Venezuela’s bus-driver president Maduro clings to the wheel, struggling to stay the course set by Chavez
Opposition critics and foreign powers express disbelief at claims that 8 million people voted in Maduro’s widely-boycotted vote for a constitutional assembly
Hugo Chavez hoped he would be a steady hand at the wheel, but Nicolas Maduro, Venezuela’s bus driver turned president, is struggling to keep his late mentor’s “revolution” from veering into the abyss.
And the furious reaction to his widely boycotted vote on a new constitutional assembly on Sunday has only served to accentuate Maduro’s failures.
In the four years since Chavez died, Maduro has constantly sought to drive home the message that he is the charismatic firebrand’s anointed heir.
He gives speeches in front of portraits of “the eternal commander,” speaks of continuing the “Chavismo” brand of socialism, and wears the bright red tracksuits that are emblematic of Chavez’s “Bolivarian revolution.”
The props are meant to underline continuity.
But they also highlight the differences between the current president and the one who ruled Venezuela for 14 years until his death of cancer in March 2013.
Chavez, a former military man, had abundant charisma and a fiery-yet-folksy manner that fueled his popularity, with the help of generous public spending backed by sky-high oil revenues.
Maduro, a mustachioed former union leader, bus driver and would-be rock star, comes up short on all those counts.
Very little has gone right for Maduro, 54, since Chavez’s death thrust the then-vice president into power.
After taking over as interim president, he barely eked out a win in the ensuing election in April 2013, in a vote marred by fraud allegations.
Then in 2014 came the first wave of protests over rampant crime and a tanking economy, plunging the country into violent clashes that left 43 people dead.
The protests eventually fizzled as their leader, Leopoldo Lopez, was jailed.
But discontent continued to spread as the country’s oil boom went bust due to a plunge in global prices. It soon escalated into a full-blown crisis, with riots, looting and shortages of everything from food to medicine to money to electricity to beer.
In 2015, fed-up Venezuelans gave the centre-right opposition a huge majority in congress - the first significant defeat at the polls for “Chavismo.”
Things went downhill fast from there.
Unhappy sharing power, Maduro’s camp moved to dissolve the legislature four months ago - triggering sustained, bloody protests that have now left more than 120 dead.
Maduro’s bid to regain control by convening a citizens’ assembly to rewrite the constitution blew up in his face Sunday as the opposition boycotted the vote and staged running street battles with police and soldiers.
Election authorities claimed that 8 million people voted, but such a turnout was doubted by independent analysts and opposition supporters alike, while the election was labelled illegitimate by leaders across the Americans and Europe.
“If it wasn’t a tragedy ... if it didn’t mean more crisis, the electoral council’s number would almost make you laugh,” opposition leader Freddy Guevara said on Twitter.
The widely condemned vote has left Venezuela isolated on the international stage, highlighted by the United States’ decision Monday to slap direct sanctions on Maduro and label him a “dictator.”
The measures were unusual in that they targeted a sitting head of state, but their reach was mostly symbolic, freezing any US assets Maduro might have and banning people under US jurisdiction from dealing with him.
“Yesterday’s illegitimate elections confirm that Maduro is a dictator who disregards the will of the Venezuelan people,” US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told reporters.
Maduro lashed out at the move, saying it smacked of American imperialism.
“I will not obey imperial orders,” he said.
Through it all, Maduro - whose term runs until 2019 - has tried to stick to the Chavez script, but never quite struck the right tone.
Like his predecessor, he gives hours-long speeches and often accuses the United States of “imperialist” plots against him. But the diatribes are unleavened by Chavez’s easy style.
His attempts at folksy politics often go awry, like the time he drove his own bus to a rally - and was pelted in the head with a mango thrown by a woman in the crowd.
Last year, with the country mired in crisis, he launched a “salsa hour” on state radio, releasing video clips of himself dancing in the studio with his wife, “First Combattant” Cilia Flores.
The clips went viral, for all the wrong reasons.
Critics accused the round-bellied Maduro of getting fatter while ordinary Venezuelans went hungry.
Born in Caracas and a professed Christian, Maduro as a teenager played guitar in a rock band called Enigma.
He became a union leader for workers on the Caracas metro and received communist training in Cuba in the 1980s.
Elected to the National Assembly when Chavez swept to power, he rose to become speaker of the legislature before becoming foreign minister in 2006, and then vice president in October 2012.
But he never duplicated his mentor’s magic touch.
“Chavismo under Maduro has dramatically weakened,” said Luis Vicente Leon, head of the polling firm Datanalisis -- which says 80 percent of Venezuelans disapprove of Maduro.
“He’s not a charismatic leader” like Chavez, he said.
Additional reporting by Associated Press