After announcing socialist president Hugo Chávez’ death on Tuesday, Venezuela’s vice president Nicolás Maduro assumed power in defiance of the Constitution, which stipulates that the speaker of the National Assembly should become interim president.
Chávez died after a two year battle with cancer and ruling the Latin American nation for fourteen years. He was elected to a fourth term in October of last year but could not be inaugurated on January 10 due to his illness. According to the country’s highest law, Diosdado Cabello, the speaker of parliament, should therefore assume the presidency until a snap election is called within thirty days.
Maduro has served as de facto president in Chávez’ absence and Elías Jaua, the foreign minister, confirmed on Tuesday that he would continue to govern in that capacity. He will also stand as the ruling party’s presidential candidate in the next election for which a date has yet to be set.
Shortly before his last trip to Cuba where Chávez underwent cancer treatment, the former president anointed Maduro his successor. “My firm opinion, as clear as the full moon — irrevocable, absolute, total — is that you elect Nicolás Maduro as president,” he said in December. “He is one of the young leaders with the greatest ability to continue if I cannot.”
Maduro is believed to enjoy stronger support from within the ruling party than Cabello as well as from Cuba which is Venezuela’s most important ally in the region. The communist regime there depends on cheap Venezuelan oil and investments to keep its economy afloat. In 2011, Venezuela accounted for $8.3 billion of Cuba’s $20 billion in foreign trade.
If he wins the election, Maduro is unlikely to push for significant changes in economic and foreign policy. Like Chávez, he has been fiercely critical of the United States which just a day before his mentor’s death, he accused of poisoning the president. After he was detained by security screeners at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport in 2006, he denounced the United States government as “Nazi” and “racist” and said it did not appreciate Latin American nations.
Maduro has also advocated rapprochement with neighboring Colombia, however, where a right-wing government, allied to the United States, crushed a Marxist-Leninist guerrilla that sympathized with and was supported by Venezuela’s leftist regime.