Chávez enjoyed an oil bounty and sublime political talents that secured his power at home and reputation abroad.
Maduro, in contrast, inherited a wobbling economy addicted to high oil prices and a system of authoritarian populism dependent on showmanship and patronage. Oil prices tumbled and Maduro proved to be a fumbling showman, exposing the financial ineptitude and ideological hollowness of the “Bolivarian revolution”.
This could have doomed his presidency, which began in 2013 after Chávez died, but the former bus driver, a hulking bear of a man who rose up trade union ranks, turned out to be tenacious and ruthless.
The story of his rule – and Venezuela’s agony – is a determination to keep power amid economic collapse, humanitarian disaster and international condemnation.
The military uprising which erupted on Tuesday has presented the sternest test yet, for Maduro and the Bolivarian project which Chavez launched in 1999.
“Nerves of steel!” Maduro tweeted in defiance hours after the opposition leader, Juan Guaidó, appeared with mutinous troops outside La Carlota, a military base six miles from the presidential palace, Miraflores, in the capital Caracas.
The Trump administration, Brazil and other rightwing governments swiftly endorsed the uprising, drawing historical comparisons to US backing for other coups across Latin America.
There was no turning back, said Guaidó, 35. “The moment is now.” On that, at least, he and Maduro can agree.
The uprising’s fate hinges on whether significant numbers of the military switch sides and whether ordinary people heed Guaidó’s call to flood the streets.
Maduro, 56, urged his own supporters to mobilise and said military commanders had pledged loyalty. “We will win!” he vowed.
If the past six years are any guide, Chavez’s heir will not go down easy, if at all.
Crisis after crisis has buffeted his government – hyperinflation, food and medicine shortages, power blackouts, mass protests, drone attacks, defections, US-led sanctions – and Maduro has remained standing, resolute, implacable.
It is a remarkable position for a man who, in a 2014 Guardian interview, described himself as a bit of a hippy and a fan of Led Zeppelin and John Lennon.
“I never aspired to be president,” he said. “I always honour something that commander Chávez told us: that while we were in these posts we must be clothed in humility and understand that we are here to protect the man and woman of the streets.”
Killings and jailings of opponents made a mockery of the latter claim – but even Maduro critics accept there was no messianic hunger to rule.
Born into a working class family, he left school without graduating and drove buses for the Caracas metro. He became a union organiser and early supporter of Chávez, who, after leading a failed coup, led a leftwing coalition to an electoral landslide in 1998.
Maduro was the speaker of the assembly before serving as Chávez’s foreign minister from 2006 to 2013, a visible if largely silent presence as the comandante held court on the world stage. Chávez anointed Maduro as his heir before succumbing to cancer.
He narrowly won a contested election in 2013 which revealed the Bolivarian revolution’s problems. It had converted an unprecedented oil bounty into steep falls in poverty but neglected infrastructure, harassed the private sector and warped the economy through price and exchange rate controls.
The new president, more ideological and reliant on Cuban advisers than Chávez, let the distortions escalate. Inflation soared, shortages of basic goods worsened and the currency collapsed.
Detractors called Maduro thick, a buffoon, and with oil revenues in freefall, out of luck. They said he would fall in 2015, then 2016, then 2017.
They underestimated him. He bought the loyalty of the military, militias, gangs and potential party rivals, crushed protests and defenestrated the national assembly. People went hungry, millions fled.
If Maduro falls, he and his relatives who fill official positions face jail, possibly worse. Venezuelans are about to discover just how wily, or brutal, he can be.