CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez named former bus driver and current Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro as his new vice president on Wednesday in the first cabinet change since his re-election on Sunday.
Maduro, 49, replaces Elias Jaua, who will run for the governorship of Miranda state against defeated opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles in the South American OPEC member’s December gubernatorial elections.
Maduro, a union leader at Caracas’ public bus service and foreign minister since 2006, has long been seen as a possible successor to Chavez along with several other senior allies.
He was frequently at his side in the most critical moments of Chavez’s year of cancer treatment since mid-2011.
The possibility of a recurrence of the disease hangs over Chavez despite a surprisingly vigorous campaign before his convincing win by 11 percentage points on Sunday.
“I don’t recommend anyone the vice president’s job,” Chavez joked, naming Maduro during the formal proclamation of his presidential win by Venezuela’s election board.
“Putting up with me is not easy!”
The affable Maduro’s working-class background gives him more appeal than other officials among Chavez’s supporters. He was elected in 2000 to parliament, where his combative defense of Chavez’s socialism turned him into a favored protege.
“He was a bus driver. How they mock him, the bourgeoisie,” said Chavez, who depicts his socialist government as a protector of the masses against an evil capitalist elite.
Away from the government celebrations of Sunday’s vote, losing presidential candidate Capriles has been seeking to rally Venezuela’s crushed opposition for the December local elections.
“BACK ON MY FEET”
Capriles, the energetic Miranda state governor, said he had put Sunday’s loss behind him and urged opposition supporters to keep faith and help hold back the ruling Socialist Party at local level in December’s gubernatorial elections across the nation.
“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,” Capriles said at 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 in 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. He will formally launch his candidacy on Friday, his office said.
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.
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 of 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 reappear 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, 58, has ruled Venezuela since 1999.
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 of his grueling campaign of hundreds of visits to villages, towns and cities.
“I left my heart on the road, and I’ll do it again ... . No one is unbeatable.”
Additional reporting by Eyanir Chinea; Editing by Todd Benson, David Brunnstrom and Cynthia Osterman