Comrade Vargas Llosa
By Patricio Navia
Embrace of liberalism, defence of market-friendly policies earn writer enemies on both sides of political spectrum
Mario Vargas Llosa defies simplistic political labels. The Nobel Prize-winning writer from Peru has built an impressive reputation as a freethinker. His recent comments in support of Peruvian President Ollanta Humala and his open criticisms of the Venezuelan government have made him a punching-bag for dogmatists on both sides of the aisle.
Yet, his firm stance in defence of democracy and market-friendly policies is a much-needed voice in a region where extremists often dominate the public discourse. Vargas Llosa, a Peruvian national who spends most of the year in Spain, has had a fascinating career as a novelist and as a public intellectual.
Since his La Ciudad y los Perros (The Time of the Hero) was published in 1963, Vargas Llosa has delighted audiences with his complex and captivating narrative. He has also gained prominence as a public intellectual. Since his early support for the Cuban Revolution in the 1960s to his notorious break with leftwing intellectuals in the 1970s due to his criticism of human rights abuses on the island, Vargas Llosa has spoken his mind freely.
His political involvement led him to become a presidential candidate in Peru in 1990. Though Vargas-Llosa promoted market-friendly policies, his rightwing coalition was comprised by parties that also advocated for conservative religious views. Vargas Llosa lost the election, but the winning candidate, Alberto Fujimori, ended up implementing the economic policies that the writer had promoted. Fujimori also undermined democracy and turned into an authoritarian president, but Peru’s celebrated economic performance during the last two decades is the result of Vargas Llosa’s campaign platform.
Though he never returned to electoral politics, in the past 20 years, his embrace of liberalism and his unrepentant defence of market-friendly and socially oriented capitalism has earned him enemies in the Latin American left and right. Vargas Llosa supports liberal policies, normally advocated by leftwing parties. Yet, he is also a strong defender of market-friendly policies, often associated with right-wing parties. His no-nonsense defence of democratic values and representative democracy has often put him at odds with rightwing and leftwing parties as those parties tend to use different criteria to assess respect for democracy depending on the perpetrators’ ideological leanings.
As an elitist intellectual, Vargas Llosa makes no effort to hide his upper-class origins, but he offers no apology when he criticizes those who claim to represent the marginalized poor but implement policies that hinder economic development, further erode social inclusion and restrict opportunities for the have-nots.
Nowhere is Vargas Llosa more influential, and controversial, than in his native Peru. In the start of the 2011 presidential election campaign, he made no effort to show his distaste for the presidential candidates. When comparing Ollanta Humala, then a presidential candidate associated with the populist left, and Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of the former president, associated with the populist right, Vargas Llosa said that choosing between them was like having to choose between HIV and cancer. In the end, Vargas Llosa actively supported Humala. Since winning the presidency, Humala has embraced market-friendly policies, though his political skills to avoid scandals have proven less successful.
In recent weeks Humala has been under attack from rightwing parties. Vargas Llosa has once again entered into the debate by distinguishing between Humala’s mistakes and what he considers the ill-conceived reasons behind the rightwing party’s attacks on Humala. He suggested that Humala’s wife, Nadine Heredia, would make a good presidential candidate in 2021 (not in 2016, when Humala’s five-term ends). With that statement, Vargas-Llosa criticized both rightwing parties — who see Heredia as a symbol of an aspiring mestizo middle-class — and Humala’s government coalition, which many believe will try to reform electoral rules to allow the first lady to run in 2016 (a law forbids direct relatives from running while the president is still in power).
Conservatives have accused Vargas Llosa of being out of touch with the realities of Peru. The same argument has been used by the left when the acclaimed novelist criticized leftwing parties. Yet, Vargas Llosa has simply, once again, shown that the defence of democracy requires both accepting the popular will and refraining from tinkering with the rules in place.
Recently, Vargas Llosa also raised his voice about the political crisis in Venezuela. While most Latin American presidents have chosen to criticize those in the opposition who want to overthrow the government — and overlook the evident government’s shortcomings in respecting democratic principles — Vargas Llosa has spoken unequivocally in defence of respect for democratic elections and democratic practices. As the political debate over Venezuela has become increasingly polarized and people speak from ideological trenches, Vargas Llosa once again appears as a reasonable voice in the battlefield of ideas. Though it is difficult to imagine when and how Venezuelans will come out of the trenches and will reach an agreement to move forward with democratic consolidation and economic development, voices like those of Vargas Llosa will eventually prevail, just as the economic policies he advocated in Peru in 1990 ended up becoming the roadmap that has made his country one of the fastest-growing countries in Latin America.