In the weeks leading up to his mentor’s death, Vice President Nicolás Maduro’s imitations of President Hugo Chávez became ever more apparent.
He has taken on many of Mr. Chávez’s vocal patterns and speech rhythms, and has eagerly repeated the slogan “I am Chávez” to crowds of supporters. He has mimicked the president’s favorite themes — belittling the political opposition and warning of mysterious plots to destabilize the country, even implying that the United States was behind Mr. Chávez’s cancer.
He has also adopted the president’s clothes, walking beside his coffin in an enormous procession on Wednesday wearing a windbreaker with the national colors of yellow, blue and red, as Mr. Chávez often did.
But now that Mr. Chávez is gone, the big question being raised here is whether Mr. Maduro, his chosen successor, will continue to mirror the president and his unconventional governing style — or veer off in his own direction.
“He can’t just stand there and say ‘I am the Mini-Me of Chávez and now you have to follow me,’ ” said Maxwell A. Cameron of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.
The puzzlement over what sort of leader Mr. Maduro will prove to be extends to Washington, where American policy makers have been feeling out Mr. Maduro for months, years even, to determine whether he might provide an opening for closer ties between the two nations.
American officials say Mr. Chávez, despite his very public denunciations of Washington, worked behind the scenes to keep trade relations between the two countries, especially in the oil sector, strong. They recalled how Mr. Chávez once picked up the phone and dialed an American diplomat to talk policy, an odd move for a leader who more than once barred American ambassadors from Caracas and regularly denounced Washington and its leaders, sometimes using barnyard epithets. “The United States needs to fix this,” Mr. Chávez said during the call, which concerned the ouster of the Honduran president in 2009. “You are the only ones who can.”
Beneath the bluster, American diplomats and analysts said, Mr. Chávez could be a pragmatist, albeit a sometimes bombastic one, and they hope Mr. Maduro will prove to be even more of one.
“I know Nicolás Maduro well,” said William D. Delahunt, a former Massachusetts member of Congress. “I know he’s a pragmatist.”
The United States reached out to Mr. Maduro last November to gauge interest in improving the relationship. He responded positively, and the two nations held three informal meetings in Washington, the last one taking place after it was clear that Mr. Chávez’s condition was severe, American officials said.
The Venezuelans wanted to once again exchange ambassadors, but Washington insisted on smaller steps to build trust, and it seemed that a tentative plan was in place, American officials said. But then the talks stalled this year and have not resumed, leaving American officials wondering about Mr. Maduro’s true intentions toward the United States.
“Maduro is just beginning to govern and create his own identity,” a State Department official said. “I don’t believe we had ever concluded one way or another whether he was a moderating influence. Our effort to reach out and create a more productive relationship was not based on a belief that he would be easier to deal with necessarily.”
Most diplomats and political analysts agree that the start of the post-Chávez landscape looked bleak; Mr. Maduro accused the United States of plotting against the country and expelled two American military attachés. But some observers saw the moves as an overtly calculated — one analyst called it “inelegant” — attempt by Mr. Maduro to unify a traumatized country bracing for Mr. Chávez’s death, appeal to the president’s supporters and propel his own chances of winning an election to succeed him.
“Maduro has to be careful about every step he takes, and every word he utters about the United States,” said one senior American official who is closely watching developments here. “How he is going to handle that pressure is the big unknown. We’re about to find out.”
One past sign of Mr. Maduro’s willingness to listen to critics — which was not one of Mr. Chávez’s strong points — was his attendance at meetings with members of the Venezuelan opposition that were held in the United States after a 2002 coup that briefly removed Mr. Chávez. The sessions were organized by Mr. Delahunt and took place in Hyannis Port, Mass., prompting participants to call themselves “El Grupo de Boston.”
But more recently Mr. Maduro has shown himself as a hard-liner, lashing out at his political enemies and lambasting Henrique Capriles Radonski, the state governor he will probably face in the election, for his recent trip to New York.
Among oil executives and analysts, there was cautious optimism that Mr. Chávez’s death could soften the hostility his government had toward foreign investment in exploration and refining. “It makes sense that Maduro will be more pragmatic to get the country going,” said Jorge R. Piñon, former president of Amoco Oil Latin America. He said he had talked with several oil executives and come away surprised by their optimism.
“Industry executives believe that there is a high probability that a Maduro administration will be a bit more realistic on what is needed to increase the country’s oil production,” Mr. Piñon added, “and change the investment model to attract more foreign investment.”
On the streets, the vast majority of Chávez supporters say they will vote for Mr. Maduro, often for the simple reason that Mr. Chávez told them to before he succumbed to cancer. At the procession on Wednesday, some actually chanted as the coffin passed, “Chávez, I swear it, I will vote for Maduro!”
But there are some Chávez loyalists who say they are unhappy with Mr. Maduro, at times for reasons that illuminate the drawbacks inherent in his political mimicry.
In the eastern city of Cumaná on Wednesday, some ardent Chávez supporters said they found Mr. Maduro’s constant attacks on the political opposition too jarring — a startling assertion, since Mr. Maduro uses virtually identical language to the phrases popularized by Mr. Chávez, repeating the same insults and put-downs, calling his opponents “good-for-nothings” and accusing them of selling out the country to the United States.
But coming from Mr. Maduro, the same words seem to have a different impact.
“I don’t like Maduro because I feel that he does things that incite hatred, which is not a revolutionary feeling,” said Luis Marcano, 67, an unemployed cook in Cumaná.
Mr. Maduro, whose father was involved in left-wing politics, became a political activist as a young man, joining a group called the Socialist League, traveling to Cuba at one point for political training. Back in Caracas, he took a job as a bus driver and then shifted to union activities.
Eventually, he became involved with Mr. Chávez, who staged a failed coup in 1992. Mr. Maduro fought to have Mr. Chávez released from prison and then worked on his first presidential campaign in 1998. He became a legislator and then president of the National Assembly.
He later served six years as Mr. Chávez’s foreign minister before he was named vice president after the president’s re-election in October.
During that long career by Mr. Chávez’s side, Mr. Maduro earned a reputation as an agile survivor of the inner circle, where absolute loyalty was a prerequisite. He was seen by many as a yes-man who kept his position by hewing closely to his boss and taking care not to outshine or contradict him.
“Nicolás Maduro is a soldier that has to obey orders, just like any other,” said Rommel Salazar, 40, a teacher and musician in Cumaná. “I will vote for him because I must obey Chávez’s instructions.”
But he added a warning, saying that if Mr. Maduro does not adhere to the line set by Mr. Chávez, his followers will hold him accountable. “He will have nailed himself to the cross,” Mr. Salazar said.
William Neuman reported from Caracas, and Ginger Thompson from New York. Reporting was contributed by Lizette Alvarez from Miami; María Iguarán from Cumaná, Venezuela; Clifford Krauss from Houston; and Simon Romero from Caracas.