Teodoro Petkoff, editor of the Venezuelan opposition newspaper Tal Cual, is a former Communist, a former guerilla fighter and a former political prisoner. After the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, he rejected left-wing authoritarianism and in 1971 founded a party of the democratic Left, the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS). An economist, Petkoff has been a presidential candidate and an elected congressman. In 1996 he became minister of economic planning in the government of President Rafael Caldera. After his tenure in the Caldera administration, he became director of the newspaper El Mundo, and then founder and director of Tal Cual.
Petkoff calls himself a “pragmatic socialist.” He recently published a book contrasting the kind of democratic Left he believes in with what he considers the reactionary, caudillo-style Left embodied by Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez.
With the assistance of the Venezuelan blogger Daniel Duquenal, I submitted several questions to Petkoff, and he was kind enough to reply:
Q. In the US and the UK, supporters of Hugo Chavez portray the Venezuelan opposition as overwhelmingly white and privileged, and the Chavistas as predominantly dark-skinned, poor and working-class. These supporters also claim the Chavez government is addressing the needs of the poor in ways that previous governments have failed to do. Is this an accurate picture?
A. Venezuela is a mestizo country and you can find white and dark-skinned people on both the pro-Chavez and anti-Chavez sides. The chavistas are about 55 of the population and the opposition about 45 percent, based on recent elections.
It’s true that the social programs of Chavez have reached broad masses of poor people, but his economic policy has increased poverty by 10 percent since 1998, according to official figures from the National Institute of Statistics. About 60 percent of the population lives in poverty.
Q. What is the role of the newspaper you edit, Tal Cual, in Venezuelan politics? How would you characterize its readers socially and politically?
A. Tal Cual is an independent newspaper, very critical of the Chavez administration but not “Talibanized” nor caught by the polarization of Venezuelan society. It is a respected political reference. Its readers are from the middle classes, and politcally a majority belong to the opposition, though in the government Tal Cual is read very carefully. [Note: In Venezuela, “Talibanized” (from the Afghan Taliban) is slang for radicalized.]
Q. To what extent is the Chavez government restricting free expression in Venezuela? Do you feel completely free to criticize the regime in Tal Cual?
A. Absolute freedom of expression exists in Venezuela, legally and formally speaking, but its exercise is subjected to threats ranging from the aggression against journalists (not so bad now, but very grave in 2002 and 2003) to the enactment of laws (for radio and TV and a penal code reform, among others) with the potential to restrict the freedom of expression. As far as I am concerned I act with a complete freedom in my criticism of the government.
Q. What was your role as minister of planning in the Caldera government of the 1990s? Did you promote privatization of the Venezuelan economy then and do you support it now?
A. We had to face a financial and revenue crisis of great dimensions. We applied succesfully an adjustment program. Some privatizations were made, without corruption and well directed. I think that with the exception of PDVSA [the government-owned oil company], the state should own almost no other businesses.
Q. What caused you to leave the guerilla movement to engage in electoral politics as a democratic leftist?
A. The armed fight was a big political mistake. After a few years we understood this and we stopped it, to get back into the democratic fold.
Q. Is there anything leftwing opponents of Chavez outside Venezuela can do to help the democratic Left in your country?
Yes, to reveal without prejudice the Venezuelan reality from a leftist perspective.