CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez named Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro as his new vice-president on Wednesday in the first change of cabinet after Sunday’s re-election.
A former bus driver and trade unionist, Maduro replaces Elias Jaua, who will run for the state governorship of Miranda against opposition leader and defeated presidential candidate Henrique Capriles in a December gubernatorial vote.
The affable Maduro, 49, has long been seen as a possible successor to Chavez, and was frequently at his side in the most critical moments of the president’s year of cancer treatment.
Capriles has been seeking to rally Venezuela’s crushed opposition for the December vote, when opposition parties will seek to peg back the ruling Socialist Party at local level.
The energetic Miranda state governor said he had put Sunday’s loss to Chavez by 11 percentage points behind him.
“On Sunday I felt really down, I‘m one of those people who can’t hide their feelings,” said Capriles, who won 44 percent of the vote compared to 55 percent for Chavez.
“Now I‘m back on my feet ... . The tears have dried up quickly. Today I have even more strength and energy,” Capriles said during a three-hour news conference late on Tuesday.
A business-friendly lawyer and career politician widely seen as the opposition’s best leader of the Chavez era, Capriles, 40, plans to run for re-election as governor of Miranda.
Having beaten a heavyweight Chavez ally for that post in 2008, Capriles will now take on another senior loyalist, Jaua, in the highest-profile race of the December 16 elections.
Capriles will formally launch his candidacy on Friday, his office said in a statement.
Members of the opposition coalition control seven of 23 states, and they hope to increase that number in December. But Chavez’s candidates will gain momentum from his victory, especially as he won in all but two states.
“We’ve lost one game. But we’re over it and now we Venezuelans have to think about the next one,” added Capriles, urging the 6.5 million people who voted for him to back opposition governors.
In the campaign, Chavez never referred to Capriles by name. He savaged his rival daily as a “pig,” “loser,” “sycophant,” “fascist,” “nothing” and “candidate of the ultra-right.”
Yet the president appeared impressed by Capriles’ quick acknowledgement of defeat and telephoned him on Monday.
“I took the telephone and thought ‘gosh, let’s see which of the nicknames he’s going to use.’ At last he called me by my surname,” Capriles said with a smile.
“I told him ‘Mr. President, with all due respect, I hope we are not going to continue hearing insults and derogatory terms’ ... . He told me I had made a great effort, and that I should get some rest, and that I had pushed him hard.”
Having won the most votes against Chavez in the last four presidential elections and galvanized the once-fractured opposition, Capriles looks like its obvious head right now. But there is no guarantee he will retain that status.
Other ambitious opposition leaders of his 40-something generation, like Zulia Governor Pablo Perez or former Caracas District Mayor Leopoldo Lopez, may be sizing up their own chances at a 2018 presidential bid.
An opportunity could come sooner should Chavez’s cancer recur and force him out of office. That would trigger a new election if it happened in the first four years of his six-year term. Chavez has ruled Venezuela since 2009.
Capriles, who has avoided mentioning Chavez’s recent battles with two cancerous tumors beyond wishing him good health and a long life, has dropped plenty of hints that he plans to remain the opposition’s driving force.
“I am going to continue going around Venezuela. There are lots of places I was unable to visit,” he said, referring to the grueling campaign of hundreds of visits to villages, towns and cities around the huge South American nation.
“I left my heart on the road, and I’ll do it again ... . No one is unbeatable.”
To the relief of Venezuelans, fears of post-vote violence proved unfounded, thanks largely to an electronic, fingerprint-linked ballot system praised by both sides.
Capriles said there was no fraud on election day, though he condemned the government’s use of state resources and a “gigantic dirty war” against him in the run-up to the vote.
“I don’t think there’s any example in the Americas of an abuse of resources like here,” he said, citing Chavez’s nearly 50 hours of speeches and activities that Venezuelan TV networks were forced to carry live during the campaign.
Editing by Todd Benson and David Brunnstrom Briand