Álvaro Vargas Llosa has a piece
in the current issue of Foreign Policy
magazine, updating his book from the mid-nineties "criticizing opinion and political leaders who clung to ill-conceived political myths despite evidence to the contrary."
Recently he seems to have taken up the position that the leftist wave that has elected leaders across Latin America has been propelled by what I'm sure he views as the zombie of old-school populism, back from the dead to keep the region from progressing. I'll readily admit I've never read his original book, which he co-wrote with two other authors. Having read this update, however, the only idiot I could pick out was Vargas Llosa himself.Vargas Llosa
- son of the famous Peruvian author who seems to be as committed a conservative as his father - concedes that the new wave of populist leftist is different from the ones he profiled in his original piece, people like Fidel Castro, Peru's Gen. Juan Velasco Alvarado, and Nicaragua's Danny Ortega (although Nicaragua now has to deal with Danny 2.0).
Speaking of Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, Vargas Llosa says: "He came to power through the ballot box, which exonerates him from the need to justify armed struggle." This is circular logic - doesn't the ballot box exonerate all elected officials from justifying an armed struggle? More to the point of leftist willingness to use extra-legal means, for every 4th of February, there's an autogolpe
, an attempt to gain a third term, or - more to the point - an 11th of April
. In Latin America, the left does not have a monopoly on using force as a political tool.
Vargas Llosa likes to see this new leftist wave almost as a fad, that, like Che madness 40 years ago (or today), has people embracing icons without understanding the underlying political platform. "Bolivia's Evo Morales has indigenista
appeal," says Vargas Llosa. This makes it sound like he's as meaningful as flashy pair of shoes. Vargas Llosa glosses over the fact that this appeal stems from the fact that the "indigenistas
" draw support from groups of people that feel they were left out of the opportunities the Washington Consensus was supposed to provide. Evo & Hugo aren't the cause of social dissatisfaction; in a sense, they are the symptom.
His laundry list of "characteristics" of modern leftist populists is so broad as to be meaningless, and certainly isn't limited to politicians on the left. Fujimori, president of Peru through 2001 (who defeated Álvaro's father at the polls in 1990), Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt, a convicted war criminal who came within a couple points of winning the presidency in Guatemala in 2004, and Argentina's Menem, who tried to go for a third term in 2001, all are well-described by these characteristics.
Vargas Llosa also lists some of the transgressions of the leftist wave. He bewails "cash subsidies to the poor." The most successful of these has been Bolsa Familia
in Brazil, under the administration of Lula, who no one - not even the Bush administration - has characterized as being a fire-breather populist.
But these programs are the successes of "prudent populists" - right and left. Bolsa Familia has lowered the Gini coefficient in Brazil - one of the most unequal countries in the world - without crippling that country's economic growth. In fact, it's based on a similar Mexican program (Oportunidades) begun by the technocrat Ernesto Zedillo and fostered by the right-of-center Vicente Fox administration (one of its few successes). It has since been extended by Fox's ideological successor, the canny Felipe Calderón.
Chávez's oil and cash exports also raise Vargas Llosa's ire: "Venezuela's oil money belongs to the Venezuelan people." This is true, and the Venezuelan people have repeatedly voted for Chávez, even though they know he's engaged in petro-diplomacy. In fact, he got 63% of the vote in an election in December when his oil concessions were well-known. Many voters have experienced first-hand one of the few benefits to come out of this - Cuban doctors staffing clinics in slums. It seems that even though most of this money is benefiting others, voters are willing to overlook that, as long as they get their Mercals. (The flip-side to this, of course, is that Chávez has painted himself into a corner, and as soon as he can no longer deliver on these promises to his people, there will be hell to pay. Whether it'll be an overthrow of his government, or a brutal crackdown, another caracazo
is in the offing one day).
Vargas Llosa also tries to paint Kirchner as part of the leftist alliance in the offing between Chávez, Morales, Correa, and Ortega. He laments "Kirchner's attack against the US" at some event in Venezuela. But Kirchner plays everyone against each other. While schmoozing up to Chávez and the Venezuelan's willingness to buy Argentine debt, Kirchner also doesn't want to alienate the US. He kept his distance and made Chávez pay for the stadium when the latter organized a rally in BA to counter Bush's trip to Montevideo.
Likewise (and, frankly, amazingly) Lula gets scrutinized and comes up short. Brazil's "(GDP) growth is not expected to top 3.6," he says. Chile, run for the past 15 years by socialists is the gold standard for the region, but Brazil has one of the strongest economies over the past five years. While it is lagging globally, Brazil's GDP figures have recently been revised upwards & Lula has made GDP growth a priority for his second term. While there are some doubt about his ability to accomplish his stated goals (and I'll volunteer myself as a doubting Thomas), Wall Street is very bullish on Lula these days.
And like Che and the Barbudos
who took over Cuba 50 years ago were embraced by the generation of 1968, Vargas Llosa is disturbed that the leftist of today are embraced by the academic elites of the US and Europe; his "useful idiots" in their ivory towers. He saves his worst ire for them, and they're obviously the targets of this piece. He points out the obvious Noam Chomsky, whose claim to fame is more of having been embraced by Chávez, rather than the other way around. Vargas Llosa's next example is "James Petras" Who? This is supposed to be one of the commanding leaders of American intellectual thought? He's supposed to have defended Castro by writing the article “The Responsibility of the Intellectuals: Cuba, the U.S. and Human Rights.” This article was published in an online magazine, Rebelión
, which seems to be … lacking in intellectual heft. If this has any influence on thought in the US, then the coveted
John Birch Society Minuteman Project
endorsement should make Tom Tancredo a lock in 2008.
Vargas Llosa condemns these academics and elites as "condescending spirits." But, in portraying Latin Americans as dependent on the approval of academics, and incapable of coming up with their own solutions to issues, it is Vargas Llosa who comes across as condescending.
It's annoying that, ultimately, I agree with Vargas Llosa's greater point - many of the decisions taken by Chávez and his "bolivarian" colleagues are short-sighted at best, and have benefited a select few. My point is that these problems are the result of the lack of institutions (both formal and informal; public and private) that feed strong democracies and strong economies. From a US foreign policy perspective - that a magazine like FP is trying to influence - saying that this is because Chávez and the rest are "of the left" is "idiotic" because it alienates some of our greatest allies in developing strong institutions in Latin America. These allies - Lula, Bachelet, Tabaré Vásquez - risked their lives to support civil society under dictatorships, and did it precisely because they are "of the left."
It's also annoying that this has been thrown together in fits over the past two weeks, in response to the comment of a friend that this article "seems pretty good." I haven't done it justice with this half-conceived response; all comments are welcome.