Spurred on by a huge outpouring of emotion following Chavez's death from cancer last week, Maduro has vowed to continue the Bolivarian socialist revolution and opinion polls show that he would easily defeat his main rival, the moderate opposition leader, Henrique Capriles.
However, Maduro lacks Chavez's drive and charisma and many doubt that he will be able to complete his mentor's socialist dream in its entirety, let alone lead a 21st century non-aligned world as Chavez did.
Hated by the Right and ridiculed even by some on the Left for his polarising and confrontational style of governance, Chavez – whose remains are to be embalmed and put on display "for eternity" – spoke for millions of disenfranchised people across the continent, kept Latin America firmly on the international agenda and brought its age-old grievances to the world's attention. Who will speak up for Latin America now that he has gone?
Cuba, now in its twilight years of rule by the Castro brothers and heavily dependent on Venezuelan oil, stands to lose most from Chavez's departure. Fidel Castro long ago relinquished the role of world firebrand leftist leader to Chavez, whom he regarded as a son. But Chavez's death may also signal a shift in the fortunes of other left-wing leaders across the region. A realignment of moderates pursuing an independent course that looks good at home in a socialist context, but doesn't shut the door entirely on foreign investment, may also be on the horizon.
Chavez's rise to power in 1999 ushered in a political and economic era known by the US media as the "pink tide", which saw left-leaning presidents elected in Chile (2000), Argentina and Brazil (2003), Uruguay (2005), Bolivia (2006), Ecuador (2007), Paraguay (2008) and most recently Peru (2011). It was Chavez, though, who spoke directly to the continent's indigenous populations, the dispossessed and marginalised in a way that others – with the possible exception of Brazil's Luiz Inacio "Lula" Da Silva – could not.
The rise of the left came about on President George W Bush's watch and followed the failure of the so-called "Washington Consensus" – a bitter pill of free market reforms and privatisations prescribed by the United States and the IMF, which stopped hyperinflation across the region in its tracks, but also plunged millions into poverty.
At the same time, Latin Americans didn't have to be persuaded that Bush's war in Iraq was a bad idea. The war stirred up still-raw memories of US military interventions in Central America and the Caribbean; the CIA's role in the toppling of the Salvador Allende government in Chile; and Washington's backing of right-wing military regimes in Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and Central America. Press photos of hooded Iraqi prisoners in Baghdad's Abu Ghraib jail after the fall of Saddam Hussein triggered flashbacks among Salvadorean victims of similar abuse by soldiers trained in torture at the US Army's "School of the Americas".
While most Latin Americans have never enjoyed undue attention from the United States, neither do they like to be ignored, but both Chavez and Brazil's Lula fought and failed to win a permanent seat for their countries in the UN Security Council. When in 2009 Chavez handed President Barack Obama a copy of Open Veins Of Latin America – Five Centuries Of The Pillage Of A Continent, a 1973 book by the late Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano, it was Chavez's way of introducing the new US president to the new, more aware and assertive Latin America.
WritinG in the New York Times, Brazil's Lula said Latin America owed Chavez a debt of gratitude for thrusting its cultural, political and social issues onto the world stage. "One might- disagree with Mr Chavez's ideology, and a political style that his critics viewed as autocratic," wrote Lula. "However, no remotely honest person, not even his fiercest opponent, can deny the level of camaraderie, of trust and even of love that Mr Chavez felt for the poor of Venezuela and for the cause of Latin American integration- Few have believed so much in the unity of our continent and its diverse peoples – indigenous Indians, descendants of Europeans and Africans, recent immigrants – as he did."
Some of the Venezuelan's international achievements look destined to last, if precariously. Chavez was instrumental in establishing the Union of South American Nations, which its 12 members like to think is similar to a kind of European Union in its embryonic stage; CELAC (the Community of Latin American and Caribbean Nations), which runs parallel to the Organisation of American States but unlike the OAS includes Cuba and excludes the US and Canada; and the Bank of the South, founded in 2009, which aims to lend money for regional social programmes and infrastructure.
Lula said Latin America was now "at the point of no return" and in a post-Chavez era would have to press on even further to increase the region's influence at the United Nations, the IMF and the World Bank, all of which he said were "born from the ashes of World War II- and have not been sufficiently responsive to the realities of today's multipolar world".
