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Teodoro Petkoff opines about Venezuela's Hugo Chavez in Boston

By Guillermo Parra

On Friday evening (April 9) the journalist and political analyst Teodoro Petkoff presented a lecture at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge. The JFK School website describes Petkoff in the following manner:

"Teodoro Petkoff is one of the leading political figures in recent Venezuelan history. His career began in the left-wing rebellion movements during the 60s as a member of the Venezuelan Communist Party (PCV). He led a groundbreaking reform of the left in Venezuela assuming a critical stance toward left-wing authoritarianism and the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia (1968) with the foundation in 1971 of the party Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS). An economist graduated from the Universidad Central de Venezuela, Mr. Petkoff has been member of the MAS national directive, presidential candidate, and elected congressman in many occasions. In 1996 he became Minister of Economic Planning under the presidency of Rafael Caldera. After his tenure in the Caldera administration, he became director of the newspaper El Mundo and then founder and director of the newspaper Tal Cual ."

I jotted down some notes about the lecture later that night. What follows are excerpts from those notes.

Petkoff was introduced by the journalist Ana Julia Jatar, who is currently a Visiting Scholar at Harvard's David Rockefeller Center for Latin American studies. Jatar mentioned that she first met Petkoff when he was one of her father's students at the Universidad Central de Venezuela. Jatar's introduction included an excerpt from a portrait of Petkoff that Gabriel García Márquez wrote in 1982.

According to Petkoff, there have been three historic ruptures in Venezuelan history:

1. When the Liberals overthrew the Conservatives in the 1800s, soon after Venezuela achieved independence from Spain.

2. When Liberals were overthrown by the military at the very beginning of the twentieth century (1900).

3. When the military were overthrown by political parties in 1945. (Petkoff includes the dictatorship of Marcos Pérez Jiménez after this third rupture.)

Hugo Chávez's presidency represents a fourth major rupture in Venezuelan history.

Petkoff's comments had two goals:

1. "Definir." To define who Chávez is and what his ideas represent. ("Tenemos que definir exactamente qué es Chávez.")

2. "Terreno." To define exactly on what grounds the opposition needs to challenge Chávez. Petkoff emphasized that the fight against Chávez must remain within the boundaries of a democratic process. To allow ourselves to be drawn into an armed conflict against Chávez would serve no viable purpose. ("¿Cual es el terreno en donde enfrentamos a Chávez?")

Regarding the appearance of Chávez on the political scene, Petkoff outlined three major warning signs in recent Venezuelan history. These warnings went unheeded, for the most part, by politicians and analysts in Venezuela. These three political events can now be interpreted as warnings that Venezuela's democracy was in trouble.

1. 1989: El Caracazo. (When there were major disturbances throughout Caracas, during which hundreds of people were killed by the National Guard.)

2. 1992: The two coup attempts by members of the military against the presidency of Carlos Andrés Pérez.

3. 1994: When Rafael Caldera left his political party (COPEI) and won the presidency as an independent candidate. For Petkoff, this event highlighted the bankruptcy of Venezuela's leading political parties.

Petkoff sees a solution to today's crisis as emerging from a center-Left position (his own). Extremists in the opposition from the far Right (Pedro Carmona, for example) only end up playing into Chávez's strategies.

Petkoff reiterated several times that night that Chávez rules his political party (Movimiento Quinta Republica, MVR) and the country as the "alpha and omega." In this manner, Chávez has discouraged and prevented any democratic tendencies that might exist within chavismo.

One major critique Petkoff makes of the opposition is that they have not sufficiently attacked Chávez's policies in a coherent, thorough manner. By focusing on his personality, they end up not offering a viable alternative plan to chavismo.

Regarding the Cuban presence in Venezuela, Petkoff said that he was sure that there are indeed Cuban police and military advisors in Venezuela today. These police and military are in Venezuela secretly, unlike the Cuban doctors, teachers and sports trainers, who are openly discussed by the Venezuelan government.

Petkoff emphasized the need to distinguish between a totalitarian regime (such as Cuba, China, the Soviet Union) and a more or less typical Latin American dictatorship (Pinochet). Chávez is somewhere between the two. He believes it is foolish and counterproductive for the opposition to label Chávez a dictator or a fascist, even though he does have those tendencies. Petkoff believes that up until now Chávez has been weaving through the fine line between a democracy and a dictatorship. Until he becomes an outright dictator, it does not benefit the opposition to call him a dictator. Petkoff acknowledged that this is difficult, since the line between the two is often blurred by Chávez.

Petkoff sees Chávez's undeniably autocratic methods (very similar to those of 19th century caudillos) as being kept in check by Venezuela's democratic traditions (going back more than forty years). In this sense, Petkoff does not see a "Cubanization" ocurring in Venezuela. Today in Venezuela there is a unique and unprecedented context.

Petkoff believes that Venezuelans today are suffering from a hyper-politicization. It is important to be politicized, particularly for Venezuelans, who for many years were indifferent to politics. But at this current historical moment, we Venezuelans are suffering from a pathological hyper-politicization. This is evident in the fact that whenever any Venezuelans sit down to talk nowdays, the topic always ends up returning to Chávez. Petkoff sees this as an unhealthy situation which we will have to move beyond.

The situation in Venezuela is extremely complex. On the one hand, Chávez has returned us to the era of caudillismo. But the one thing that the opposition has failed to do is connect politically with the many Venezuelans who have historically always been excluded by Venezuela's leaders. While Chávez's policies are not necessarily actually helping the poor, his discourse is geared toward them, and he offers them a sense of inclusion. Even if this inclusion is not supported by material improvements in their lives, it has allowed him to sustain the approximately 25 percent of Venezuelans (a large amount) who still support him.

Petkoff does believe that Chávez's discourse will eventually not be enough to maintain that support. But for now his political discourse is reaching a group that responds to his attention.

At one point during the question & answer session, two members of Boston's Bolivarian Circle (there were six members there, according to my count) tried to challenge Petkoff and disrupt his lecture with rambling, unclear questions. The first one, for instance prefaced his question with the following comment: "I was born in Venezuela but I have lived here for thirty years..." His question covered a point that Petkoff had already gone over earlier. Petkoff disposed of these chavistas' predictable questions eloquently and forcefully. From what I could tell, only two of the six members of Boston's Bolivarian Circle were Venezuelan.

Petkoff spoke for over two hours. After presenting his commentary, he answered a wide range of questions from the audience, which seemed to be almost entirely Venezuelan. One of the last things he said was: "Estoy feliz con mi periodiquito" (I'm happy with my little newspaper). It was fascinating lecture by a brilliant intellectual.

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