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!

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39 COMMENTS

  1. A fine tribute to a great man. He was wise, humane, courageous, always readable, a tribute to the best in Venezuela and Venezuelans every time he expressed himself.

  2. Teodoro Petkoff’s past as a communist guerrilla fighter is surely a stain hard to wash away.

    Still, I think that the fact he realized that democracy and freedom of speech were above ideological blindness is something extremely valuable an remarkable.

    • “Teodoro Petkoff’s past as a communist guerrilla fighter is surely a stain hard to wash away.”

      It actually isn’t. Communism is ok in Latin America.

    • We all have a past that we may not be especially proud of. I certainly don’t want my life to be judged by the antics of my youth. I like to think that “tincture of time” has improved me for the better. The point is we aspire to improve. We learned from our mistakes and we changed.

        • Was he (Teodoro) contrite?

          Its one thing to say, “Meh… I screwed up. I killed a few people and stole from them. Boys will be boys. But I changed.” That rings quite hollow. Its another thing to admit your mistakes (regardless of how horrible they might be) and seek forgiveness. (Ask any grateful alcoholic about making amends.)

          I don’t know enough about the guy. If he wasn’t contrite about his past, then all of his “thoughtfulness” doesn’t mean shit. Just another Marxist who thought the problem with Chavismo was implementation.

          Regardless, it IS meaningful when a person does seek change for the better.

    • Why is a stain?. The PCV was left out of the Puntofijo pact after the shed equal or more amount of blood with AD during the attempts to depose Pere Jimenez. You tell me that after you have seen friends killed and tortured wholesale you will just be submissive when the AD-Copei-URD alliance puts a boot in your rear end. Not to mention the people that got killed or disappeared when CAP was Interior Minister of Betancourt.

      I will give you the answer, grab a FAL go to the mountain and get some stuff cleared with the government.

      Furthermore, the “legend” of Teodoro as guerrilla man is overstated. He was more in the urban movement. His brother, Luben, was a lot more involved in the mountains. In either case a lot of that violence was quelled with Caldera’s pacification, the foundation of the MAS party and under the table agreements to pull the Cubans out.

      In either case they were young, the cold war was going hard, Vietnam War was at its worst, Cuba revolution showed that it was possible and they deserve an A+ for trying rather babbling nonsense about stains.

  3. Teodoro’s editorials were incredible. Always on point, yet noting that who none else did.

    He also carried encounters Saturday morning for who ever felt like chatting about politics. He deserved better.

  4. Something omitted here is that he had an incredible integrity. So much as to resign the party he founded after it decided to support Chavez candidacy.

  5. Always admired him if just for being – unlike most of our current politicians – a man with deep intellectual curiosity, that cared more about what worked and what was right, than what fitted a given ideological straitjacket. And, unlike many other politicians of his generation and from the same ideological origins, he never drank Chávez’ Kool-Aid. Instead of running into the arms of Chávez as most of MAS and other leftists did, he saw Chávez for what the budding dictator he was.

  6. When it comes to Teodoro, the expression “larger than life” falls short of what’s needed to describe the influence his thinking and political activism represented for many of my generation.

  7. Well, my experience with him was that he stole my Dad’s 62 Impala to rob a bank. Dad got the car back the next day, parked 3 blocks from his office on Av. Urdaneta ( de Veroes a Ibarra, por cierto).

    I guess my impression of the man is also colored by his being a guerrilla and a communist SOB who killed plenty of people and never paid the bill fully.

    His later years, sure. He did rectify at least politically. Standing up to Chavez sure earned him some points.

    Totally lost it when he was at CORDIPLAN and when asked how the economy was doing he replied:”Estamos mal, pero vamos bien”.

    But I can’t treat him as some sort of deity, or sanction his revolutionary era. So I guess I’m part of the “earlier generation of Venezuelans”

    QEPD

    • All it took was 48 hours for the Editor to go from condemning a president-elect (Bolsonaro for his praising of a military government that was fighting terrorist communist guerrillas) to praising a former terrorist communist guerrilla with a few actual dead bodies under his belt, just because he stopped killing and robbing and started writing witty editorials. The hypocrisy is baffling but unsurprising.

      For leftists, it’s never about the dead, the poor or the oppressed. It’s about the narrative and what side of it are you on.

      • What you rather have, a guy that killed a few for a big change for thousands or a guy that did nothing a let thousands die?.

        It is easy to compress 80+ years of someone history in one paragraph, moreover to judge on some future projection of the right and the wrong.

        That guy, Teodoro, was the one of the few that yelled for the utmost punishment of the military involved in the 1992 coup…guess who was the ring leader?..you guessed right.
        Guess who tried to negotiate and eventually put the beast out of jail and pass the presidential band afterwards to that very same guy…anja.

