by Tulio Hernandez, El Nacional
Translated by Francisco Toro
Since 1969, when he published “Checoslovakia, socialism as a problem”,
Teodoro Petkoff’s thinking has never lost his ability to make
conservatives, both of the right and of the left, squirm. He manages the
trick because, in trying to extricate political thinking from the game
of binary simplification where both extremes would like to keep it
locked up, he lays bare the whole panoply of mannichean stereotypes with
which both sides try to justify their own intolerance.
The conservatism of the right, in its obsession to deny the possibility
that not all left-wing thinking is an undercover form of communism, a
cruzade against freedom and the market, does not realize that there are,
in effect, different ways of taking on concerns about equity, social
justice, and the rights of the excluded, which, in our times, are the
defining traits of that ever broadening and imprecise universe known as
And the other conservatism, which has come to be known as the archaic or
religious left because it remains tied to the principles that gave rise
to the failed soviet, maoist and fidelista models, underestimates the
importance of the markets and of economics in general, and once it takes
power, sees all political dissent as a conspiracy and, therefore,
persecutes it and seizes democratic liberties in the name, ironically,
of the struggle for social justice and the cause of the oppressed.
So it’s not surprising that the publication of his latest book, Dos
Izquierdas (Two Lefts – edited by Alfadil) has already generated an
angry reaction from the historically anticommunist section of the
opposition, the new right, made up of activists who in their youth were
part of the far left, maoism and trotskyism, and who therefore have a
double reason to disagree – and even to throw a fit – faced with
What’s so perturbing about Petkoff’s postures? In the first place, his
determination never to subject himself to the nasty little game of “who
do you love more, your dad or your mom?” That is, his refusal to accept,
for instance, that in order to reject becoming a lackey of fidelista
communism one must become a lackey of Bush’s crusade against evil and,
instead of turning up in Havana to pay homage to the old Caribbean hack,
one must go to Washington like a meek little (neocolonialist) lamb to
ask indulgences of the belicose U.S. president.
Then there is Petkoff’s insistence in underlining realities that
fanatics – whose ideologies are built like fact-proof fortresses – would
rather not acknowledge. This is what happens, for instance, with his
interpretation of the growth of the lefts in Latin American – nine
governments so far – as a reaction of the urban and rural masses to the
failures of decades of developmentalist dictatorships and populist
and/or neoliberal governments which left the region with a legacy of
corruption, precarious economic growth and institutional degradation
that ended up making our societies among the most unjust and unequal on
But, Petkoff warns, that which seen from afar looks as a single process
in fact isn’t. What has grown is two lefts that are radically different
in their understandings of democracy and power. One, which he calls
“primitive” or “bourbonic” (since, like that old dynasty, it neither
forgets nor learns), and another, the democratic and modern left, which
I would add is market-oriented. The first is, today, led by the
military-charismatic duo of Chavez and Castro, and counts as its
followers the sandinistas of the Ortega wing in Nicaragua, and the
FMLN’s communist wing led by Schafic Handal in El Salvador, as well as
Evo Morales’ MAS in Bolivia.
The second, though internally diverse, includes the social-democratic
Chile of Lagos as well as Lula’s Brasil and Kirchner’s Argentina, the
pluralist Frente Amplio in Uruguay, Jagdeo’s Guyana, Torrijos’ Panama
and the Dominican Republic of Leonel Fernandez.
According to Petkoff, the democratic left is defined by that which the
other left has failed to do: leave behind the infantile, voluntarist
postures of the left; internalize democratic values as basic components
of projects for social change; abandon its taste for strong-men,
personalism, militarism and messianic saviours, and choose a politics of
“feet planted firmly on the ground,” as a means of bringing about
forward-looking, sustainable and durable social change.
One of the most controversial, but at the same time most realistic,
arguments in Petkoff’s writing consists in pointing out that there is
just one factor today that brings together these two lefts: the foreign
policy of the United States, in particular with regards to Latin
America. These leftist governments, each in its own way, is trying to
build on new foundations – now that the cold war is over – its
relationship with the United States, and on that road, as we’ve seen in
the OAS, they will not remain indifferent vis-a-vis the pressure the
Northern Giant brings to bear on Chavez and Fidel.
The panorama in the hemisphere is changing quickly, and it is from that
perspective that we must think through what is happening in Venezuela.
Probably, it’s necessary to start to distinguih clearly between two
oppositions, which are as radically different as the two lefts.
One opposition, also bourbonic, bent on remembering without learning –
is set on increasing tension, on vanguardism, immediatism, coupsterisim
and US boosterism, classism, disinterest for the fate of the poor and
excluded, and the restoration of the ancien regime. The other opposition
rejects those values. Essentially democratic, forward-looking and
reformist, it should stress a discourse aimed at transforming the soiled
legacy of the AD-Copei past – which survives somehow through the
premature-aging of chavismo. To this opposition, the experience of Latin
America’s now empowered democratic left has much to offer.
It would seem that this is the only option able to stand against the
popular torrent of disenchantment against the past that Chavez and his
team have managed to capitalize upon.