Teodoro Petkoff, Reconstructed Venezuelan Rebel, Dies at 86
Posted November 1, 2018 7:44 p.m. EDT
Teodoro Petkoff, a fiercely independent Venezuelan political figure — whose cinematic trajectory from armed Marxist guerrilla to government minister to apostate under the country’s socialist president, Hugo Chavez, reflected the evolution of the Latin American left — died Wednesday in Caracas. He was 86.
His death was announced by Tal Cual (Like It Is), the maverick newspaper he founded in 2000, which said he had been ailing since he was injured in a fall in 2012.
“He is a bold politician, with an energy that is felt even in a handshake,” novelist Gabriel García Márquez wrote of Petkoff in the Spanish newspaper El País in 1983, “but all his actions are commanded by common sense.”
In a political career that spanned six decades, Petkoff fled escape-proof prisons twice, unsuccessfully sought the presidency three times and metamorphosed into an intellectual elder statesman.
“His life covered every step,” Jorge Castañeda, a former foreign minister of Mexico and a professor at New York University, said in a telephone interview, “from Cuban-sponsored guerrilla fighter in the early ‘60s, to democratic socialism in the ‘70s, to becoming in the ‘80s and ‘90s a critic of the corrupt Venezuelan political system and someone trying to fix it without breaking it.”
Petkoff became “constructively critical” of Chavez after he took office in 1999 but later sharpened his critique “to the point that his newspaper was shut down and he was the victim of constant harassment,” said Castañeda, the author of “Utopia Unarmed: The Latin American Left After the Cold War” (1993).
“If you look at the Latin American left from the early 1960s, you can see the same evolution — less so in Venezuela,” he continued. “He certainly both reflected that evolution and contributed to that evolution.”
Petkoff joined the Communist Party in 1950, when he was an 18-year-old college student. But his abandonment of the armed struggle against a United States-supported government by the late 1960s prompted a rebuke from Fidel Castro, who denounced him and his former rebels as “traitors, temporizers and cowards.” His disillusionment after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 provoked Leonid Brezhnev, the Soviet leader, to denounce him as a “heretic.”
Petkoff banded together with former guerrillas to establish the Movement Toward Socialism party in the early 1970s and embraced what he described as “democratic pluralism.” He was elected to the Senate, but was swamped by multiple opponents when he sought the presidency in 1983 and 1988.
In the late 1990s, he served as planning minister under President Rafael Caldera. He was credited by Wall Street and the International Monetary Fund with returning state-run companies to private ownership, shrinking the bureaucracy and curbing inflation while improving social programs.
In 1998, he bolted the political party he had founded because it endorsed Chavez’s presidential candidacy. In 2006, Petkoff mounted his third presidential campaign, a short-lived challenge to Chavez, by then an authoritarian firebrand, who successfully sought re-election and died in office in 2013.
By then, Petkoff had became a full-time journalist, a job in which he won the prestigious María Moors Cabot and Ortega y Gasset prizes. He also wrote about a dozen books.
“He leaves Venezuela and the region without a mandate on social commitment, political coherence and defense of democratic values,” Luis Almagro, secretary-general of the Organization of American States, said on Twitter. “His struggle for freedom of expression and defense of human rights will never be forgotten.”
Teodoro Petkoff Malec was born Jan. 3, 1932, in El Batey, a community in Zulia State in northwestern Venezuela, to immigrants who had arrived in the 1920s. His father was Bulgarian. His mother, who was Jewish, had immigrated from Poland.
He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in economics from Central University of Venezuela in Caracas, where he later taught, and where he enlisted in the rebel movement that unseated the military dictator Marcos Perez Jimenez in 1958.
Complete information on survivors was not immediately available.
Twice in the 1960s, when he was being held for illegal communist and guerrilla activity, Petkoff escaped from prison. On one occasion, he fled into a crowd of masked revelers on carnival night through a tunnel dug by fellow communists from a grocery about 220 feet from his cell. On another, he swallowed a capsule of cow’s blood to feign a gastric ulcer to get himself transferred to a less secure prison hospital and rappelled from a seventh-floor window by rope.
Just how much Venezuelan politics, and Petkoff, had matured since then was apparent from an anecdote he told about himself.
In 1980, he was attending a cocktail party, he told The New York Times, when he encountered a military man whom he had last seen 17 years earlier, when he was making his escape from the hospital window. As Petkoff was lowering himself, he recalled, he passed an officer who was gazing at him from the other side of a closed window. When Petkoff raised a finger to his lips, the officer instinctively remained silent.
“At the party, the officer told me that he had no idea I was an inmate escaping,” Petkoff said. “He told me that if he had known I was Petkoff, he would have emptied his revolver into me.”