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Chavez's chosen successor: Imitator or moderate?

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

The Venezuelan leader calls his rival the "prince of the parasitic bourgeoisie," rambles on for hours on state-run television and caps his speeches by shouting "Viva la revolucion!"

It may sound like Hugo Chavez, but it is not the socialist president who's making noise these days.

As the cancer-stricken leader remains out of public view in a Caracas hospital, his chosen successor, Vice President Nicolas Maduro, is sounding more and more like his mentor, denouncing the "decadent" opposition and the US "empire."

"We swear that no little bourgeois will ever screw the people again," Maduro said during a rally last week.

Maduro, a broad-shouldered former bus driver and union activist with a thick moustache, was once considered a moderate figure who honed his diplomatic skills when he was foreign minister.

But the 50-year-old vice president has shown a hardcore Chavista side since he began running day-to-day operations in this OPEC member country after Chavez underwent his fourth round of cancer surgery on December 11.

"It is clear that the tactic used by Maduro is to consolidate his power," Luis Vicente Leon, director of pollsters Datanalisis, told AFP. "It is a tough tactic of radicalization and intimidation of internal and external rivals."

"The main reason for this is that he has to fill the void. In the short-term, it is important to prevent internal and external rivals from taking advantage of Chavez's absence to sow instability."

Maduro frequently appears on the VTV public channel, handing keys to subsidized homes to families one day, showing off a refurbished hospital the other or driving a bus being donated to university students.

But he has also taken shots at the opposition, using salty language to needle Miranda state Governor Henrique Capriles, who lost to Chavez in the October election and appears his most likely rival if a snap election is called.

He accused Capriles of "conspiring" against Venezuela during a weekend trip to the United States and warned that he was being monitored, going as far as giving the address of the New York City apartment his rival was staying at.

"The decadent prince of the parasitic bourgeoisie has gone to Miami and then New York. I challenge him to refute me," Maduro said. Capriles responded with a photo on Twitter showing he was visiting his young nephews.

It was the kind of class-conscious political theater that was mastered by Chavez, who once used his TV pulpit to call for a judge to be jailed in 2009.

While Maduro and Capriles appear on campaign mode, the vice president insists that Chavez remains in charge despite a tough new round of chemotherapy.

Within the president's ideological fold, National Assembly speaker Diosdado Cabello, a former soldier who participated in Chavez's failed coup in 1992, is seen as his main potential rival, but both men deny any rift.

To Farith Fraija, a political consultant, Maduro's message has not changed from his days as a legislator and foreign minister.

"Even though I don't agree that he's from the radical wing, if he's identified as being from the radical wing, it's because his speech has always been the same," Fraija said.

In the bustling streets of Caracas, many Chavistas say Maduro is doing a good job and that they would vote for him if a snap election was called, but they say Chavez is the kind of leader who only comes around once in a lifetime.

Chavez, 58, forged a deep bond with the country's long neglected poor with his charisma and bombastic speeches, promising to work for them while fighting capitalism.

"I have never seen a president like this one. He is the only one who has given power to the people," said Jesus Toledo, 62, who was among a dozen retirees and workers talking under a red tent of Plaza Bolivar square, a renowned Chavista meeting point.

"I am with Maduro. Chavez said it very clearly, 'support Maduro.'"

Critics say Maduro is the head of an illegitimate government since Chavez, who was re-elected in October, missed his swearing-in ceremony on January 10. The Supreme Court approved the delay.

"He's a bad imitation of Chavez," said Amanda Escalante, 61, a retired congress worker who joined hundreds in an opposition march Sunday demanding that the government disclose more details about Chavez's health.

"He has the same speech, but he hurls insults and makes threats. He's fooling the people and the world," Escalante said.

El Nacional, an opposition-leaning newspaper, wrote that Maduro risks losing a "historic opportunity" to unite the country if he fails to distance himself from hardliners.

The vice president, it wrote, seemed like the right man "to lead the inevitable transition toward a new, broader and more tolerant political scheme."

"But Maduro -- being a rookie, having little political and ideological training or being weak and spineless -- has come out of the bullring to show that he is the bull who leads the pack, and he ended up looking ridiculous on national TV."

lth/mdl

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130304/chavezs-chosen-successor-imitator-or-moderate