October 4, 2013 / 5:12 AM / 6 years ago

Factbox: The political life of Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro

CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro is struggling to emerge from the shadow of his flamboyant predecessor Hugo Chavez at the helm of the South American OPEC nation.

Here are some facts about Maduro:

The burly, mustachioed Maduro, 50, is a former union leader and Caracas bus driver. He does not have a university degree and proudly calls himself Venezuela’s first “worker president.”

Maduro entered politics in 1998 when he won a seat in parliament. His combative defense of Chavez’s policies made him one of the socialist leader’s proteges.

He rose to become president of the assembly, a post later occupied by his wife, Cilia Flores, a lawyer. When Chavez was imprisoned after a 1992 coup attempt, Flores led the legal team that won his freedom two years later.

Maduro first met Chavez during a visit to him in jail in 1993. “That day, December 16, 1993, I made a spiritual commitment to him. I will follow that man wherever he goes, I told myself. And that’s the way it was.”

As foreign minister for six years starting in 2006, Maduro faithfully expounded Chavez’s views around the world, including critiques of global affairs from a hard left-wing stance. Despite often fiery rhetoric, he won plaudits for his affable style, and cultivated important friendships in Russia and China.

Chavez, who had cancer, named Maduro vice president in late 2012. A few weeks later Chavez endorsed Maduro as his heir. Chavez reveled in Maduro’s working class roots. “He was a bus driver. How they mock him, the bourgeoisie!” Chavez laughed.

Chavez’s naming of Maduro quelled the ambitions of other powerful figures in the ruling Socialist Party, such as National Assembly head Diosdado Cabello. It also helped Maduro win a six-year term as president in an election in April after Chavez’s death in March, although the margin of victory was much narrower than expected.

Although public about his Roman Catholic faith, Maduro has also been a follower of the late Indian spiritual guru Sai Baba, whom he and Flores visited in 2005.

A keen baseball player in his youth, Maduro also used to play guitar in heavy rock bands.

Maduro has been unabashed about declaring himself a “son” and “apostle” of Chavez. He lacks his mentor’s charisma but he has sought to emulate his man-of-the-people political persona, kissing babies, greeting workers and occasionally bursting into song during near-daily live TV broadcasts.

Maduro delighted supporters, and drew mockery from critics, when he said Chavez’s spirit visited him in the form of a bird that sang to him while he was praying. He also said he sometimes sleeps in the mausoleum where Chavez’s remains lie.

Presenting himself as the heir to “Chavismo,” Maduro has vowed to extend and deepen Chavez’s “21st century socialism.” He has been short on new policy initiatives, however.

At times, Maduro has been just as hardline as his mentor, thundering at internal opponents and the U.S. “empire”. At others, he has appeared to offer olive branches, for example calling for dialogue with Washington and sitting down with private business leaders whom Chavez used to demonize.

Although clearly not commanding the international reputation that Chavez had, Maduro has sought to maintain ties with “anti-imperialist” allies such as Cuba and China.

Maduro has made a series of verbal gaffes, the most embarrassing when alluding to the Biblical miracle of Jesus feeding the multitude. He spoke of a multiplication of “penises” instead of “fishes”, muddling “penes” and “peces” in Spanish.

In contrast to Chavez’s meticulously-documented childhood, little is known about Maduro’s early days. Though the opposition claim he was born just over the border in Colombia and are demanding Maduro display a legitimate birth certificate, the president says he was born in a poor neighborhood of Caracas.

Maduro says he was politicized during the 1960s and 1970s in student protests and clashes with the police around the Venezuela Central University, near his home. In one interview, he said he joined a radical student organization aged just 12.

Editing by Daniel Wallis and Grant McCool

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