In Venezuela, Jewish journalist tries to hew an independent course


CARACAS, Venezuela — He’s a prominent Venezuelan self-described leftist who calls United States foreign policy toward Cuba foolish and supports Bolivian President Evo Morales.

The Bush administration revoked his visa to enter the United States. Asked why, he joked to JTA, “Perhaps I’m a danger to El Imperio.”

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Yet Teodoro Petkoff is no protege of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Rather, the lanky newspaper editor and former jailed Marxist guerrilla is one of Chavez’s fiercest critics.

Petkoff, 74, is the most high-profile opposition leader to have consistently challenged Chavez from the left. While most other Chavez critics have warned hyperbolically of a Communist takeover of Venezuela, Petkoff asks, “What revolution” is taking place?

But Petkoff also has skewered the opposition for its belligerent tactics since Chavez took office, often when few others would, giving him a reputation as a thoughtful maverick, a rarity in a highly polarized country. His backing of the opposition’s current presidential candidate, Manuel Rosales, in this December’s election has added needed credibility to the anti-Chavez camp, several analysts say.

“His support was decisive” in the opposition decision to choose Rosales, former governor of the oil-rich state of Zulia, as its candidate, says Fausto Maso, a leading Venezuelan political analyst. Petkoff now is a key Rosales campaign adviser.

Additionally, while Chavez regularly tries to brand his critics as Yankee stooges, Petkoff “cannot justly be accused of toeing Washington’s line,” says Michael Shifter, vice president for policy for the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based think thank.

Known as Teo to friends, Petkoff has never been one to go along with the crowd. The son of a Polish Jewish immigrant mother in an overwhelmingly Catholic nation, he’s an intellectual in a city with few bookstores but hundreds of beauty salons.

Petkoff is an atheist, so many Venezuelan Jews do not even know about his Jewish heritage. But he accompanied Rosales this week when he met with and apologized to the country’s Jewish community for the mistreatment many feel it has endured under the Chavez government. Members of the community said they had little to say about Petkoff since he’s not a candidate.

Petkoff says he has personally never experienced anti-Semitism in Venezuela, but most of his mother’s family perished in Auschwitz, which he says instilled in him a deep sense of social justice.

Petkoff was one of the first opposition leaders to grasp Chavez’s connection with the poor and acknowledge the value of the missiones, the hundreds of social programs Chavez implemented in the slums to try to combat everything from malnutrition to illiteracy.

Most Chavez opponents initially condemned the missiones as the “Cubanization” of Venezuela. But Petkoff long has maintained that their flaws are questionable long-term efficacy, corruption and politicization, rather than evidence of a Marxist revolution.

“He is more dismayed by the similarities than the differences between Chavez and previous administrations,” Shifter says.

Petkoff’s political involvement goes back decades: He was a student leader in Venezuela’s Communist Party but quit over the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. Later he co-founded Venezuela’s Socialist party, but left when it supported Chavez — Petkoff did not want to support a military man — in Chavez’s initial election in 1998.

Still, an affinity for the working class has stayed with Petkoff through the present. More than 50 percent of the staff at his newspaper, Tal Cual, lives in the working-class west side of Caracas. He encouraged his employees to unionize, and has forfeited his salary during lean times in order to pay employees.

That Tal Cual has endured tough times is partly because Petkoff has confronted the opposition when few others would.

Two weeks before the opposition’s failed 2002 coup, Petkoff wrote in his daily front-page editorial in Tal Cual that “It is impossible to accept a military coup against a government democratically elected and whose legitimacy is in doubt only among sectors of extremists in the opposition.”

During the coup, he helped negotiate the release of a pro-Chavez legislator, Tarek William Saab, who had been illegally arrested by the opposition.

Petkoff also editorialized early against the opposition’s two-month work stoppage in December 2002, a “gutsy position at the time,” says Francisco Toro, a commentator who runs Caracas Chronicles, an anti-Chavez blog.

But straight talk has a price in a highly polarized country.

“Independent thinking is often viewed with suspicion,” Shifter says.

Petkoff witnessed this earlier this year when he made his own run for president: The campaign never get off the ground. Even supporters acknowledged that campaigning was not Petkoff’s strength.

At that time, Toro, a Petkoff admirer, lamented that he “has no natural political base. He is too left wing for the right and too right wing for the left.”

For many on the right, Petkoff will always be a Communist, not to be trusted. Indicative of many on the left, Greg Wilpert, who runs the pro-government Web site, says that while he respects Petkoff the most among opposition leaders, Petkoff “still lives off his former leftist credentials when he has given up on practically all positions that could be called left.”

As an example, he cites Petkoff’s embrace of neo-liberal economics while serving as a minister for former President Rafael Caldera.

But what constitutes a leftist is being debated throughout Latin America these days. Petkoff insists that he’s simply a more mature leftist, one who supports open markets and some privatization, in the mold of former Chilean President Ricardo Lagos.

And he’s certainly no puppet of Washington: At the very beginning of the war in Iraq, Petkoff wrote in Tal Cual that “Bush is taking advantage of the tragedy of September 11,” and he has described U.S. foreign policy toward Latin America as “myopic,” especially for its arms-length treatment of Bolivian President Morales because of his friendship with Chavez and Cuban President Fidel Castro.

Petkoff also advocates greater Latin American integration, calling Chavez “the great disintegrator.”

He points out that Chavez has suspended trade agreements with Colombia and kicked out the ambassadors of Mexico and Peru. And he finds great irony in the fact that Chavez can freely travel to the United States — but one of his most effective critics cannot.