On March 28, Mario Vargas Llosa turned 85, in full use of his creative capacity as a fiction writer and as a disseminator of the values of freedom, democracy and market economy. The latter makes him somewhat exceptional in the midst of Latin American writers of his generation, many of whom -like García Márquez and Julio Cortázar until the end of their days- were hostile to capitalism, sympathetic to socialism, and congenial to Fidel Castro’s dictatorship.
Like most Latin American writers who began their literary production in the 50s and 60s of the last century, Vargas Llosa was seduced by the siren song of the Cuban Revolution intoned from “Casa de las Américas”, with Haydée Santamaría and Roberto Fernández Retamar as major coryphaeus.
Aware of the need to win the support of intellectuals to their cause, the leaders of the revolution quickly founded “Casa de las Americas”, the entity in charge of carrying out the seduction work. Suddenly, the young writers of the nascent “boom” – in 1958, the year of the revolution, Fuentes was 30 years old, García Márquez 31 and Vargas Llosa 24 – burdened by the hardships of any profession in its beginnings, were flattered with publications, awards, trips, cocktails, cigars and rum.
Vargas Llosa came close to socialism and Marxism in his early youth, back in his native Lima. The Cuban revolution filled him with illusion. “We saw in the fidelist gesture not only a heroic and generous adventure, of idealistic fighters who wanted to put an end to a corrupt dictatorship like Batista’s, but also a non-sectarian socialism, which would allow criticism, diversity and even dissidence,” he wrote.
During the 1960s, Vargas Llosa, García Márquez, Fuentes and dozens of Latin American writers were regular visitors to Havana and in their writings and public appearances defended and legitimized a revolution in which they sincerely believed, despite the increasingly frequent contradictions between its effective executions and the ideals that supposedly inspired it.
For Vargas Llosa and many other intellectuals, the turning point was marked by the case of Heberto Padilla, a Cuban poet now almost forgotten. Padilla published in 1968 the book Fuera del juego (Out of the Game), with some poems -such as “Para escribir en el álbum de un tirano” and “Cantan los nuevos césares”- that displeased Fidel Castro. The poor man was imprisoned and forced to make a recantation in the best Stalinist manner. Vargas Llosa and other writers drafted a letter of protest that was signed by notorious intellectuals such as Sartre, Simon de Beauvoir, Alberto Moravia, Susan Sontag, Carlos Fuentes and many more. Castro responded by accusing them of being lackeys of imperialism and condemning them to perpetual ostracism from Cuba.
For most of the intellectuals repudiated by Castro, things remained that way, but not Vargas Llosa, for whom this situation marked the beginning of an intellectual evolution that would liquidate his socialist ideas and lead him to become the lucid analyst who, for years, in his columns in Spain’s El País, has dissected world current affairs from a liberal perspective, as his admired Raymond Aron did in Le Figaro and L’Express.
Aron is one of the seven liberal thinkers that Vargas Llosa analyzes in that splendid intellectual autobiography that is his book “La llamada de la tribu” (The Call of the Tribe). The other six are Adam Smith, Ortega y Gasset, Hayek, Popper, Isaiah Berlin and the Frenchman Jean François Revel. In this work, a Latin American novelist exposes the thoughts of a Scotsman, a Spaniard, two Austrians, a Latvian Jew and two Frenchmen. Or, if you prefer, two economists, four philosophers and a sociologist.
This diversity of geographies, cultures and intellectual trajectories, in such a small sample of thinkers, is a clear indication of what Vargas Llosa rightly points out is the distinctive feature of liberal thought: the diversity of approaches that emerges from adherence to a single fundamental idea: “That freedom is the supreme value and that it is not divisible and fragmentary, that it is one and must manifest itself in all domains -economic, political, social, cultural- in a truly democratic society.”
Apparently, it was not easy for Vargas Llosa to make the transition to liberalism. In La llamada de la tribu he reveals that it took him several years “to break with socialism and revalue democracy” and that in this process of intellectual evolution it “helped him a lot to have lived in England since the late seventies (…) and to have lived closely the eleven years of Margaret Thatcher’s government.” He also acknowledges the influence of Ronald Reagan, whom he describes as “an extraordinary disseminator of liberal theories”. The most refined thinkers who accompanied his intellectual evolution were those whose ideas he brilliantly expounds in this book, in particular Popper and Hayek, whose works The Open Society and its Enemies and The Road to Serfdom became his bedside books.
With his approach to liberalism, Vargas Llosa understood that the liberal and democratic society is no guarantee of the realization of the dreams of equality and welfare for all of the socialist utopias that animated his youth. In his splendid book El paraíso a la vuelta de la esquina (2003), dedicated to the moving lives of Flora Tristán and Paul Gauguin, Vargas Llosa makes his reckoning with utopia at the level of fiction, as he will do at the level of the essay in Diccionario del amante de América Latina (2005) and, more recently, in La llamada de la tribu (2018).
Vargas Llosa’s evolution did not remain at the merely intellectual level, but took him into the realm of political action. In the late 1980s he opposed the socializing government of Alan García, which left Peru plunged into the disaster of hyperinflation, and in 1990 he founded the Liberty Movement and ran as a candidate in the elections won by Alberto Fujimori. Although he was defeated, his liberal and democratic ideas and his opposition to socialism made their way and are part of the political agenda in Peru, Colombia and all Latin America.
What is happening in Colombia has always been at the center of Vargas Llosa’s concerns. With an example that Colombian writers should follow, Vargas Llosa always valued the importance of President Alvaro Uribe’s government for the preservation of freedom and democracy in our country. In his February 20 column in El País, entitled El ejemplo colombiano (The Colombian example), he reaffirms this position.
The four great Latin American writers of the so-called boom of the 60’s and 70’s were inclined towards socialism and revered the Cuban Revolution and its main protagonists. Julio Cortázar and Gabriel García Márquez remained faithful to their raving until the end of their days, in 1984, the former, and in 2014, the latter. The Mexican Carlos Fuentes also distanced himself from Castroism on the occasion of the case of Heberto Padilla, but continued to maintain an ambiguous attitude of “progressive intellectual.” Only Vargas Llosa broke decisively with socialism and Castroism and assumed the defense of liberties, democracy and limited government. Let us wish him more years of lucidity and vigor so that with his powerful pen he may continue to contribute to the cause of freedom.