Biography of Nicolas Maduro, Embattled President of Venezuela

Nicolas Maduro, President of Venezuela
Nicolas Maduro President of Venezuela gives a speech at the People's Balcony to pro government supporters.

Carolina Cabral / Getty Images

Nicolás Maduro (born November 23, 1962) is the president of Venezuela. He came to power in 2013 as the protégé of Hugo Chávez, and is a major proponent of chavismo, the socialist political ideology associated with the late leader. Maduro has faced strong opposition from Venezuelan exiles, the U.S. government, and other powerful international allies, as well as a serious economic crisis due to the decline in the price of oil, Venezuela's primary export. There have been several coup attempts by the opposition to remove Maduro from office, and in 2019, the U.S. and many other countries recognized opposition leader Juan Guaidó as the rightful leader of Venezuela. Nonetheless, Maduro has been able to hold onto power.

Fast Facts: Nicolás Maduro

  • Known For: President of Venezuela since 2013
  • Born: November 23, 1962 in Caracas, Venezuela
  • Parents: Nicolás Maduro García, Teresa de Jesús Moros
  • Spouse(s): Adriana Guerra Angulo (m. 1988-1994), Cilia Flores (m. 2013-present)
  • Children: Nicolás Maduro Guerra
  • Awards and Honors: Order of the Liberator (Venezuela, 2013), Star of Palestine (Palestine, 2014), Order of Augusto César Sandino (Nicaragua, 2015), Order of José Martí (Cuba, 2016), Order of Lenin (Russia, 2020)
  • Notable Quote: "I don't obey imperial orders. I'm against the Ku Klux Klan that governs the White House, and I'm proud to feel that way."

Early Life

The son of Nicolás Maduro García and Teresa de Jesús Moros, Nicolás Maduro Moros was born on November 23, 1962 in Caracas. The elder Maduro was a union leader, and his son followed in his footsteps, becoming the president of the student union at his high school in El Valle, a working-class neighborhood in the outskirts of Caracas. According to a former classmate interviewed by The Guardian, "He would address us during the assembly to talk about students' rights and that sort of thing. He didn't speak much and wasn't agitating people into action, but what he did say was usually poignant." Records suggest Maduro never graduated from high school.

Maduro was a rock music aficionado in his teens and considered becoming a musician. However, instead he joined the Socialist League and worked as a bus driver, eventually assuming a leadership position in a trade union representing Caracas bus and subway conductors. Rather than attend university, Maduro traveled to Cuba to receive training in labor and political organizing.

Early Political Career

In the early 1990s, Maduro joined the civilian wing of the Movimiento Bolivariano Revolucionario 200 (Bolivarian Revolutionary Movement or MBR 200) a secret movement within the Venezuelan army led by Hugo Chávez and made up of military men disillusioned by the widespread government corruption. In February 1992, Chávez and several other military officers attempted a coup, targeting the Presidential Palace and the Defense Ministry. The coup was put down and Chávez was jailed. Maduro participated in campaigning for his release and Chávez was vindicated and pardoned in 1994, after President Carlos Pérez was convicted in a major corruption scandal.

Nicolas Maduro in 2004
Nicolas Maduro, deputy for Venezuela's ruling party, addresses a crowd of supporters of President Hugo Chavez on March 2, 2004 in Caracas. Andrew Alvarez / Getty Images 

After his release, Chávez went about converting his MBR 200 into a legal political party, and Maduro became increasingly involved in the "Chavista" political movement that advocated for establishing social welfare programs designed to reduce poverty and improve education. He helped found the Fifth Republic Movement that had Chávez run for president in 1998. Maduro met his future second wife, Cilia Flores, during this time—she headed the legal team that achieved Chávez's prison release and would eventually (in 2006) become the first woman to head the National Assembly, Venezuela's legislative body.

Maduro's Political Ascent

Maduro's political star rose along with that of Chávez, who won the presidency in 1998. In 1999, Maduro helped draft a new constitution and the following year he began serving in the National Assembly, assuming the role of speaker of the assembly from 2005 to 2006. In 2006, Maduro was named minister of foreign affairs by Chávez, and worked to advance the goals of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA), which sought to counter U.S. influence in Latin America and push for political and economic integration in the region. Member countries of ALBA included leftist-leaning states like Cuba, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua. As foreign minister, Maduro also cultivated relationships with controversial leaders/dictators, like Libya's Muammar al-Qaddafi, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, and Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Maduro often echoed Chávez's incendiary rhetoric against the U.S.; in 2007, he called the then secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, a hypocrite and likened the detention center at Guantanamo Bay to Nazi-era concentration camps. On the other hand, he was an effective diplomat, taking an important role in improving the hostile relations with neighboring Colombia in 2010. One colleague from the foreign ministry stated, "Nicolás is one of the strongest and best-formed figures that the PSUV [Venezuela's socialist party] has. He was a union leader and that has given him incredible negotiating abilities and strong popular support. Additionally, his time in diplomacy has polished him and given him exposure."

