What is it with Vargas Llosa anyway?

On March 20, Peru’s Nobel Laureate in literature and sometime right-wing politician Mario Vargas Llosa gave the opening address at an elite forum, “Latin America: Opportunities and Challenges,” convened at the University of Lima by the Fundación Internacional para la Libertad, making proud front-page coverage in Lima’s La Republica. Vargas Llosa intoned against the “temptation of populism [and] dictatorship”—as if the two are inevitable concomitants. He called for solidarity with the (right-wing) opposition in Venezuela, and hailed the presidential candidacy of Mexico’s (right-wing) Josefina Vázquez Mota, who was in attendance. Taking open glee in the ill health of Hugo Chávez, he acclaimed the “light at the end of the tunnel” in Venezuela. That much is all quite predictable…

What makes this all particularly perverse is that among the prominent attendees was Colombia’s blood-drenched ex-president Álvaro Uribe—who may have been popularly elected (as Hugo Chávez has, repeatedly), but who oversaw a government with the worst human rights record in the hemisphere, by far. It even received warnings from The Hague that its officials could face prosecution for collaboration with paramilitaries. (Mexico’s President Felipe Calderón, in whose party Vázquez Mota serves, also faces a complaint at the World Court over possible crimes against humanity.)

Vargas Llosa decried the “permissiveness of Latin America’s democratic leaders with the dictators: they democratically elect a leader and he immediately leaves to make an obsequious visit to the dictatorship of Cuba, or the new dictatorships like that of Venezuela.” Excuse us? Hugo Chávez has certainly demonstrated some disturbing anti-democratic tendencies, but his rights record is practically sterling compared to that of Uribe—who in his own comments thanked Vargas Llosa for his support for what he called his “defense of liberties” (!) as president of Colombia.

Two days before the forum opened, La Republica ran a brief interview with Vargas Llosa, in which he happily noted that Peru’s President Ollanta Humala has “discreetly moved to the center.” Discreetly? With a cabinet purge of populists and an abject betrayal of his campaign promises to ecological defenders of Peru’s resources from corporate pillage, Humala’s move to the “center” (read: right) has hardly been “discrete.”

We noted at the time of Humala’s election that Vargas Llosa despairingly supported him because (to his credit) he recognized the neo-fujimorismo of the alternative (Keiko Fujimori, daughter of imprisoned ex-dictator Alberto Fujimori) as the greater threat. The fact that Vargas Llosa is now comforted is the greatest evidence that Humala has completely capitulated. In an implicit reference to the indigenous and campesino anti-mining struggles in Cajamarca and elsewhere in Peru (and Ecuador), Vargas Llosa decried that “the radical left has found in ecology a new banner”—as if the new peasant ecological struggles were all just a red conspiracy against the free market.

Yet, sounding practically like an anarchist Luddite, he boasted that he has no cellphone or laptop: “I don’t have any of that, just a pencil and notepad. I write my books by hand and later input them on a computer, which I only use as a writing machine.” He also lambasted the “banalization, the frivolization” of politics and culture.

Now, this is the part we really don’t get. Surely Vargas Llosa must understand how his beloved free market is driving the digitization and banalization of all reality. Is he aware of the contradiction? Nothing in the interview suggests it. He seems to think he and his brave new free-trade order (backed up by death squads that are seemingly invisible to him) stand for civilization and old-fashioned values, a bulwark against the unwashed hordes, with their banal populism. Can he really be in that much denial?

We’ve been wondering about this guy for a while. His early book El Hablador (The Storyteller) displayed real concern with the cultural survival of the Machiguenga and other rainforest peoples of the Peruvian Amazon. Asks the character who plays the advocate for the forest dwellers:

Do our cars, guns, planes, and Coca-Colas give us the right to exterminate them because they don’t have such things? Or do you believe in ‘civilizing the savages,’ pal? How? By making soldiers of them? By putting them to work on the farms as slaves to Creoles…? By forcing them to change their language, their religion, and their customs, the way the missionaries are trying to do? What’s to be gained by that? Being able to exploit them more easily, that’s all. Making them zombies and caricatures of men, like those semi-acculturated Indians you see in Lima.

Now admittedly, this was written over 20 years ago. And the book does contain a critique of romanticization of the Noble Savage. But also real insight into the genocidal aspect of globalization. How could the man who wrote this now be dissing the peasant ecologists of Cajamarca?

If you are reading this, Mario, please, explain it to us. We really don’t get it.

See our last post on Peru.

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