weeks to go before the April 14 election, the leading opposition candidate, Henrique Capriles, has mockingly nicknamed Mr. Maduro “Chaduro.” “You’re a bad copy, Nicolas,” he shouted at a political event last week. “All you do is speak from a script.”
Mr. Maduro’s attempt to present himself as a duplicate of “El Comandante” – and profit from the same adulation that surrounded Mr. Chavez – leaves some chavistas unimpressed. “We aren’t stupid. We know Maduro can never replace Chavez,” said Umberto Ribera, a Caracas-based businessman who voted for Mr. Chavez in the previous presidential election last October.
“He doesn’t have the charisma, intelligence or vision that Chavez had,” added Mr. Ribera, “but the continuation of Chavez’s revolution is more important to us than Maduro. If he wasn’t imitating Chavez, he’d be lost.”
Mr. Maduro is not pictured in his own campaign posters. It is Mr. Chavez who still salutes his public from lampposts and buildings around Caracas. “Maduro, from my heart,” is scrawled like a speech bubble above the late leader’s image.
Mr. Maduro talks about his mentor so frequently that a website, madurodice.com, has been launched to tally the number of times he has uttered Mr. Chavez’s name in his radio and television public appearances. So far, it claims, he says it on average 200 times day, for a count so far since Mr. Chavez’s death of more than 4,600 times.
Mr. Maduro seems unembarrassed by the mocking website. In an interview on state television recently, he said: “When I heard that I had said our commander’s name 4,000 times, I felt guilty. I thought that’s very little.”
Mr. Chavez named Mr. Maduro, his vice-president, as his successor in early December before disappearing from public view for cancer surgery in Cuba.
After Mr. Chavez died, Mr. Maduro was quickly named the interim president, despite a constitutional provision that calls for the National Assembly president to take over until new elections are held. Infighting has erupted in the ruling party, which finds itself with a leader and a candidate it didn’t choose.
Mr. Maduro, who is counting on nostalgia and the reflected popularity of Mr. Chavez, may be in a more tenuous position than his 16-point lead in opinion polls would suggest.
“Maduro was not a relevant national leader before Chavez named him, nor does he have the connection with the people that was Chavez’s great strength,” said Luis Vicente Leon, president of the Caracas-based polling firm, Datanalysis. “His potential victory is entirely inherited from the power of Chavez.”
The more the country comes to accept the loss of the towering Mr. Chavez, the more his copy-cat effort may grate on voters, who are worried about the country’s future.
But some chavistas will still find it comforting. “He’s Chavez’s son,” said Joselio Diosrilla, a retiree and diehard Chavez supporter in Caracas.
“His government is going to be the same as that of Hugo Chavez.”