Teodoro y Petkoff

A visibly frail Teodoro Petkoff was awarded the Ortega y Gasset Prize yesterday. The honor is given by the Spanish newspaper El País, and it is one of our language’s most important awards for journalism.

Petkoff is barred from leaving the country courtesy of a defamation lawsuit initiated by Diosdado Cabello, so he could not attend. Instead, former Spanish President Felipe González and Nobel Laureate Mario Vargas Llosa accepted the award in his honor, with Vargas Llosa providing a soaring speech honoring all Venezuelans who fight for freedom.

As we celebrate his legacy, I have a personal confession to make: while I’ve been impressed with Teodoro the writer, I’ve grown up skeptical of Petkoff, the politician. He’s a mixed bag for me.

During the halcyon days of 2002-2008ish, it was impossible to avoid Teodoro’s lucid take on the country’s events. His voice was clear, sometimes dissonant, always perceptive, never anything less than optimistic. He became a favorite of ours on the blog – Quico in particular – and we joined the chorus of people saddened by the demise of Tal Cual, the daily he helmed, now reduced to a weekly and online venture thanks to the government’s pressure.

As for Petkoff the politician, that’s where my family history comes into the mix.

I grew up in a deeply anti-Marxist family. When I was two years old, my father was kidnapped by the far left guerrilla fighters still roaming the country then, many of whom are now in power. I was raised to always distrust Marxists, particularly those that switched to the democratic side. “Once a leftie, always a leftie,” was the motto.

Petkoff’s whiplash-inducing transformation from guerrilla fighter to left-wing politician to Rafael Caldera’s Economics Czar (guffaw!) was applauded by many in Venezuela, and he wore it like a badge of honor. To me it was the sign of a person with deep ideological inconsistencies. How exactly do you go from taking up arms to defend Fidel Castro … to becoming one of Castro’s most fervent critics, all the while consistently defending the very ideas of socialism?

Petkoff the politician has always been a leftist, both before and after his conversion. In fact, Petkoff continues to be a socialist in spite of the tragedy that socialist ideas have wrought upon our country. I’ve never been able to overcome the impression that there are a few ideological anchors missing there – and when a boat has no anchors, it drifts.

I accept the fact that I am the problem here – if passing judgment is a sin, then burn me now. But another part of the problem lies in Petkoff’s abrasive public persona.

I got to interact with him a couple of times, and it never surprised me that the guy was pretty much unelectable for broad swathes of the population. He is just a tad too intellectual for Venezuela, too much of a curmudgeon for our emotional, happy-go-lucky electorate. I, for one, would always read him, but I would never vote for him.

It might seem hypocritical of me to criticize repentant lefties at the same time that I am lauding Mario Vargas Llosa, and you know what? It probably is. But at least Vargas Llosa never took up arms for his crazy Marxist ideas, and he learned soon enough the errors of his ways.

Petkoff seemed to evolve into another spectrum of the ideological bandwith, although I’m still not clear which. Like many inside Venezuela, I could never figure him out. I guess that’s how he liked things.

Teodoro Petkoff is really two people in one – the writer, and the politician. One stands out more than the other. Regardless, he is one of the most complicated figures in our modern history, and I guess that’s what makes him so darn intriguing.

At any rate, we wish him well, and his prize is deeply deserved.