When Venezuelan oppositionist and newspaper editor Teodoro Petkoff died on October 31, at the age of 86, the world’s capitalist media and reactionary intellectuals on the continent piled in to sing his praises. However, to workers in Venezuela above a certain age, he is remembered as “Teochoro” (Teothief), the man who as Minister in the Caldera government in the 1990s carried out a brutal program of privatisations and above all stole the workers’ social benefits.
“The best president Venezuela never had” said the Financial Times. “His struggle for freedom of expression and defense of human rights will never be forgotten,” cried Luis Almagro, general secretary of the OAS, conveniently glossing over the fact that Petkoff cheered on the undemocratic coup against president Chavez in April 2002 from the frontpage of his newspaper TalCual (“Chau Hugo” was the headline). The same disregard for the facts was shown by Dorothy Kronick, who in the New York Times described the deceased as “a restless defender of democratic values”. “A giant of Venezuela's politics” gloated the Associated Press piece on his death.
From the point of view of the ruling class and its defenders, in Venezuela and in Washington, Petkoff was too good to be true. He was not only a fierce opponent of president Chavez and the Bolivarian revolution, but he was also a former Communist and guerrilla fighter. By pointing at him, the imperialists could say: “see, even leftists oppose the authoritarian Chavez, even those who in their youth fought against the system, finally saw sense and accommodated to it”. An apostate is a thousand times better from the point of view of propaganda than someone who has always been on the side of law and order.
Teodoro Petkoff was born in El Batey, south of the Maracaibo Lake, in 1932 to Jewish migrants, his father from Bulgaria, his mother from Poland. He joined the Communist Party (PCV) in 1949, still a teenager, and soon joined the movement against the Perez Jimenez regime. In 1950 the party was outlawed and Petkoff was arrested on three occasions for his student activism. He studied Economy at the Universidad Central de Venezuela in Caracas where he became a president of the students’ centre.
From Communist guerrilla...
In 1961, under the influence of the victory of the Cuban revolution, the 3rd Congress of the Venezuelan Communist Party decided to take the road of guerrilla struggle, founding the National Liberation Armed Forces (FALN). This was the only communist party in Latin America where the debate between the Cubans and the Russians, firmly wedded to “peaceful coexistence”, was won by the former. At that time Petkoff was elected to the party’s Central Committee. The guerrilla activities of the party served as an excuse for the Romulo Betancourt government to increase repression against both the PCV and the Revolutionary Left Movement (MIR), close down their offices and newspapers and arrest their members of parliament (amongst them Petkoff himself). In 1962, Petkoff, joined the FALN Jose Leonardo Chirinos Front under the command of Douglas Bravo, together with his brother Luben, and fought in the mountains of Falcon and Yaracuy.
As part of the FALN guerrillas he was arrested three times. First in 1963, when he vomited blood he had swallowed to feign illness, was transferred to a Military Hospital and managed climb down from the seventh floor. In 1964 he became a member of the party’s Political Bureau. After his second arrest in June 1964, he managed to escape the Cuartel San Carlos, in Caracas, in 1967, together with fellow guerrillas and PCV Politbureau members Pompeyo Marquez and Carlo Betancourt, through a tunnel Communists on the outside had built.
By 1967, the PCV decided to abandon armed struggle, a decision which led to a the expulsion of Douglas Bravo who founded the Party of the Venezuelan Revolution. Petkoff supported the expulsion of his former comrade in arms Bravo. In 1969 the PCV signed a “pacification” deal with the newly elected government of Romulo Betancourt, who had defeated Leoni. As a result of the deal, Petkoff was released from jail.
In 1969, Petkoff wrote a book called “Czechoslovakia, socialism as a problem” which was fiercely critical of the Soviet invasion of the country in 1968. Petkoff broke with Stalinism and particularly the two stage strategy, but initially remained a committed socialist. He didn’t only criticise Stalinism in relation to Czechoslovakia but then went on to launch an attack on the idea of the existence of a “progressive bourgeoisie” in Venezuela. In his book “Socialism for Venezuela” published in 1970, he criticised the Stalinist two-stage theory which had been at the core of the PCV’s policies since its founding.
The text is worth quoting at length: “One of the sacred myths of Stalinism was the existence of a ‘national bourgeoisie’ that could be counted on to support the national liberation struggle. This schema presumed that a section of the national bourgeoisie had developed with so little connection with imperialism that, under the colossal pressure of competition from imported goods and faced with the combined power of the imperialist economies and the local big bourgeoisie, it possessed an anti-imperialist capacity that meant it could collaborate in a meaningful way in a grand, multi-class front for national liberation.“To this end, the party programmes made important concessions, including the fundamental one of limiting the objectives of the revolutionary transformation of the country to a bourgeois-democratic phase, offering the perspective of the expansion of national capitalisms once imperialist domination was broken and the internal market enlarged by agrarian reform. Of course each Communist Party proclaimed ‘the hegemony of the proletariat’ but, in practice, tail-ended the national bourgeoisie.
