The news that Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa won the Nobel Prize for literature has gratified me beyond words. The award is a huge boost for liberty in Latin America. Through his literary genius, prolific essays, and ceaseless activism, Vargas Llosa long established himself as perhaps Latin America’s most well-known public intellectual, and certainly its most well-known classical liberal. For decades, he has used his ability to reach a mass audience to promote the principles of the free society, becoming the region’s foremost advocate of democratic capitalism.
It was not always so. In the 1960s when his first novels appeared to wide acclaim, Vargas Llosa was representative of the Latin American intellectual establishment in his admiration of the Cuban revolution and his advocacy of radical leftist politics. Even then, however, anti-authoritarianism and a concern for the individual were prominent themes in his novels. In an example of independent thinking that characterizes Vargas Llosa’s commitment to the truth, he broke with the intellectual establishment in the early 1970s, strongly denouncing Fidel Castro’s revolution and turning away from statism in general. His increasingly forceful defense of individual liberty was strengthened by his discovery, by the 1970s, of the work of Nobel laureate Friedrich Hayek, whom Vargas Llosa cites as one of the three biggest intellectual influences on his thinking (the others being Karl Popper and Isaiah Berlin)
An extremely versatile communicator, Vargas Llosa has explored Latin America’s deepest social problems and has demystified the utopian vision of demagogic leaders so common in Latin American history. A major theme of his 1981 novel, The War of the End of the World, for example, was that collectivist promises of a better life, or happiness, can only end in fanaticism—especially if various brands of collectivism are pitted against each other—precisely because civilization depends on the primacy of the individual and a close regard to the real world as opposed to dogmatic reliance on abstract but erroneous ideas of how the world might work.
In places like Russia or Latin America where there is little or no tradition of individual liberty and people place little trust in the main institutions of society, the novelist often holds a special, almost God-like place. Fair or not, he is viewed as trustworthy because his ideas are his own and because he has somehow managed to remain independent from the corrupting influences of society. This has given Vargas Llosa a standing from which he has regularly offered up statements that have instantly provoked debate and that have often passed into national lexicons. In 1990, for example, during a visit to Mexico, he famously referred to the system of government under Mexico’s long-ruling PRI party as the “perfect dictatorship.” That scandalized the political class and the intelligentsia through much of Latin America, but any Mexico City cab driver would tell you that it was absolutely true.
Last year at a conference organized in Caracas by the market-liberal CEDICE think tank and at a time when Hugo Chavez was radicalizing his socialist revolution, Vargas Llosa declared, “We don’t want Venezuela to become a totalitarian communist state.” That provoked Chavez to challenge him and the “neoliberals” to a nationally televised debate, in what turned out to be a ploy that Chavez backed out of once Vargas Llosa accepted the challenge. Vargas Llosa thus won the debate without holding it. The whole episode was prominently reported in the region and was a blow to Chavez, emphasizing the closed and cowardly nature of his regime.
When Vargas Llosa writes and speaks about economics, the effect is similar, as when he explains that historically in Latin America capitalism never existed. For those wishing to understand how Latin American economies really work, and how the free market is the most compatible economic system with the way Latin Americans live, I still recommend Vargas Llosa’s prologue to the early editions of Hernando de Soto’s classic, The Other Path, as one of the clearest statements about the region’s political economy.
Perhaps the best example of Vargas Llosa’s influence in setting the agenda is in his native Peru. At the end of the 1980s, after President Alan Garcia had driven the country to ruin, Vargas Llosa decided to run for president, having already rallied mass protests against Garcia’s plans to further socialize the country. Vargas Llosa articulated an explicitly libertarian campaign platform, calling for radical market reforms. He lost the 1990 election to Alberto Fujimori, who ran a gradualist platform and relied on scare tactics and dirty tricks to win over the electorate.
But Vargas Llosa’s ideas won. After Chile, Peru became the Latin American country that implemented the most radical and comprehensive set of reforms in a short period of time. The reforms led to high growth and were highly popular. When Fujimori then abrogated the constitution and closed the Congress, Vargas Llosa rightly criticized the move and the abuses that followed. But the economic reforms that subsequent democratic governments stuck to or deepened have transformed the country and so far turned it into a Latin American success story. As such, Peru is showing Latin Americans the superiority of market democracy as opposed to populist authoritarianism. It is no wonder that Alan Garcia, currently Peru’s president for a second time, is the bitterest of rivals with Hugo Chavez. Alan Garcia is now yet another of Vargas Llosa’s converts.
I owe a debt of gratitude to Vargas Llosa, a fellow Peruvian. I have been influenced by him from a young age and, when studying at Northwestern University during his run for president, his libertarian platform informed my studies and ran in stark contrast to the lectures given by my leftist professor of Latin American politics. I’m honored that Vargas Llosa has since become a friend, generously supportive of Cato’s efforts and helpful as always to all of us throughout the region who promote liberal principles. Through his conduct and his ideas, he continues to be a teacher.