Latin America’s Literary Conscience
The 2010 Nobel laureate in literature is a political force in his own right: a champion of freedom, a fierce critic of strongmen, and clarion of democracy. Mario Vargas Llosa is not one to hold back. Here he is, in his own words.
Mario Vargas Llosa is a literary treasure, author of classic and beloved novels of Peruvian and Latin American life ranging from The Green House to Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter to The Feast of the Goat. But the writer, who has been named the 2010 Nobel laureate for literature, has a second persona as well -- as one of the most respected and outspoken public intellectuals in Latin America. And unlike many Latin American writers of his generation, Vargas Llosa's politics have veered toward the neoliberal. Peru's president, Alan García, aptly called his award Thursday a triumph for "the visionary intelligence of Mario Vargas Llosa and his libertarian and democratic ideals."
Mario Vargas Llosa is a literary treasure, author of classic and beloved novels of Peruvian and Latin American life ranging from The Green House to Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter to The Feast of the Goat. But the writer, who has been named the 2010 Nobel laureate for literature, has a second persona as well — as one of the most respected and outspoken public intellectuals in Latin America. And unlike many Latin American writers of his generation, Vargas Llosa’s politics have veered toward the neoliberal. Peru’s president, Alan García, aptly called his award Thursday a triumph for "the visionary intelligence of Mario Vargas Llosa and his libertarian and democratic ideals."
Whether writing on Cuba or China, Venezuela or Israel, Vargas Llosa’s political views can be summed up by the preeminence of freedom — the idea that everyone, everywhere, must live unburdened by tyranny, be it political, economic, or cultural. "Sometimes in this world of pragmatism, you lose sight of the principle at stake," says Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue. "And Vargas Llosa always brings us back to the principle. He makes people think. There are very few people you could say that about in the region."
Born in Peru in 1936, Vargas Llosa studied in Madrid, saw the both the promise and then the cruelty of Cuba’s revolution firsthand while visiting as a young man, and became politically awakened watching the injustice of civil war and military dictatorship back home in Peru. He was always a fiction writer first and foremost, his novels delicately and wittily poking at the hypocrisies and vanities of Latin American life at that time. Over the years, he came to believe in the concrete power of fiction to change world events. "I don’t think there is a great fiction that is not an essential contradiction of the world as it is," he told the New York Times in 2002.
It was inevitable, perhaps, that politics would prove enticing. In 1990, he ran for president of Peru as head of an unruly coalition of neoliberal groups and Christian groups, vowing to bring down what was then 3,000 percent inflation through privatization and strict austerity measures and to steer the country away from autocratic leaders. (Instead, Alberto Fujimori won, restoring economic stability, but at the price of countless human rights abuses.)
More recently, Vargas Llosa has vocally opposed the left-leaning governments of Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, Bolivia’s Evo Morales, and Cuba’s Castro brothers, who he turned against after Fidel Castro imprisoned the poet Heberto Padilla in 1971. He has argued passionately against the caudillo in Latin American politics — the strongman who promises to liberate the people and often ends up doing the opposite. "In Latin America … where I spend three or four months a year [he spends much of the rest of his time in Spain, where he acquired citizenship in 1993], [my] capacity for anger always returns, with the fervor of my youth, and I come to live as one lives, uneasily and alert," he recently wrote in El País of his political spirit.
What follows are several translated excerpts of Vargas Llosa’s most recent writing for El Pais, offering a taste of his views on current politics in Latin America and beyond. (All faults of grammar and style are, of course, ours.)
On Venezuela: President Hugo Chávez is a real-life version of a Vargas Llosa villain, the very personification of the fraudulent and dangerous caudillo leader. Vargas Llosa recently wrote about the parliamentary elections in Venezuela, which took place in September:
El avance del régimen hacia un modelo cubano, de dictadura marxista leninista integral … cuyo prontuario figura haber convertido a Venezuela en el país con la más alta inflación de América Latina, el de más alto índice de criminalidad, uno de los más corruptos e ineficientes del planeta y donde el desplome de los niveles de vida de los sectores de clase media y popular es más rápido. Este año Venezuela será el único país de América Latina con crecimiento negativo. …
Estoy convencido de que América Latina sólo será verdaderamente democrática, sin reversión posible, cuando la inmensa mayoría de latinoamericanos esté vacunada para siempre contra la idea irracional, primitiva, reñida con la cultura de la libertad, de que sólo un superhombre puede gobernar eficazmente y con acierto a esas mediocridades que somos el resto de los seres humanos, esos rebaños que necesitan buenos pastores que los conduzcan por el camino debido.
The regime has progressed according to the Cuban model of a true Marxist, Leninist dictator … Its primary figure has transformed Venezuela into the country with the highest inflation in Latin America, the highest crime — one of the most corrupt and inefficient [places] on the planet, where the quality of life for the middle class is collapsing the fastest. This year, Venezuela will be the only country in Latin America with a negative growth rate.
I am convinced that Latin America will only truly be democratic, free of the possibility of backsliding, when the vast majority of Latin Americans have been vaccinated against the irrational and primitive idea, at odds with the culture of liberty, that one superman alone can govern effectively over the rest of us mediocre human beings, this herd that requires good shepherds to lead it down the correct path.
