The Roots of Idiocy
Although the time is ripe for a reasoned debate about the causes and consequences of Latin America’s populist revival, presumptions of collective idiocy are hardly the place to start. In "The Return of the Idiot" (May/June 2007), Alvaro Vargas Llosa diverts attention from the underlying causes of the problem to its more visible — and ...
Although the time is ripe for a reasoned debate about the causes and consequences of Latin America’s populist revival, presumptions of collective idiocy are hardly the place to start. In "The Return of the Idiot" (May/June 2007), Alvaro Vargas Llosa diverts attention from the underlying causes of the problem to its more visible -- and polarizing -- symptoms.
Although the time is ripe for a reasoned debate about the causes and consequences of Latin America’s populist revival, presumptions of collective idiocy are hardly the place to start. In "The Return of the Idiot" (May/June 2007), Alvaro Vargas Llosa diverts attention from the underlying causes of the problem to its more visible — and polarizing — symptoms.
Few would question that populist leaders of the past mismanaged their states’ economies. Vargas Llosa’s sweeping analysis, however, not only blames populists for Latin America’s underdevelopment but also implies that they bear responsibility for the sluggish growth of recent decades and the failure to reduce poverty levels. The problem with this type of analysis is that classical populism and its economic correlates — nationalist and state-directed development — ran out of steam in Latin America by the 1970s and 80s. In the wake of these failures, governments throughout the region adopted programs of market reform that were designed to do precisely what Vargas Llosa advocates: to "place the region in the global firmament." These reforms were managed by U.S.-trained and IMF-backed technocrats — not Vargas Llosa’s "Idiots." And though their policies succeeded in reining in hyperinflation, which was no small achievement, they still largely failed to produce sustainable growth or financial stability. Nor did they address chronic social problems such as underemployment, poverty, and inequality.
Those who seek to understand Latin America’s populist revival would do well to focus less on demagoguery and more on the inherent tensions between democratic citizenship and social exclusion. These tensions create fertile soil for the eruption of new popular movements, and they corrode representative institutions and magnify social conflicts. They also generate demands, quite reasonably, for public institutions that promote social integration, ameliorate market insecurities, and assert local or national control over natural resources. Given the track record of a quarter century of market liberalization, it’s hardly self-evident that the popular movements that make such demands on the state are any more delusional — or "idiotic" — than the technocrats and ideologues who claimed that unfettered markets would resolve the social problems of the world’s most inequitable region. Between Vargas Llosa’s "Idiots" and Hugo Chávez’s "devils," is there no room for a less ideological, and more self-critical, assessment of Latin America’s development impasse? At the very least, can Foreign Policy help elevate the debate beyond facile name-calling?
Department of Government
I take issue with two of Vargas Llosa’s assertions. First, he argues that the "Idiot" (nationalist, populist political leaders and their followers) bears "responsibility for Latin America’s underdevelopment." That may make for good polemics, but this generalized statement is as wrong as blaming all the region’s current ills on neoliberal economic reforms and prudent macroeconomic management, as so many of the populists do. In fact, the region experienced its highest real income gains, largest infrastructure expansion, and greatest improvement in literacy, life expectancy, and basic sanitation rates in the period between 1940 and 1973, when state-led development under nationalists of different stripes ruled. But ending the argument here would be as wrongheaded as the polemics in Vargas Llosa’s article.
Historical accuracy requires adding that state-led development under import-substitution industrialization was also inefficient, self-serving, and ultimately unsustainable. Both civilian and military nationalist regimes repeatedly used this ideology to clamp down on dissent, commit egregious human rights abuses, and blame U.S. imperialism and capitalist sharks to absolve them from responsibility.
Second, the article berates young Latin Americans who are "deeply resentful of the frivolous lives of the wealthy" for supporting radical causes. To understand the roots of this resentment and make an informed judgment, one would have to live the everyday reality of humiliation and thwarted ambition.
The Idiot has not "returned." It is alive and well on both sides of the Latin American street.
-Franciso E. Gonzalez
Riordan Roett Chair in Latin American Studies
Nitze School of Advanced International Studies
Johns Hopkins University
Vargas Llosa’s "Return of the Idiot" is so early 1990s: a lively, but fatally clichéd, attack on the Latin American left that pretends as if the past 16 years haven’t taught us anything. But developments in political science, and historical events themselves, tell a different story. For instance, Vargas Llosa lays blame with the "Idiot species" for Latin America’s underdevelopment but forgets that the region’s horrible inequality and poverty have often set the stage for tyrants to gain power with promises of redistribution. In other words, having an Idiot species in your political fauna does not guarantee them a spot at the top of the food chain (note the failure of radical leftists to influence policy in the United States). The environment matters, and Vargas Llosa should spend more time thinking about the preconditions for leftist revolutionaries, caudillos, and other undesirables.
Furthermore, let’s remember there are idiots on both sides of the political spectrum. And it is no coincidence that the "carnivorous right" and its worship of the Washington Consensus and cutthroat free-market reforms preceded the return of the carnivorous left. Vargas Llosa sadly forgets that the former did influence policy during the 1990s in Latin America, but many of their reforms resulted in anguish and popular disillusionment. If he truly wanted to prompt positive change in Latin America, he should prod the right to consider practical — not ideological — solutions to the region’s plight, with a balance of free-market reforms and genuine help toward the most disadvantaged. That would be a more effective way to produce change in Latin America than ranting about the pathologies of the political opposition.
-Gustavo de las Casas
Department of Political Science
New York, N.Y.
Alvaro Vargas Llosa replies:
The responses here make two basic arguments. First, they suggest that Latin America’s current ills should be blamed on free-market policies rather than on "idiotic" populism, since the "carnivorous right" was in charge during most of the 1980s and 90s. Second, they assert that there is a legitimate desire for participation on the part of the excluded masses in Latin America that cannot be dismissed as part of the "Idiots’" agenda.
The problem with the leaders of the 1980s and 90s was not that they championed market-oriented policies, but that they were ultimately populists, despite outwardly advocating economic liberalization. Heads of state such as Carlos Menem (Argentina) and Alberto Fujimori (Peru) not only failed to develop the institutions necessary for a healthy, competitive economy, but they were profoundly corrupt and took public spending to new heights.
The backlash against free-market reform in Latin America has taken the form of old-style populism — the "return of the Idiot." Rather than enfranchising the "losers" of the 1990s, these populists are turning back the clock, unearthing the type of statist policies whose failure brought about the attempts at free-market reform in the first place. Nor are the piqueteros in Argentina, the Zapatistas in Mexico, the cocaleros in Bolivia, and the Bolivarianos in Venezuela defending the excluded masses. They represent Latin America at its worst. They are rewriting constitutions to undermine checks and balances, and they are concentrating power in the hands of the caudillo. It’s the most regressive outcome possible. Hugo Chávez has done that in Venezuela, Evo Morales is trying to do it in Bolivia, and Rafael Correa has promised to do it in Ecuador. Moreover, their nationalization policies, which have created quasi-monopolies like those that now contribute a sizeable chunk of Brazil’s, Mexico’s, and especially Venezuela’s incomes, are anything but progressive.
Countries that have combined free-market policies with strong, inclusive institutions that foster social mobility — without resorting to (too much) populism, such as Chile and many Central and Eastern European nations — have prospered. The "return of the Idiot" will make it difficult for many Latin American countries to follow suit in the near future. Their policies may be good news for the American and European Idiots whose thirst for the exotic leads them to praise policies abroad that they would never accept at home. But it is certainly bad news for those of us who would like to see Latin America prosper once and for all.
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