        “Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored”

  8. A figure to admire and remember for his brave integrity and intellectual capacity to evolve ,something that can be said of only a few former radical left wing revolutionaries , he was a pol that thought and reflected and wasnt afraid of changing his views when he saw the necessity for it. Personally I only met him three times in three different work meetings , two in which I was the guy answering the questions and once where it was he (as planning head) answering the questions, he was smart but his grasp of oil industry issues was about average for an ordinary Venezuelans ,i.e not very impressive ….., however much I admire his personality and standing as a public man , I have always been a bit dissapointed by the fact that even the best among pols when put to the test usually show a big gap in their knowldege of the countrys fundamental business …….!! His absence will be missed !!

  9. I’ll always remember my first interaction with him. The US men’s team was having their best run ever in the 2002 World Cup. When he realized I was American he said “Los Americanos estan jugando bien este anio. Lo que nos hacia falta…ahora nos van a ganar hasta en eso.” He was only half kidding.

  10. Roberto N, did Teodoro deny kolling anyone while a marxist revutionary. was he convicted of any crimes. I checked his online biography and like Quico’s tribute they are silent on any negative aspects of his revolutionary career. It is impressive when intellectuals abandon communism

    • Well, from this article, where it states he broke out of jail twice for starters.

      Was at the very least involved or had direct knowledge if not participation in a massacre at a train station in El Encantado which resulted in multiple deaths of family members of military folk amongst the victims. Plus other “Revolutionary” actions which were criminal.

      Petkoff never confirmed or denied, but at the very minimum was an intellectual author of killings, plus material in the obtaining of weapons with which to fight the military. He also, as I stated robbed at least one bank and likely more than one.

      A lot of the people who lived those times as adults are not around anymore. People I knew in DISIP, the intelligence cops of the day, all had stories. Even discarding some, it was still common knowledge what not only Petkoff did, but that his best bud was none other than the most vile creature to ever walk the streets of Caracas, Jose Vicente Rangel. That’s one piece of work that should have been in the series of Venezuelan Ghouls and Goblins featured in these pages recently.

      Part of the “come down from the hills” pacification that President Caldera orchestrated in the 70’s including some sweeping of unseemly bits under the rug. Some took it as a fresh start, some continued to be desirous of turning the tide to communism, some kept on being criminal.

  11. If you want to understand why Petkoff was a communist, you should read this chronicle of his childhood in El Batey, Zulia. Petkoff’s father was a communist who fled Bulgary and, while Petkoff lived comfortably, he saw plenty of misery in his little town. I don’t think anyone here is absolving Petkoff of his guerrilla youth, but context matters. Many here admire Carlos Andres Perez and see him as a paragon of democracy. Perez was Interior minister before he was president (and he was dubbed El Policia), and likely responsible for human right abuses (predicated on fighting guerrillas and communism). Again, context matters. People do horrible shit when they strongly believe in ideology. To Petkoff’s and CAP’s credit, they mended their ways. http://elestimulo.com/climax/teodoro-petkoff-nacio-bajo-el-sol-de-el-batey/?fbclid=IwAR2C23F_DEiYv6pKuHJtJqxTKDoClMXtq4hhm65YCexiTzaI1HaK7HJH_wE

  12. There are very few who are truly beyond redemption at some level.

    Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, …etc.

    Then there are the “wolf in sheeps clothing” that prey on others under the cover of reformation.
    Several Catholic priests and their enablers come to mind.

    I’m sure readers have their own lists floating about.

    Can a fighter on one side be “ordained” to lead a reformation? Tough to say.
    I know of a of drug dealer who attends my church who gave testament to his changes and has found peace and a purpose. He works with troubled youth and has a day job he developed the skills for while in prison (specialty welding).

    I’m a bit skeptical of Teodoro Petkoff.

    I have not read more than a handful of his articles and publications to form a fully educated opinion on the matter. But, I’ve not yet read a sentence attributed to him where he denounced his past fully and sought to educate others on the folly of his ways.

    My biggest problem with him (and those who idolize his “intellect”) is how easily he was duped by other leftists and false idols. He was every bit as delinquent in his projecting that Obama would be good for the world… well, Iran and Cuba sure made out like bandits. Never once did he bother to correct his mistakes.
    https://www.letraslibres.com/mexico-espana/izquierdas-americanas-entrevista-teodoro-petkoff

    From what I read… he never once said he made a mistake in his life!!!
    I only got the impression that he too felt that communism has failed not because it is wrong, but, because it hasn’t been done right.

    • Just cursory reading the actual article would show you Petkoff receiving a personal rebuke from Brezhnev for daring to write (in a whole book) that the invasion of Czechoslovakia was a show of how absolutely wrong Communism had become. In a book with a title “Czechoslovakia: Socialism as a problem”.