Colombian Minister of Foreign Affairs Maria Angela Holguin (R) with Nicolas Maduro
Colombian Minister of Foreign Affairs Maria Angela Holguin (R) and her Venezuelan counterpart Nicolas Maduro shake hands during a press conference after a meeting in Cucuta, Colombia, near the border with Venezuela, on October 7, 2010. Guillermo Legaria / Getty Images

Vice Presidency and Assumption of the Presidency

After Chávez was reelected in 2012, he selected Maduro as his vice president, all but ensuring that Maduro would succeed him; Chávez had announced his cancer diagnosis in 2011. Before leaving for cancer treatment in Cuba in late 2012, Chávez named Maduro as his successor: " 'My firm opinion, as clear as the full moon – irrevocable, absolute, total – is … that you elect Nicolás Maduro as president,' Chávez said in a dramatic final televised speech. 'I ask this of you from my heart. He is one of the young leaders with the greatest ability to continue, if I cannot,'" reported The Guardian.

Hugo Chavez with Nicolas Maduro, 2012
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez (C) greets supporters as Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro (R) looks on, during a campaign rally in view to the upcoming presidential election, in Antimano, Caracas on August 3, 2012. Juan Barreto / Getty Images 

In January 2013, Maduro took over as acting leader of Venezuela while Chávez recovered. Maduro's principal rival was the president of the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello, who was favored by the military. Nonetheless, Maduro had the support of the Castro regime in Cuba. Chávez died on March 5, 2013, and Maduro was sworn in as interim leader on March 8. A special election was held on April 14, 2013, and Maduro won a slim victory over Henrique Capriles Radonski, who demanded a recount, which was not granted. He was sworn in on April 19. The opposition also attempted to advance a "birther" movement argument, suggesting that Maduro was actually Colombian.

Maduro's First Term

Almost immediately, Maduro went on the offensive against the U.S. In September 2013, he expelled three U.S. diplomats, accusing them of facilitating acts of sabotage against the government. In early 2014, there were wide-scale street protests against the government by middle-class opponents and students in Venezuela. Nonetheless, Maduro retained the support of poor Venezuelans, the military, and police, and the protests subsided by May.

Nicolas Maduro with Cilia Flores
President Nicolas Maduro (R) speaks with Venezuelan First Lady Cilia Flores (L) during a ceremony commemorating the second anniversary of former Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez's death in Caracas on March 5, 2015.  Juan Barreto / Getty Images

Many of the protests were related to the growing economic crisis in Venezuela. The global depression in oil prices was a major factor, given how closely the country's economy was tied to oil exports. Inflation skyrocketed and Venezuela's import capabilities shrank, resulting in shortages of staples like toilet paper, milk, flour, and certain medicines. There was widespread dissatisfaction, which led to the PSUV (Maduro's party) losing control of the National Assembly in December 2015, for the first time in 16 years. Maduro declared a state of economic emergency in January 2016.

With the centrist-conservative opposition in power in the National Assembly, in March 2016 it passed legislation leading to the release from prison of dozens of Maduro's critics. The opposition also led an effort to remove Maduro from office, including initiating a recall that gained millions of signatures; polling suggested that a majority of Venezuelans favored his removal. This fight went on for the rest of the year, with the courts ultimately getting involved and declaring that there had been fraud in the signature collecting process.

In the meantime, Maduro was refusing foreign aid, as it would have been akin to admitting that the country was in crisis; nonetheless, leaked information from the central bank indicated that the GDP had declined by almost 19 percent in 2016 and inflation had risen by 800 percent.

The Supreme Court consisted primarily of Maduro allies, and in March 2017, it effectively dissolved the National Assembly—although Maduro compelled the Court to revoke its drastic action. Massive street protests were organized in response to the attempt to dissolve the National Assembly. These included violent clashes between protesters and the police, and by June 2017 at least 60 people had been killed and 1,200 had been injured. Maduro characterized the opposition as a U.S.-backed conspiracy, and announced his intention to draft a new constitution in May. Opponents saw this as an attempt to consolidate power and delay elections.

