Caracas (AFP) - Venezuelan First Lady Cilia Flores is a political heavyweight who steadfastly served late leader Hugo Chavez and married his successor, her longtime partner Nicolas Maduro -- who now calls her the nation's "first fighter."
Flores, 59, has been engulfed by controversy after two of her nephews were arrested in Haiti and handed over to US authorities, who charged them Thursday with conspiring to smuggle cocaine into the United States.
The case has cast a spotlight on the first lady and her outsized role in Venezuelan politics.
A lawyer by training, Flores rose to prominence in 1992 when she worked on the team that defended Chavez after a failed coup attempt that landed the then-paratroop officer in jail.
By the time Chavez came to power through the ballot box seven years later, Flores was part of the leftist firebrand's inner circle -- though this was "more for her loyalty than for the quality of her political work," said Yoel Acosta Chirinos, a retired army officer who was one of Chavez's co-conspirators in the 1992 coup attempt.
Known for her toughness, Flores won election to Venezuela's National Assembly in 2000 and became its speaker in 2006, succeeding Maduro, who had been named foreign minister.
She faced accusations of nepotism during her five years at the legislature's helm. The union that represents legislative employees said 40 of Flores's family members were on the Assembly's payroll -- a claim she dismissed as a smear campaign.
She is a founding member and key leader in the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), which Chavez formed in 2008 to unite his various supporters under a single banner.
"She's been a key figure in the organizational development of 'Chavismo,'" political analyst Nicmer Evans told AFP.
But he added that her time as vice president of the PSUV was marked by "a very Stalinist, vertical vision."
- Deeply influential -
Flores became attorney general in 2012, the year before Chavez's death.
Maduro, who was by then Chavez's vice president, was tapped to succeed the charismatic socialist.
He vowed to marry his long-time partner Flores if he won the presidential election -- which he narrowly did, in April 2013.
That June he and Flores were married. She has since devoted herself to being first lady, though she is now seeking to return to the National Assembly in Venezuela's December 6 legislative elections.
The stakes for the vote are high: With the South American oil giant's economy in tatters, the "Chavistas" are at risk of losing the legislature for the first time since Chavez came to power.
Flores accompanies Maduro, 52, to nearly all his official events.
"Her influence over the president is clear, as well as the political respect Maduro has for her, beyond ideological questions or their marital relationship," said Evans, who called Flores "the most powerful woman" in the Chavismo movement.
"She has a political trajectory all of her own," he said.
Like many leading figures in the PSUV, Flores has her own TV program, "Family Time With Cilia," in which she interviews beneficiaries of the government's large welfare programs.
A National Assembly source, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed that the two men charged in New York, Efrain Antonio Campo Flores and Francisco Flores de Freitas, are the first lady's nephews.
Another of Flores's nephews, Carlos Erick Malpica Flores, holds three of Venezuela's most important financial posts: national treasurer, chief financial officer at state oil giant PDVSA and director of the Venezuelan development bank.