“Lowering the revolutionary content of their programmes and undertaking activities that included strike breaking and denouncing political opponents to the secret police meant losing the support of sectors of the working class, the peasants and the poor. The examples of the bourgeois democratic revolutions in Mexico nearly two hundred years ago, and in Bolivia and Cuba after World War II had should have demonstrated in practice the inability of the national bourgeoisie to lead the democratic revolution. But there are none so blind as those that won’t see.” Petkoff concluded; “Up to now ‘operation national bourgeoisie’ has not enabled us to win either this bourgeoisie .... or the working class.” ... “What does this conception of ‘national unity’, of which the leadership of our party was the most outspoken champion ... have to do with Marxism? ... it is nothing but a new formulation of the policy of class collaboration.” (Quoted in Lowy, M., Marxism in Latin America from 1909 to the Present).
This was a damning condemnation of the whole strategy of the Venezuelan Communist Party and that of the whole of Stalin’s Communist International and was echoing Trotsky’s own criticisms four decades earlier. This led to an intervention by the Soviet Union which saw Petkoff as a serious threat. He was denounced in a lengthy Pravda article signed by “Comrade A. Mosinev” accusing Petkoff of being an anti-Leninist, of having “a special hatred of the Soviet Union”, being a renegade and anti-socialist. The article was meant to stiffen the resolve of party leader Jesús Faría who was vacillating on the question of taking disciplinary measures against Petkoff.
Petkoff’s positions won widespread support in the party and a majority amongst the youth, some of whom had been in Czechoslovakia at the time of the Soviet intervention and were able to refute the official line from the point of view of eyewitnesses. In the run up to the party’s Fourth Congress, Petkoff together with the “centrists”, led by Pompeyo Marquez, won half of the delegates. That led to the delay of the congress and the intervention of the Politbureau (dominated by the hard-line Stalinists) in the party organisations in Caracas and Miranda.
The debate led to the convening of two separate congresses in January 1971, one of which was the official PCV congress, the other the founding of the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS). The official IV Congress of the party ratified the expulsion of 22 Politbureau members, amongst them Teodoro Petkoff and Pompey Marquez. Right from the beginning of the MAS, Petkoff made concessions to the formed PCV “centrists” around Marquez (who was elected general secretary of the new party). The program of the MAS was basically that of Marquez with minor changes. Typically, Petkoff had a cavalier attitude towards ideas, being ready to abandon them in favour of unity with others. Soon the party, following the evolution of many critics of Stalinism internationally, moved towards social-democracy and acceptance of the capitalist system. In quick succession they formally renounced Leninism, then “orthodox Marxism” and finally Marxism altogether (in 1974), to then request affiliation to the Second International (1980).
…to capitalist minister...
In the 1993 election, the MAS decided to support Rafael Caldera, instead of backing left-winger Andres Velasquez, from La Causa R (The Radical Cause). La Causa R had been founded by former Communist guerrilla Alfredo Maneiro, who had been expelled from the PCV together with Petkoff but had not stayed in the MAS, and his party managed to build a powerful class-struggle trade union movement in Guayana, gaining the leadership of the SUTISS union at the huge steel works SIDOR. By the time of the 1993 election LCR had moderated its political positions, but nevertheless was the best positioned left candidature. The MAS and a whole host of small left parties, including the PCV, decided to support Caldera, thus depriving La Causa R of any chance of winning. The coalition of these small groups of contradictory ideologies, became known as “el chiripero” (after the Venezuelan name for small cockroaches). The 10% of the votes which the Petkoff led MAS contributed to the Caldera list would have been enough to make Velasquez the winner of that election.
As a reward for his support, Caldera appointed Petkoff as one of his ministers in 1996. Pompeyo Marquez also got a ministerial position. The appointment came at a time when the Caldera government (which had come to power promising to reverse the neoliberal policies of Carlos Andres Perez) was besieged by economic crisis and needed a sharp turn to the right in its economic policies. Petkoff was the ideal candidate to carry out that program, covering the sale of the country to private and multinational interests with the mantle of having been a left-wing guerrilla. The MAS participation in the Caldera government was very controversial within the party, but Petkoff managed to hold the line. “He became the most pragmatic of planning ministers in the 1990s, deftly negotiating a structural adjustment programme with the IMF,” says the Financial Times obituary. What they mean by “pragmatic” is pro-capitalist. Petkoff was responsible for a package of privatisations of state owned companies (including SIDOR, later renationalised by Chavez), cuts in social spending, increase in taxes, making it easier for bosses to sack workers, etc.