Flavia Marreira, in an article in Brazil's Folha de Sao Paulo newspaper, wondered "who in Chavez's absence will lead anti-imperialism in Latin America? There is no safe bet," although Argentina's president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner has been touted by some. Certainly, of the more influential nations Fernandez has been closest to Chavez, at least in her rhetoric.
But the notion is scoffed at by political analyst James Neilson. Writing in the Buenos Aires Herald, he said: "Millions of Venezuelans feel Chavez cared deeply for them and therefore deserved their wholehearted support for the same reasons that just as many Argentines still think Juan Domingo Peron did more than anyone else to help their parents or grandparents. But while the two populist icons presumably wanted to give the desperately poor a much-needed leg-up, both contrived to keep them bogged down in poverty."
Neilson suggested that Chavez's legacy would be much like Peron's, in that if a future Venezuelan government tried to fight poverty "by attempting to balance the budget or asking people to get an education and go to work, rather than shouting slogans against capitalist savagery and US imperialism, they will be roundly berated for their callousness".
Others disagree. "At the centre of the world they wanted to silence him, annul him," wrote Mario Wainfield of Chavez in the left-leaning Buenos Aires paper Pagina 12. "This was not because he was rowdy and prone to exaggeration, it was because of what he said and represented. They hated him in the United States and in central Europe. They don't hate dictators: they have backed many. They don't hate the violence they have perpetrated in Iraq or Afghanistan. They hate the political and ideological defiance that our South confronted them with, in an era of relative independence and autonomy, without so much as a whiff of gunpowder."
El Mercurio newspaper of Chile, whose president, Sebastian Pinera, is one of only a few conservative leaders in Latin America, warned in an editorial that Chavez's worst legacy might be his style of government, "because no-one in Latin America can feel that their democracy is so strong as to not succumb in some way" to the Venezuelan leader's methods. The newspaper also criticised Chavez's presumption in speaking for the whole of Latin America.
It would be easy, however, to overstate Chavez's influence on other Latin American leaders.
Certainly Ecuador's Rafael Correa would like to pick up Chavez's mantle, but his country carries little weight internationally. Perhaps Bolivia, with its large indigenous population, will like Cuba miss his vocal and financial support the most, with president Evo Morales saying he looked upon Chavez as a "caring brother".
But in Peru, president Ollanta Humala, who was elected in 2011 and like Chavez has an indigenous background, has toned down his anti-capitalist rhetoric. Peru has one of the poorest populations in Latin America but, with one of the region's most open economies, it currently enjoys a 6% annual growth rate, the fastest on the continent (though Humala can expect demands for reforms if there is no quick trickle-down from the current boom).
However, most eyes will be looking to Latin America's busiest country for leadership. Brazil's Lula, a former shoeshine boy and later a union leader who was president between 2003 and 2011, likes to boast that he had little formal education and thus can speak as a man of the people. So far, so like Chavez – but Lula was more pragmatic, choosing to build on economic and political reforms introduced by his predecessor, which enabled Brazil to displace Britain as the sixth largest economy in the world, according to the UN in 2011.
Lula's successor, Dilma Rousseff, the daughter of a Bulgarian lawyer, is a former Marxist urban guerrilla who spent two years in prison in the 1970s for fighting the Brazilian military regime. With her background, one might have expected her to swing Brazil sharply to the left, but Rousseff, who took office in 2011 and last year was named Forbes magazine's third most powerful woman in the world, has brought continuity, sticking stuck to the Partido Trabalhista's (Workers Party) economic policies, which in 10 years of rule have pulled millions out of poverty.
Like Lula, Rousseff has refrained from engaging in the kind of anti-US rhetoric that went down so well in Chavez's Venezuela – this despite an economic slowdown last year that has Brazilians worrying that once again the country's dream of becoming an international powerhouse might be dashed. Rather than rant against capitalism as Fernandez is wont to do in Argentina, Rousseff says the setback is temporary, due to the international financial crisis, and has predicted Brazil will bounce back this year. If she is right, and if Brazil also wins the World Cup it hosts next year, the positive bounce would leave Rousseff well-poised to lead Latin America into the future, if she so desires.
This would be a huge responsibility, however, as she would be fulfilling Galeano's prediction that Brazil, by sheer size of population and resources, "is the country called upon to become the axis of all Latin America's liberation or servitude". Chavez, his supporters would argue, was fighting for the former.