Chavez's VP ratchets up profile in Venezuela

Last Updated: Sat, Jan 19, 2013 22:30 hrs

Venezuelan Vice President Nicolas Maduro has begun rallying supporters so often on television that opponents are suggesting he is campaigning for support while ailing President Hugo Chavez remains out of sight in Cuba.

Maduro visited an outdoor government-run market on Saturday, promoting vegetables, cooking oil and other foods at cheap, subsidized prices. In other appearances this past week, he presented new public housing and inaugurated a school.

"Maduro campaigning, be prepared!" opposition leader Henrique Capriles said in a message on his Twitter account Friday night. Other opposition politicians have questioned Maduro's higher profile, saying it suggests an effort to make him a more familiar voice for Venezuelans and promote him as an eventual presidential candidate.

Before his latest cancer surgery, Chavez said that if his illness cuts short his presidency, Maduro should run in a new election to take his place. Chavez has not spoken publicly or been seen in more than five weeks since his Dec. 11 operation for an unspecified type of pelvic cancer.

Maduro, however, expressed confidence on Saturday that Chavez will return home.

"Little by little. God and his doctors are doing their work, and we'll have him here," Maduro said, wearing a track suit as he spoke on television at the market in the city of Valencia. "We'll have him with the people, in command, always in command."

The government has been trying to fight 20 percent inflation, and some Venezuelans have also been complaining about shortages of foods such as chicken, cooking oil and sugar, while the government has maintained its longstanding price controls on many foods.

Maduro said the government-run market and others like it across the country should "keep reaching Venezuelans more and more, to guarantee people food like never before."

"We aren't going to permit anyone to sabotage the food of our children, of our homeland. It's Chavez's order," Maduro said, reiterating government accusations that unscrupulous businesspeople have been hoarding products to drive up prices.

The vice president kept up Chavez's criticisms of the leading business chamber Fedecamaras, which has blamed the government's economic policies for exacerbating sporadic shortages and other problems.

"It's proposing the liberation of prices," Maduro said during his visit to the market. "Go far away, Fedecamaras! There is a government here that is going to keep hunting down hoarding."

During the past week, some of Chavez's allies in the National Assembly have also announced a bill that would attempt to regulate auto sales prices and combat "speculation."

Echoing Chavez's past remarks, Maduro said the government is still open to working with businesspeople who show a "spirit of cooperation."

Maduro, a 50-year-old former foreign minister, lawmaker and bus driver, was tapped by the socialist leader as vice president in October after the president won re-election to new six-year term.

The vice president's frequent appearances in televised events in recent days seem intended to at least partly fill the large void left by the absence of the loquacious Chavez, who used to talk on the air for hours at a time most days.

Mariana Bacalao, a professor of public opinion at the Central University of Venezuela, said that Maduro "surely is seeking to transmit and communicate that message that the country is in motion, that things are being done."

Bacalao said that Maduro also seems to be in a process of honing "his own image."

The vice president has been joined by other Cabinet ministers in keeping up a steady stream of promotional TV appearances. Commerce Minister Edmee Betancourt on Saturday showed off boxes of newly imported Chinese appliances, such as washing machines and refrigerators, which are being sold at discounted prices at government-run stores.

Maria Sarmiento, a Chavez supporter selling mandarin oranges on a sidewalk in Caracas, said she still hopes the president will get better and return home. "I don't know if Maduro is campaigning or not, although it seems like it," she said.

When the vice president attended the inauguration of a school on Friday, Maduro repeated an increasingly frequent message: that Chavez has sacrificed for the country and his supporters should reciprocate by being united.

"He has done everything for us," Maduro said. "He didn't sleep, he ate poorly, he spent 24 hours a day every day working for the nation."

Chavez acknowledged after his cancer diagnosis in 2011 that he had been drinking dozens of cups of coffee a day, had slept little and had generally been neglecting his health.

"He's given all of his life," Maduro said. "We should pay that back with work, with dedication, with intelligence, with unity."

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