On Israel: While Vargas Llosa’s politics put him to the right in Latin America, his views on Israel would fall left of center in the United States. He has opposed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s policies and pushed hard for the end of the occupation of the Palestinian territories. After the flotilla incident this summer — in which the Israeli navy boarded a humanitarian aid ship traveling from Turkey to Gaza — he wrote the following:
Cada día es más difícil ser amigo de Israel, salvo para los incondicionales convencidos de que todo lo que hacen las autoridades israelíes es bueno, que todos los palestinos son terroristas y que las críticas a la política de Israel son siempre producto del antisemitismo. …
Lo trágico, para mí, es que quienes se oponen a la política de Netanyahu y bregan por la paz y una solución negociada del problema palestino son, hoy por hoy, una minoría electoral. …
El bloqueo de Gaza no tiene excusa alguna pues condena a su millón y medio de habitantes a una muerte lenta. Las principales víctimas no son los terroristas de Hamás sino los seres más desvalidos: los viejos, las mujeres, los enfermos y los niños.
Every day it is harder to be a friend of Israel, except for those unconditional believers for whom everything that Israeli authorities do is good, all Palestinians are terrorists, and all critiques of Israeli politics are the product of anti-Semitism. …
…The tragedy, to me, is that those who oppose Netanyahu’s politics and those who struggle for peace and a negotiated solution to the Palestinian problem are, at the moment, an electoral minority. …There is no excuse for the Gaza blockade, which condemns a million and a half inhabitants to a slow death. The primary victims are not the terrorists of Hamas but the most destitute beings: the old, the women, the sick, and the children.
On Brazil: Vargas Llosa was been taken aback by President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s open-door policy toward Iran, Cuba, and Venezuela. After a meeting between Lula and Raúl Castro, Vargas Llosa lamented the sort of Latin American leader who rules democratically at home but engages with all manner of regimes abroad:
Pero, cuando se trata del exterior, el presidente Lula se desviste de los atuendos democráticos y se abraza con el comandante Chávez, con Evo Morales, con el comandante Ortega, es decir, con la hez de América Latina, y no tiene el menor escrúpulo en abrir las puertas diplomáticas y económicas del Brasil a la satrapía teocrática integrista de Irán. ¿Qué significa esta duplicidad? ¿Que el presidente Lula nunca cambió de verdad? …
En verdad, todo esto significa, ay, que Lula es un típico mandatario "democrático" latinoamericano. Casi todos ellos están cortados por la misma tijera y casi todos, unos más, otros menos, aunque … practican la democracia en el seno de sus propios países, en el exterior no tienen reparo alguno, como Lula, en cortejar a dictadores y demagogos tipo Chávez o Castro, porque creen, los pobres, que de este modo aquellos manoseos les otorgarán una credencial de "progresistas" que los libre de huelgas, revoluciones, acoso periodístico y de campañas internacionales acusándolos de violar los derechos humanos.
When it comes to foreign affairs, President Lula removes his democratic attire and embraces Comandante Chávez, Evo Morales, Comandante [Daniel] Ortega — in other words, the dregs of Latin America — and he has no scruples about opening the diplomatic and economic doors of Brazil to the theocratic fundamentalists of Iran. What does his duplicity mean? That Lula never really changed? …
In truth, it means, alas, that Lula is the typical Latin American "democrat." They are almost all cut from the same cloth, some more than others. Even though they practice democracy within their own countries, leaders like Lula have no qualms about courting dictators and demagogues like Chávez or Castro abroad because they believe, the poor things, that this hands-on engagement will endow them with the credentials of "progressives" — freeing them from strikes, revolutions, criticism in the press, and international human rights campaigns.
On Mexico: While supporting Mexican President Felipe Calderón’s "war" against the drug cartels, Vargas Llosa has been the first to acknowledge that this is not a conflict that can be won. Rather than pushing for a political or military solution, Vargas Llosa has been an advocate of decriminalization of narcotics possession — a suggestion made by a number of former Latin American presidents in 2009.
El problema no es policial sino económico. Hay un mercado para las drogas que crece de manera imparable, tanto en los países desarrollados como en los subdesarrollados, y la industria del narcotráfico lo alimenta porque le rinde pingües ganancias. Las victorias que la lucha contra las drogas pueden mostrar son insignificantes comparadas con el número de consumidores en los cinco continentes. Y afecta a todas las clases sociales. Los efectos son tan dañinos en la salud como en las instituciones. Y a las democracias del Tercer Mundo, como un cáncer, las va minando.
¿No hay, pues, solución? ¿Estamos condenados a vivir más tarde o más temprano, con narco-Estados como el que ha querido impedir el presidente Felipe Calderón? La hay. Consiste en descriminalizar el consumo de drogas mediante un acuerdo de países consumidores y países productores, tal como vienen sosteniendo The Economist y buen número de juristas, profesores, sociólogos y científicos en muchos países del mundo sin ser escuchados.
The problem is not one of policing but of economics. The market for these drugs is growing at an unparalleled rate, in developed countries more than developing ones, and the narcotrafficking industry only feeds that demand when it yields such fat profits. The victories that the war on drugs can boast are insignificant compared with the number of drug users on all five continents. And the problem affects every social class. The effects are most harmful to the health of institutions. As for the democracies of the Third World, it erodes them like a cancer.
So is there no solution? Are we condemned to live, sooner or later, with narcostates like the one that sought to hinder Calderón? There is a solution. It consists of decriminalizing drugs use through an international agreement between drug-consuming and drug-producing countries, as has been suggested by The Economist and a number of lawyers, professors, sociologists, and scientists in many countries in the world — falling on deaf ears.
Elizabeth Dickinson is International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Colombia.
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