A leader cries, ‘I am Chávez,’ as U.S. seeks clues on policy

CARACAS, Venezuela – In the weeks leading up to his mentor’s death, Vice President Nicolás Maduro’s imitations of President Hugo Chávez became ever more apparent.
Vice President Nicolás Maduro on Wednesday consoled a supporter of President Hugo Chávez. Net photo.
Vice President Nicolás Maduro on Wednesday consoled a supporter of President Hugo Chávez. Net photo.

CARACAS, Venezuela – In the weeks leading up to his mentor’s death, Vice President Nicolás Maduro’s imitations of President Hugo Chávez became ever more apparent.

He has taken on many of Chávez’s vocal patterns and speech rhythms, and has eagerly repeated the slogan “I am Chávez” to crowds of supporters. He has mimicked the president’s favorite themes — belittling the political opposition and warning of mysterious plots to destabilize the country, even implying that the United States was behind Chávez’s cancer.

He has also adopted the president’s clothes, walking beside his coffin in an enormous procession on Wednesday wearing a windbreaker with the national colors of yellow, blue and red, as Chávez often did.

But now that Chávez is gone, the big question being raised here is whether Maduro, his chosen successor, will continue to mirror the president and his unconventional governing style — or veer off in his own direction.

“He can’t just stand there and say ‘I am the Mini-Me of Chávez and now you have to follow me,’ ” said Maxwell A. Cameron of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

The puzzlement over what sort of leader Maduro will prove to be extends to Washington, where American policy makers have been feeling out Maduro for months, years even, to determine whether he might provide an opening for closer ties between the two nations.

American officials say Chávez, despite his very public denunciations of Washington, worked behind the scenes to keep trade relations between the two countries, especially in the oil sector, strong. They recalled how Chávez once picked up the phone and dialed an American diplomat to talk policy, an odd move for a leader who more than once barred American ambassadors from Caracas and regularly denounced Washington and its leaders, sometimes using barnyard epithets.

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