I suppose that all countries which have experienced democratic regimes have a list of “what if?” about those that could have become presidents but failed to do so. Quite often it seems that the best guy is the one that lost the election. In the US a famous case is Adlai Stevenson where some probably have not recovered from his double loss against Eisenhower. Not that Eisenhower was that bad, he played golf enough to let the ship of state sail free of woes, but certainly the history of the United States would have been quite different if Adlai Stevenson had become president: for starters probably neither Nixon nor Kennedy would have become president.
Venezuela brief democratic tradition (1958-1999) has managed to give us one bright “what if” when Uslar Pietri lost to Leoni in 1963. For most Uslar Pietri was the best candidate then, even if they did not vote for him, and for many today he is one of the greatest Venezuelans of the XX century. The campaign of Uslar Pietri is my very first political echo, when I could not even read or write. I do remember his chosen symbol “La Campana”, the bell, which for a child was certainly impressive. I even remember my mother, the only one who could vote at home then, being so sad when it was clear that Leoni had won, a worrying sadness for a child, difficult to understand, and probably a little scary (maybe I should discuss this with my shrink).
As it happened Leoni turned out, for all his faults, to be arguably the best president of Venezuela in the XX century (1). His success was perhaps accidental, I am willing to accept, but his 5 years in office, marred by the guerilla and Cuban intromission, were the years where democracy started to set in Venezuela until that most bright moment in December 1968 when for the first time the opposition was recognized as having won the election. It is today assumed that it was Leoni who forced the hand of AD in accepting the victory of Caldera, AD then being as reluctant as the MVR today in even contemplating the possibility of not having a hold on power.
But there is a reason why I bring Leoni’s term into the memory of the Venezuelan reader: it was during the Leoni years that Teodoro Petkoff name started to be heard in Venezuelan politics; and I happen to think that Teodoro is our new political “what if?”. Teodoro, who withdrew from the presidential race yesterday, is arguably since Uslar Pietri the only Venezuelan candidate with enough brain to see which were the real problems of Venezuela and to have a good idea with a good attitude to face them. Of course, Uslar Pietri remains an intellectual “hors pair” in Venezuela, but, call it if you will a sad observation on Venezuelan political class, Teodoro is the only thing close to a real thinker that we have had in politics since Uslar Pietri.
Teodoro had a lot of difficulty to find its way to the luminary position he holds today, even as the polls would indicate otherwise. Starting as a guerilla leader (for which many that should know better never forgave him) Teodoro had his road of Damascus moment when the Soviet tanks rolled into Prague. One year after he had broken with the communists of Latin America and started on the way to a true democratic left, something which happened many places but failed miserably in Venezuela, with the results that we know today.
But the road was bumpy, including one failed presidential candidacy where he did not even get 10%. Still, amazingly, his best days rested ahead of that failed bid. During the Caldera second term Venezuela got close to total decomposition. The unlikely savior was Teodoro who suddenly, as all was floundering, was called in the second half of Caldera term to try to put some order in the country’s financial mess. And thus we saw that ex-guerilla saving Venezuela’s free economy, if Venezuela could be qualified of having a free market economy. This brief period in charge completed the long aggiornamiento of Teodoro thought. When Chavez came to power Teodoro was already one of his main opponents. Teodoro had been cured of silly leftist ideals and impractical ways to socialism. He had also acquired a strong belief in democracy as the only way to development, a healthy respect for controlled individual greed as the way to make people work hard at a better future. Some heretic ideas which of course garnered him the instant hatred of the facile left that followed Chavez in his adventure (2).
Thus Teodoro managed what no other Venezuelan politician has managed: to be almost equally disliked from the right to the left. And thus probably the only politician that could dig out Venezuela from its permanent crisis. But now we will never know.
Teodoro will return next week to his newspaper Tal Cual from where he will continue the good fight, even if useless. He has promised us to form an anti-totalitarian movement, among other things, and that is what is needed right now the most in Venezuela, something that will stand up to Chavez promise of a one party state as of next year (or rather one man state).
As Uslar Pietri learned in his days, being intelligent, coherent, intellectual, to have the right ideas and the right plans is not enough in Venezuela. With that you can attract for sure all the intellectual elite of Venezuela but that elite percentage is counted now with the fingers of one hand. We have been force fed populism since the mid 60ies and there is no easy cure for that, in particular with the virulent strain of chavismo.
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An additional, and rare, personal note. When I left to live in the US for almost two decades, Teodoro was just for me a guerilla that came out from the cold, holding little interest. When I did return, about a year before Chavez election I was surprised to see that my father, your very normal capitalist, was sorry that Teodoro had not dared to run in 1998.
I did observe Teodoro with interest while he was in office and if not a fan I became interested in him, in particular on how he kept his cool during the transition to Chavez even though he had opposed that run (Teodoro and I share, if anything, a profound mistrust if not outright allergy to Venezuelan military and military in general). But when Teodoro directed El Mundo before he went on to Tal Cual, I became a fan.
I can vouch that many from the left to the right support Teodoro. I have seen the support for Teodoro in many business settings. Though my blog I have met certain people from the left who also support Teodoro. I went to Teodoro publication party for his "dos Izquierdas" and I saw who came in to toast him. And newspapers obits on the candidacy of Teodoro started coming mostly from the left even before Teodoro withdrew (such as a recent article from Ibsen Martinez).
Now I suppose that I have to make good on my promise written last February to go and work for Rosales campaign.
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1) Interestingly the very little bit we have preserved about Leoni years is right now erased by chavismo, even the official name of the Guri dam.
2) The viciousness of the attacks against Teodoro from chavismo, even in pages such as this blog, has been impressive. No other candidate besides Teodoro seems to be able to push so many buttons among chavistas. Obviously he holds the mirror in which their failings are crudely reflected and they hate him for that. Not that many on the right were not busy destroying Teodoro run, but their viciousness was not equal to the one from chavismo. Though the image of Teodoro resigning shown by El Universal implied without any doubt that they were not sorry to see him go.