RPT-Venezuela's Maduro: from bus driver to president-in-waiting

* Maduro seen as moderate but faithful socialist disciple

* "We are the children of Chavez"

* Investors hope for more pragmatic leadership

CARACAS, Dec 12 (Reuters) - After rising from bus driver to

union leader to vice president of Venezuela, Nicolas Maduro

could soon be at the helm of the South American OPEC nation if a

third bout of cancer pulls President Hugo Chavez out of office.

Anointed as the former soldier's successor, Maduro is the

most popular of Chavez's inner circle and the most qualified to

carry on his oil-financed socialism.

Maduro, who is seen as a moderate who has developed

alliances around the world during six years a s foreign minister,

would assume power if Chavez has to step aside. He would then

have to run as the Socialist Party's candidate in an election

against the opposition.

Because he has stuck so closely to Chavez's official line,

it is difficult to know what Maduro's policies might be if he

were leading the country on his own.

His experience as a union leader taught Maduro the

importance of dialogue, suggesting he could begin mending fences

with business leaders and the opposition after a decade of

hostility.

But he will face intense pressure from ideological radicals

and self-interested profiteers who h ave enriched themselves

under Chavez's government to extend the state's grip over the

economy and private enterprise.

Maduro's first speech after being named successor indicated

he is likely to assume Chavez's blustering rhetoric while

presenting himself as a disciple of the cancer-stricken leader.

"We are eternally grateful to Chavez ... we will be loyal to

Chavez beyond this lifetime," a tearful Maduro said during a

rally for state governors in a speech in which he invoked

independence heroes, shouted triumphant slogans and then lowered

his voice for dramatic effect in hallmark Chavez style.

"We are the children of Chavez."

TRANSITION IN MOTION

For the first time since his 2011 diagnosis for an

unspecified type of cancer, Chavez has suggested his illness

could keep him from continuing his 14-year self-styled

revolution. O n Tuesday he underwent his fourth operation for

cancer after twice declaring himself completely cured.

The possible transition generated optimism for a more

moderate government after years of intransigent socialism.

Wall Street investors drawn to Venezuela's highly traded

bonds, as well as oil companies seeking greater access to the

world's largest crude reserves, are watching closely.

Maduro survived Chavez's mercurial micro-management and

became one of the longest-lasting ministers in the frequently

rotating Cabinet by executing orders and repeating anti-U.S.

rhetoric around the world.

He often appeared as a towering sidekick over Chavez's

shoulder in television broadcasts.

In 1992, when Chavez was jailed for a failed coup that made

him famous, Maduro took to the streets to demand his release

alongside his partner Cilia Flores, who led the legal team that

helped get Chavez freed within two years.

Maduro and Flores are considered a "power couple" in

Chavez's government.

Maduro gained notoriety as a rabble-rousing legislator

during the tumultuous early years of Chavez's rule. He was at

the front lines of efforts to defeat a failed coup and a

crippling oil strike in 2002 and a recall referendum in 2004.

Upon rising to head of Congress, Maduro swapped the blue

jeans and plaid shirts of a union leader for sharp suits. Even

in his high-toned attire, he still could be seen elbowing

through reporters to get to the appetizer table before

presidential press conferences.

EXPERIENCE IN NEGOTIATION

As foreign minister, Maduro has trotted the globe denouncing

U.S. foreign policy and cultivating allies in emerging markets

such as Russia and China, which would become a key financier.

One of Maduro's offices includes a large portrait of the

late Indian spiritual guru Sai Baba, who he and Flores, who also

is a former head of Congress, visited in 2005.

Maduro has often been at Chavez's side during his cancer

treatments in Havana.

"Nicolas is a person who can talk to anyone," said Jose

Albornoz, who worked alongside him as a legislator for a party

allied with the government that later split with Chavez.

"His work with unions taught him to communicate with his

adversary. I think he could open a dialogue with (opposition

leaders) to make sure his government is successful."

Maduro could face tough economic decisions including a

widely expected currency devaluation, a price hike for heavily

subsidized fuel and cuts in state spending after Chavez's lavish

campaign that helped him win re-election in October.

The idea of transition from Chavez to Maduro may well have

come from Cuba's Fidel Castro, Chavez's political mentor who six

years ago handed over power to his younger brother Raul after

falling ill himself. The younger Castro has since begun a slow

transition away from centrally planned communism.

More pragmatic leadership from Maduro could help tackle

problems including crime, inflation and unemployment that

critics say have gone unchecked because of Chavez's rigid

ideological approach to them.

While Chavez has a reputation for choosing government

officials on the basis of loyalty and political views, people

who have worked with Maduro commend him for prioritizing

credentials and hard work.

"He's a real man of the people," Ecuadorean Ambassador Ramon

Torres told Reuters.

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