One of the most controversial measures adopted by Petkoff was the change in the way workers’ social security contributions and benefits were calculated. The change was applied retroactively, thus stealing benefits workers had already acquired. The moved caused uproar in the trade union and workers’ movement and that is when Petkoff earned the nickname of “Teochoro”.
Finally, in 1998, the MAS decided to support the presidential candidature of Hugo Chavez and Petkoff abandoned the party he had founded amidst booing of the congress delegates. After the victory of Chavez and the beginning of the Bolivarian revolution, Petkoff founded a newspaper, TalCual (As it is), dedicated to the hysterical denunciation of the revolution from a rabid anti-Communist point of view and specialising in scandalous campaigns. He was churning “fake news” against Chavez and his movement before the expression become common currency.
Many of the panegyrics in the capitalist media talk about his “failed presidential bid” of 2006. This is how the Financial Times describes it: “Petkoff launched a third bid for the presidency in 2006 but by then Chávez was unstoppable, riding an oil boom and bending state institutions to his will. After losing again, he withdrew from politics.” The impression that is given is that he stood up against Chavez and was defeated. Nothing could be further from the truth. He was never a candidate. At that time, the reactionary opposition realised that they never stood a chance of defeating president Chavez unless they managed to agree on a single candidate. There were at least nine potential contenders for that position. Julio Borges, from Primero Justicia proposed that there should be primary elections amongst the opposition supporters to decide who was going to be the candidate. Petkoff rejected the idea. The Venezuelan reactionary opposition was, and still is, a thieves’ kitchen, full of mistrust, backstabbing and a dirty fight for positions and power. They didn’t trust each other enough as they all had a long history of manipulating internal elections.
Finally, days before the deadline, and with the opposition without an agreed candidate, Petkoff, who was third amongst the opposition candidates according to opinion polls, decided to withdraw his bid. Julio Borges did the same, with hours to go to the deadline, and finally the opposition decided to back Manuel Rosales, who was thrashed by Chavez in the election. Chavez received 63% against Rosales’ 37%. Petkoff was part of Rosales’ campaign committee, in a campaign in which the opposition candidate excelled in gaffes. The “restless defender of democratic values” Petkoff had no qualms about being part of this motley crew of reactionary oligarchs and power hungry politicians, all of whom had played a role in the short lived April 2002 coup against Chavez. He was one of them.
So, the whole story the capitalist media has built about his third “failed presidential bid” amounts to the fact that he did not want to submit himself to a democratic primary process and then seeing he was not even the best positioned candidate of the reactionary opposition he declined to stand. A brave gesture!
…and tabloid newspaper editor
As an editor of TalCual he became known for his scandalous attention grabbing front pages. This “fiercely independent newspaper” went out of its way to twist the truth, manipulating images in order to attack president Chávez. Let’s have a look at a few examples.
There is this one from 2007 when he compared Hugo Chavez to Hitler:
On the same theme, there is this one from 2010, with the headline “Towards a dictatorship” and a cartoon depicting the democratically elected president Chavez making a fascist salute
There is this one from 2013 when it was the turn for democratically elected president Maduro to be compared to Hitler
TalCual did not limit itself to provocative and offensive front pages; it also resorted to straight lies and manipulation of images. In 2013 it published a picture of a rat eating a piece of cheese behind the counter at a PDVAL shop, with the headline “what a rat!”. The small detail was that the picture had in fact been taken at a supermarket in Paraguay a year earlier. It was not just a case of using the wrong picture, as the logo in the supermarket worker’s overall had been changed from the original to that of the Venezuelan state-owned supermarket chain PDVAL. TalCual article & Original from Paraguayan paper
In 2003 Petkoff’s TalCual published a front page picture showing Hugo Chavez holding a 9mm handgun at a public rally with a headline saying "At gunpoint". The small problem was that what Chavez was really holding at that public rally was... a rose, and the picture was in fact a photo-montage.
Original undoctered image of Chavez holding a rose
This is what the New York Times describes as “constructive criticism”!
The one thing which Petkoff hated the most about Chávez was the way he had declared himself a socialist, unleashing a wide-ranging debate about the ideas of socialism and what they meant. For this reason he wrote another scathing editorial with the headline “‘Socialist’ Lunacy” attacking Chavez’s association with Alan Woods.
Far from being a model of “journalistic integrity”, Petkoff, as editor of TalCual was a case study in tabloid journalism. He did not let the facts get in the way of a good story. Despite this, it is false to say that the government shut down his newspaper, as many of the obituaries state. TalCual continues to be published, though only in its digital edition for lack of paper.
While he was a Communist fighter in his youth, Petkoff went back to the bourgeois life and business of his family. Politically he made his peace with the system and became its staunch and useful defender in government and in opposition. This is the reason why the capitalist media sings a chorus of praises now that he has died. The Venezuelan workers will always remember him as “Teochoro” the man who stole their social benefits.