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Venezuela's new VP to be key figure for Chavez

CARACAS, Venezuela -- A mustachioed former bus driver who rose to become his country's top diplomat has emerged as the vice presidential pick of President Hugo Chavez as the Venezuelan leader prepares to launch a six-year term following two cancer operations.

Nicolas Maduro has shown unflagging loyalty and has maintained close ties to Chavez's allies in Cuba while becoming the president's principal spokesman and an influential leader within his socialist party. Chavez announced Maduro as his new vice president on Wednesday, three days after winning re-election.

"He has been Chavez's best spokesperson. He appears strong, he's charismatic to some, and he is loyal," said Eduardo Gamarra, a Latin American studies professor at Florida International University in Miami.

Chavez's recent struggle with cancer has led to questions about who would be his successor if his illness were to worsen. But Chavez said in June, after a year of treatment that included surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation treatment, that tests had found he was cancer-free.

Before becoming foreign minister, Maduro was president of the National Assembly and is an important leader in Chavez's United Socialist Party of Venezuela.

As vice president, he replaces Elias Jaua, who is seeking a state governorship.

During Chavez's nearly 14-year-old presidency, he hasn't anointed any clear successors, and has rotated various allies through the position of vice president.

"The interesting thing to watch now will be whether Maduro takes on more responsibility than his predecessors and gets involved in a more substantive way in government business, which would be a sign that Chavez is indeed grooming him as his successor," said Nicholas Watson, a Bogota-based analyst for the consulting firm Control Risks, headquartered in London.