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Revolutionary Days Over, Ex-Communists Assume Top Government Posts

March 28, 1996

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) - February 1967: Three Communist guerrilla leaders crawl through a hand-dug tunnel beneath the San Carlos military prison.

No one has ever escaped from the maximum security jail. But the men reach the end of the 230-foot tunnel, climb up into a store jammed with their delighted Marxist comrades, and flee amid the chaos of Carnival.

March 1996: President Rafael Caldera gathers his Cabinet to address Venezuela’s worst economic crisis in years. Two of those advisers are the same men who made the spectacular prison escape.

It’s been a long journey for Teodoro Petkoff and Pompeyo Marquez from their days leading one of the most powerful guerrilla movements in Latin America in the 1960s.

``I continue being a man of the left,″ says Petkoff. But, he admits, the world has changed.

In mid-March, Caldera named Petkoff planning minister. An economist and longtime senator, Petkoff, 64, will play a key role in implementing Caldera’s economic policies.

Marquez, 74, has served as borders minister since Caldera took office two years ago. One of his main problems is combating Colombian guerrillas who attack Venezuelan soldiers.

Petkoff’s duties may be no less ironic: Caldera appears close to implementing the type of free-market austerity program that has been severely criticized by what remains of the left in Latin America. The program calls for privatizing state-owned companies, cutting government subsidies and bureaucracies, and reducing the government’s role in the economy.

Some of Petkoff’s former comrades say he’s betrayed them.

``Teodoro has become an instrument of savage capitalism,″ says Nora Castaneda, a former guerrilla who now is a leader of Venezuela’s Socialist League.

But on Wall Street, the reaction to Petkoff’s appointment ``so far has been very good. He’s been saying all the things that people have been hoping to hear,″ said Michael Hood, an economist at J.P. Morgan.

Petkoff says the reforms are common sense measures needed to tame one of the highest inflation rates in Latin America _ 57 percent in 1995.

However, some critics fear the austerity measures will be a severe initial blow to the poor who now make up 80 percent of the population. Living standards in Venezuela have plummeted since the oil-boom of the early 1980s, prompting food riots in 1989 and social unrest that led to two coup attempts in 1992.

Petkoff and Marquez aren’t the only former Venezuelan rebels who have won high government posts. Last December, Francisco Arias Cardenas, a former army officer who led one of those 1992 coup attempts, was elected governor of oil-rich Zulia state.

Petkoff’s rise to the Cabinet is a story laced with drama. His parents, immigrants from Bulgaria and Poland, arrived in Venezuela in the 1920s. Petkoff distinguished himself as a brilliant student in the 1950s, joined the Communist Party and fought to overthrow dictator Marcos Perez Jimenez.

The strongman fell in 1958, but the Communists claimed the democracy that replaced him was ``bourgeois″ and didn’t represent the poor masses.

Inspired by Fidel Castro’s revolution in Cuba, Petkoff and others went underground as guerrillas and carried out anti-government actions including the kidnapping of a U.S. Army colonel.

Petkoff spent three years in jail and escaped twice, once by swallowing smuggled cow’s blood to make himself sick and then sliding down a rope from a seventh-floor hospital window.

But the guerrillas’ revolutionary fervor never caught on with ordinary Venezuelans, and by the late 1960s they surrendered. The president who offered them amnesties was Caldera, just starting his first term.

In 1971, Petkoff, Marquez and others split from the Communist Party, saying the Soviet model was dictatorial. Petkoff had already earned a public scolding from Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev for writing a book that condemned the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia that crushed the ``Prague Spring″ democracy movement.

The dissidents formed the Movement to Socialism party, which became Venezuela’s third most powerful political force. Petkoff was elected to the Senate, and later ran for president twice, losing badly both times.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Colombia’s Nobel Prize-winning writer, lauded Petkoff during the first campaign with an essay about his daring escapes, love of literature and bold politics.

Petkoff says he is still preoccupied with social justice. He notes that Venezuela’s elite own mansions and take vacations in Europe, while many of its poor majority eat just one meal a day.

But today’s struggle is different from the 1960s. The old Soviet Union is gone. Free-market economics reign.

``It’s a reality we can’t escape,″ he said.

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