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Riding the storms: Venezuela's 'indestructible' Nicolas Maduro

Maduro has sought to endear himself to a long-suffering population though a popular TV and internet cartoon character in his image. Super-Bigote (Super Moustache) is a caped superhero 'at war with imperialism' whose lip growth is credited with making him 'indestructible.' (Gabriela Oraa)
Maduro has sought to endear himself to a long-suffering population though a popular TV and internet cartoon character in his image. Super-Bigote (Super Moustache) is a caped superhero 'at war with imperialism' whose lip growth is credited with making him 'indestructible.' (Gabriela Oraa)

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro has been written off many times during a turbulent decade in power. But the former bus driver and anointed heir of Hugo Chavez has stubbornly clung to the wheel.

With neither the charisma, popularity, nor flush oil revenues of his late revolutionary mentor, Maduro is accused by rights groups of embracing full-blown authoritarianism to remain in power.

There had been little suspense in the run-up to Saturday's announcement that he will be the ruling PSUV party's candidate in July 28 presidential elections.

The 61-year-old will be seeking a third consecutive six-year term with his political opposition all but kneecapped.

Tall, and sporting an abundant mustache and slicked-back greying hair, Maduro was thrust into power as the handpicked successor of Chavez, who died of cancer in 2013.

Struggling to gain respect as the legitimate successor to still-popular Chavez, Maduro won his first election with a razor-thin margin.

Since then, he has fended off crisis after crisis, ruling with an increasingly iron fist and consolidating power even as life for the average Venezuelan grew ever more miserable.

Millions of Venezuelans have fled a dire economic crisis, marked by runaway inflation and critical shortages, as an oil boom went bust partly due to a plunge in global crude prices.

- Baseball and salsa -

Born in Caracas and a professed Marxist and Christian, Maduro as a teenager played guitar in a rock band called Enigma. He is a baseball fan and dances salsa.

He became a union leader for workers on the Caracas metro and went to communist Cuba in the 1980s to be educated.

Elected to the National Assembly when Chavez swept to power, he rose to become speaker of the legislature before taking over as foreign minister in 2006 and then vice president in October 2012.

In December of that year, Chavez officially declared Maduro his successor before travelling to Cuba for cancer treatment.

He died three months later and Maduro took over, much to the surprise of even some in the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV).

It was not the first nor last time Maduro was underestimated. In fact, he has embraced criticism that he is boorish and provincial to try and cast himself as a "worker president."

It has even been claimed that he deliberately misspeaks in English so as not to be mistaken for high-brow.

- 'At war with imperialism' -

As president, Maduro has weathered many threats imagined and real -- including a failed explosive-laden drone attack in 2018 that injured several soldiers.

Activists say his government has clamped down ruthlessly on protests against his harsh rule and economic misery.

He has even faced down sanctions that followed the non-recognition of his reelection in 2018 by dozen of nations that declared parliamentary president Juan Guaido Venezuela's legitimate leader.

As Maduro focused on tightening control over the judiciary, legislature, military and other institutions, Guaido's rival government collapsed by itself.

The president has also benefited from close political and economic ties with China, Russia and other autocratic international actors that have helped the country stay barely afloat.

To deflect blame for the country's woes, Maduro has sustained Chavez's anti-American conspiracy theories, accusing the United States of plotting to kill him and Western nations of ruining Venezuela's once-thriving economy.

Maduro is accused of closing off virtually any channels for political dissent, locking up dissidents and challengers with little regard for due process.

His main rival, Maria Corina Machado, overwhelmingly won an opposition primary vote but has been disqualified from holding public office on the back of charges she and others claim are spurious.

Even as the country continued spiraling, Maduro showed himself to be adept at realpolitik.

He won an easing of US sanctions and other concessions by agreeing with the opposition to hold free and fair elections this year.

That relief is now at risk, however, as Maduro stands accused of reneging on his word and Machado and other opposition candidates remain out of the running.

The president has sought to endear himself to a long-suffering population though a popular TV and internet cartoon character in his image.

Super-Bigote (Super Moustache) is a caped superhero "at war with imperialism" whose lip growth is credited with making him "indestructible."

In real life, Maduro often appears in public with his wife Cilia Flores, a former prosecutor he refers to as "First Combattant."

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