Latin America & Caribbean

Venezuela's leader Nicolas Maduro divides opinion

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro drives a bus while leaving the airport after arriving in Caracas on 17 January, 2015 Image copyright AFP
Image caption Mr Maduro, a former bus driver, likes to be behind the wheel himself and is proud of his modest beginnings

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro divides opinion almost as much as his predecessor in office, Hugo Chavez.

While he lacks the magnetism followers of Mr Chavez attributed to the late president, he is a commanding figure in Venezuela, and not just because of his stature of 1.90m (6ft 3in).

Derided as a poor copy of his mentor, Mr Maduro has not been ousted by the opposition or by rivals in his own party, as some had predicted when he was elected in April 2013.

However, he has failed to win over the opposition after sticking very closely to the fiery rhetoric of Mr Chavez.

Tough stance

His government's tough approach to mass anti-government protests in the first half of 2014 and the jailing of thousands of demonstrators prompted criticism from human rights groups and sanctions from the United States.

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Image caption There has been no obvious rift in the PSUV leadership under Mr Maduro as some had predicted

His opponents paint him as a ruthless despot who detains his political rivals on overly harsh charges pressed by a judiciary under his party's control, while his followers say he is protecting the country from another coup.

But with oil prices plummeting below $50 (£33) a barrel, Mr Maduro's approval rating has been falling, too.

Venezuela's economy is almost entirely reliant on its oil exports and the president is facing a severe economic crisis as well as a hostile opposition.

And with financing for the government's generous social programmes in jeopardy, some are questioning how committed those who voted for Mr Maduro really are to the socialist cause and their leader.

Divided society

But predictions about how voters would turn away from the governing PSUV party after the death of Hugo Chavez have proven wrong before.

In presidential polls in April 2013, triggered by Mr Chavez's death the previous month, Mr Maduro won by a razor-thin margin.

But in local elections eight months later, the government coalition won 54% of the vote, a comfortable 10-point lead over the opposition.

And while mass anti-government protests rocked cities such as San Cristobal and Caracas in the first half of 2014, they were largely confined to areas where opposition supporters lived.

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Image caption Anti-government protesters hold up a sign reading "Maduro, assassin, dictator, get out of Venezuela"
Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption A series of mass anti-government protests rocked the country in early 2014

After the jailing of the most vocal of the opposition leaders, Leopoldo Lopez, and the arrests of thousands of protesters, the demonstrations became less frequent and eventually fizzled out.

And there is no shortage of those who will come out to back their leader.

Following his return from a whirlwind international tour to OPEC countries in January, many lined the streets to welcome Mr Maduro.

But even Mr Maduro himself has acknowledged the hurt caused by the economic crisis.

Couching it in terms of an "economic war" waged against Venezuela by the US and a "parasitic bourgeoisie", he has called on Venezuelans to be "ready to defeat the economic mafia" whom he blames for the country's economic woes.

Binding ties

Much of his rhetoric echoes that of Mr Chavez, peppered with criticism of the US and its "imperialist aggression".

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Image caption Nicolas Maduro continues to have a loyal core of supporters who turn out to show their backing
Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Mr Maduro can often be seen in front of a picture of his mentor, Hugo Chavez

This is not surprising as Mr Maduro's ties to Chavismo, the brand of socialism spread by Hugo Chavez, go back some 25 years, when Mr Chavez served time in prison for the attempted coup of 1992.

During this time, Mr Maduro also met his future wife, Cilia Flores, a prominent lawyer on Mr Chavez's defence team.

Mr Maduro is a political veteran, having been a member of Venezuela's parliament, the National Assembly, and at one point becoming the assembly's speaker.

He served as President Chavez's foreign minister from 2006 until 2013, and briefly as vice-president, taking over as acting president upon Mr Chavez's death in March of 2013 until new elections were held the following month.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Nicolas Maduro served as Hugo Chavez's foreign minister for almost seven years

He invokes the memory of his predecessor incessantly, quoting Mr Chavez and frequently speaking in front of a picture of the late leader.

Since Mr Chavez's death he has kept the Chavismo legacy alive, a move welcomed by those who have benefitted from the reduction in inequality and poverty but much to the chagrin of those who believe the country has been driven into ruin by 16 years of what they consider misguided policies.

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