In July 2017, an election was held to replace the National Assembly with a pro-Maduro body called the National Constituent Assembly that would have the power to rewrite the constitution. Maduro claimed victory, but opponents asserted that the vote was rife with fraud and the U.S. responded by freezing Maduro's assets.

In 2017, the country's GDP declined by 14 percent, and food and medicine shortages were rampant. By early 2018, Venezuelans were fleeing, as many as 5,000 per day, to neighboring countries and to the U.S. At this point, Venezuela was subject to sanctions not only from the U.S., but also Europe. In response, the Maduro government released a Bitcoin-like cryptocurrency called the "petro," whose value was linked to the price of one barrel of Venezuelan crude oil.

Maduro's Reelection

In early 2018, Maduro pushed to move up the presidential election from December to May. Opposition leaders felt sure the election wouldn't be free and fair, and called on supporters to boycott the election. Voter turnout was only 46 percent, much lower than the previous election in 2013, and many opposition leaders suggested there had been fraud and vote buying by the Maduro government. Ultimately, although Maduro captured 68 percent of the votes, the U.S., Canada, European Union and many Latin American countries called the election illegitimate.

In August, Maduro was the target of an assassination attempt by two drones laden with explosives. Although no one ever claimed responsibility, some speculated that it had been staged in order to justify repressive measures by the government. The next month, the New York Times reported that there had been secret meetings between U.S. officials and Venezuelan military officers plotting a coup. Later that month, Maduro addressed the UN Assembly, calling the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela "a fabrication" and accusing the U.S. and its Latin American allies of attempting to intervene in national politics.

On January 10, 2019, Maduro was sworn in for his second term. In the meantime, a young and strident opponent of Maduro's, Juan Guaidó, was elected as president of the National Assembly. On January 23, he proclaimed himself Venezuela's acting president, stating that because Maduro had not been elected legally, the country was without a leader. Almost immediately, Guaidó was recognized as Venezuela's president by the U.S., the U.K., Argentina, Brazil, Canada, the Organization of American States, and many other countries. Maduro, backed by Cuba, Bolivia, Mexico, and Russia, characterized Guaidó's actions as a coup and ordered U.S. diplomats to leave the country within 72 hours.

Juan Guaidó rally, May 2019
Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó, recognized by many members of the international community as the country's rightful interim ruler, speaks during a rally on May 26, 2019 in Barquisimeto, Venezuela. Edilzon Gamez / Getty Images

Maduro also refused to allow humanitarian aid trucks filled with medicine and food to enter the country, closing the borders with Colombia and Brazil in February 2019; he argued the trucks could be used to facilitate another coup attempt. Guaidó and human rights activists attempted to circumvent the government's blockade by acting as human shields for the trucks, but security forces (most of which were still loyal to Maduro) used rubber bullets and tear gas against them. As retaliation for Colombian president Iván Duque's support of the relief effort, Maduro broke off diplomatic relations with his neighbor again.

In April 2019, Maduro stated publicly that loyal military officers had defeated a coup attempt by President Trump and his then national security advisor, John Bolton, who had previously referred to Venezuela (along with Cuba and Nicaragua) as the "troika of tyranny." In July, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights published a report accusing the Maduro regime of a pattern of human rights violations, including the extrajudicial killing of thousands of Venezuelans by security forces. Maduro responded that the report relied on inaccurate data, but a similar report was released by Human Rights Watch in September 2019, noting that poor communities no longer supporting the government had been subject to arbitrary arrests and execution.

Maduro has also been criticized widely in recent years for publicly enjoying lavish feasts while the majority of Venezuelans are suffering from malnutrition and reduced access to food because of the economic crisis.

Maduro's Tenuous Hold on Power

Despite the beliefs of many in the Trump administration and across the world that 2019 would see Maduro's downfall, he has managed to retain a tenuous grip on power. Guaidó became mired in scandal in late 2019, suggesting that he may have "missed his moment" to become Venezuela's leader. In addition, as one expert suggests, Maduro made the smart decision to not follow Cuba's lead in stopping opponents from defecting: he has made it possible for the people who are most vocally opposed to simply leave Venezuela.

Nonetheless, neighboring Colombia is overwhelmed with Venezuelan migrants, with thousands arriving daily, and the dire state of Venezuela's economy—particularly the food shortages—means that the situation is volatile.

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