CARACAS, Venezuela — In the weeks leading up to his mentor’s death, Vice President Nicolas 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 Wednesday wearing a windbreaker patterned after the national colors of yellow, blue and red, like the one Chávez often wore.
But now that Chávez is gone, the big question being raised here is whether Maduro will continue to mirror Chávez and his unconventional governing style — or veer off in his own direction.
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“He can’t just stand there and say, ‘I am the Mini-Me of Chávez and now you have to follow me,’ ” said Maxwell Cameron, of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.
The puzzlement over what sort of leader Maduro will be extends to Washington, where U.S. policymakers have been feeling him out for months, years even, to determine whether he might provide an opening for closer ties between the two nations.
U.S. officials say that 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.
Beneath the bluster, American diplomats and analysts said, Chávez could be a pragmatist, and they hope Maduro will prove even more to be one.
“I know Nicolas Maduro well,” said William Delahunt, a former Massachusetts member of Congress. “I know he’s a pragmatist.”
The United States reached out to Maduro in November to gauge interest in improving the relationship. He responded positively, and the two nations held three informal meetings in Washington, the last one taking place after it was clear that Chávez’s condition was severe, U.S. officials said.
Most diplomats and political analysts agree that the start of the post-Chávez landscape looked bleak, with Maduro accusing the United States of plotting against the country and expelling two U.S. military attaches. However, some observers saw the moves as an overtly calculated — one analyst called it “inelegant” — attempt by Maduro to unify a traumatized country bracing for Chávez’s death, appeal to the president’s supporters and propel his own chances of winning an election to succeed him.
“Maduro has to be careful about every step he takes, and every word he utters about the United States,” said one senior U.S. official who is closely watching developments. “How he is going to handle that pressure is the big unknown. We’re about to find out.”
One past sign of Maduro’s willingness to listen to critics — which was not one of Chávez’s strong points — was his attendance at meetings with members of the Venezuelan opposition that were held in the United States after a 2002 coup that briefly removed Chávez.
But more recently Maduro has shown himself as a hard-liner, lashing out at his political enemies and lambasting Henrique Capriles Radonski, the state governor he will likely face in the election, for spending time in New York.