CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez named Foreign Minister and former bus driver Nicolas Maduro as his new vice president on Wednesday in a Cabinet shake-up following his comfortable re-election.
Maduro, 49, replaces Elias Jaua, who will run for the governorship of Miranda state against defeated presidential candidate Henrique Capriles in the South American OPEC member’s December gubernatorial elections.
An ex-union leader on the public bus service and foreign minister since 2006, Maduro 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 11-point win on Sunday.
Should Chavez’s cancer reappear and force him out of office within the first four years of his six-year term, the vice president would serve temporarily as president before a new election. If Chavez left office in the final two years, the vice president would serve out the rest of the term. Chavez, 58, has ruled Venezuela since 1999.
“I don’t recommend anyone for 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 defence of Chavez’s socialism turned him into a favoured protégé.
“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.
In other changes, Interior Minister Tareck el Aissami, Presidential Office Minister Erika Farias and Indigenous Peoples’ Minister Nicia Maldonada all left the Cabinet to fight for state governorships, the ruling Socialist Party said.
Replacements were not named.
Capriles, the energetic Miranda state governor, said he had put Sunday’s loss behind him and urged opposition supporters to rally once more for December’s gubernatorial elections as a way of putting a brake on Chavez’s power across Venezuela.
“I’m back on my feet. ... The tears have dried up,” Capriles, who won 44 percent of the vote compared with 55 percent for Chavez, told 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.
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 re-election victory, especially as he won in all but two states.
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 past four presidential elections and galvanized the once-fractured opposition, Capriles looks like it’s obvious head right now.
But there is no guarantee he will retain that status.
Other ambitious opposition leaders of his generation, like Zulia Governor Pablo Perez and former Caracas District Mayor Leopoldo Lopez, may be sizing up their own chances at a 2018 presidential bid.
Capriles, who has avoided mentioning Chavez’s recent battles with two cancerous tumours 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 gruelling 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 and Enrique Andres Pretel; Editing by Peter Cooney