Today, Venezuela lost a giant. Teodoro Petkoff, who died today at the age of 86, morphed from communist guerrilla to conscience of the nation.

Photo: Luis Carlos Díaz

Venezuela has lost a giant. Teodoro Petkoff, who died today at the age of 86, was a figure of unique intellectual vitality and political integrity. A recapitulation of the titles he held —professor of economics, guerrilla leader, Marxist dissident, party organizer, presidential candidate, planning minister, newspaper editor— doesn’t come close to expressing the role he played in public life. More than the sum of his titles, Teodoro became the conscience of a nation.

Born to a Polish Jewish mother and a Bulgarian immigrant father in a small town in Zulia State as the Gómez era waned, Teodoro became a storied Communist Party guerrilla leader in the 1960s. His insurgent CV came complete with tales of amazing derring-do, including not one but two action movie-style prison breaks.

Before the 1960s were up, though, he began a long trek across the ideological spectrum. Long before the large communist parties in Western Europe had dared turn critical of Moscow, Petkoff broke with the USSR, denouncing the Soviet invasion to crush the 1968 Prague Spring. That took real guts at the time. It put him at odds with the only political tribe he’d ever known and earned him —a little known South American activist at the time— a rare, personalized rebuke from Leonid Brezhnev for deviasionism.

See? Teodoro always punched above his weight.

Teodoro in the 70s

Petkoff spent the next few decades trying, and mostly failing, to build a democratic socialist party in Venezuela. MAS, the post-communist party he founded, though the darling of intellectuals, never really found a mass following.

His one briefing taste of power came in the chiripero era, and he had some success as a pragmatic reforming planning minister for Rafael Caldera in the mid-1990s. He would’ve had more had oil prices not collapsed right in the middle of the reform program.

But his real moment in the national spotlight came with the rise of Hugo Chávez to power, in the early oughts, as he refashioned himself as the conscience of the nation: the most biting, incisive, and sharp critic of rising chavista authoritarianism and a voice of effortless moral clarity in an increasingly murky political moment. It was then that he joined the First Name Pantheon — the tiny, select group of Venezuelans so well-known you didn’t need to use his unfamiliar slavic family name to refer to him at all.

His daily front-page editorials first in El Mundo and, starting in 2000 in Tal Cual, a newspaper he founded, set the agenda for political life in the nation. He drove Chávez crazy, puncturing his nonsense with clarity, wit, playfulness, erudition and the gravitas that came from having already done it all and lived to tell the tale.

To an earlier generation of Venezuelans, Petkoff’s youthful involvement in the guerrilla struggle was a stain no amount of rectification could ever clear. The terrorist outrage perpetrated against the Tren del Encanto in 1963 (which left 15 dead, including eight women and two children) clung to his reputation like a foul smell, even though he insisted he’d had nothing to do with it.

To my generation of journalists and intellectuals, though, it was impossible to reconcile this talk of terrorism with the brilliant, fiercely independent champion of democracy who took the fight to Chávez’s authoritarianism day in and day out in the most lucid prose on offer in Venezuela.

To us, he was a demi-god, a figure of reverential admiration whose depth of understanding of the mess Venezuela was heading into no one came close to matching.

Today, that generation of writers feels orphaned. We came up under his shadow, pining to match his greatness, inspired by his example, his clarity and charm. To us, it is unimaginable that he didn’t live to see his great foe in later life ejected from power — just the latest intolerable indignity in an intolerable year: a bitter sendoff to a man who deserved much, much better.

¡Adiós Teodoro!