      He never stopped being a socialist. He stopped being an idiot in love with stupid authoritarian forms of it and romantic idiotic dreams of Che-Guevara-ness, and dedicated the whole rest of his life to combat any form of authoritarianism. He put democracy and open society before any other consideration, reaching the conclusion that those values were central to any real advancement of humanity and there were no shortcuts. And he never lost the zeal to oppose it, no matter what colour it had.

      Which he could have very well have done – he had the opportunity, as more or less the whole MAS, to just suck it up to Chávez and become part of his “revolution”. He could have shut up or worse, just sold himself to it, or pretend he was going to be the “mentor” of the Galactic Commander. Look at José Vicente Rangel – he could have been another one.

      And he said no. Hell, he said more than no, he spent all the time mocking, insulting, putting down, intellectually destroying and shamelessly pointing out how Chavismo was the cult of an Emperor without clothes, ideas, or morals. How it was a disgrace, a atavic throwback, a group of thugs and morons hell bent on destroying everything, an intellectually bankrup enterprise, just another gorilla painted red.

      And that put him in the sights of the regime.

      So no, you dont know what you are talking about. He did a lot of mistakes in his life.

      The thing is, he learned from them. He changed. He grew. He decided, at some point in his life, that he had been backing the wrong course, and that all his energy and capacity was now to be used to fight to keep what he, initially, had though irrelevant.

      Unfortunately for us, there was only one Teodoro. The current crop of “chavismo originario” or “chavismo crítico” dont show any of his intellectual capacity or honesty – they are just crying, now, that they are out of the inner circle, that the ones that displaced them are too mean (to them). We arent going to be so lucky as to have a group of people like him, capable of looking at a whole segment of their past and seeing it was wrong, and they need to work to fix it. They just want to sell us the “Chávez was good, Maduro is bad, and I was with Chávez” excuse.

      One may very well not have agreed with Teodoro’s ideas of what to do in several aspects of government; I for one never voted for him. But he was always honest about being sincerely in the side of democracy, and always ready to employ his democratic weapons, his intellect and his acid verb, in its defense.

      That deserves honor. That deserves remembrance. And that deserves emulation.

      • That was so well put. The Revolution came and he knew it was a false one and he spoke the truth. He drove them crazy. He was the one they couldn’t buy, they couldn’t scare, and they couldn’t tempt with their intellectually lazy, corrupt, hypocritical, nonsense ideology.

  13. “But, I’ve not yet read a sentence attributed to him where he denounced his past fully and sought to educate others on the folly of his ways.”

    This, to me, is one of the most important parts of the road to redemption. You don’t really redeem yourself until you’ve acknowledged why you’re doing so in the first place.

    I met him 2-3 times in his Chiripero days, socially. Funny guy, great sense of humor and wit. Charming and clearly intelligent.

  14. I am seeing tons of accolades for this guy (who I know nothing about) from people whose writings I do know about that think Chavismo mostly OK, but is being implemented incorrectly.

  15. For those wanting to hear Petkoff saying something about his time as guerrilla

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J-Ah8OoS3XY

    The first minutes. Now, you may find the futzing around “did you kill anybody” not to your liking.

    But you would have to be deaf, by nature or by desire, not to hear the clear “we made a self-critical examination and we found that the armed struggle was a colossal mistake” and “We decided the USSR was not something we want to emulate for our country” parts.

    And, I’m almost reticent to do this, but given the timeliness of it… Teodoro, as it has been said, was somebody that watched Chávez coming and said no, I dont want this. Again, same interview, asked why he wasnt in support of Chávez when his party did, and he clearly said it – he knew him and he saw in him the tendency toward autoritarian narcisism.

    Now take that into account and watch now so many “Bolsonaro fans”.

    The old guerrilla communist dude beat them in that test. He was able to smell the shit even if it was from his own corner.

  16. An excellent tribute by Toro to Teodoro Petkoff, a brilliant intellectual wirh a great capacity for analysis. As a member of his generation I can also see his warts, Toro refuses to see. I was always surprised how lucidly he would define Chavez’s government as an abusive, autocratic caudillo type rule without ever admitting that he was a dictator. I remember discussing this with him at a meeting in the George Washington University in Washington. He once traveled to Chile to say that Chavez was a democrat. He opposed Chavez’s abuse in a manly way but always refused to call him what he was: a miserabe dictator. Teodoro seemingly could not apply the term to a man from the left.
    I neve could understand that inconsistency coming from such a brilliant mind.
    All in all I adimired him and his sharp mind and am sorry to see him go before he could see the end of this horror pictue.

    • “As a member of his generation I can also see his warts, Toro refuses to see.”

      This, Mr. Coronel, is why I wrote what I wrote about Teodoro. When writing an obit about a person that has shaped history, leaving out or glossing over “meaningful bits” is not the best approach.

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