A Deserving Winner…For A Change

Mario Vargas Llosa

Usually the Nobel Prize for literature is awarded to mediocre leftists (Tony Morrison comes to mind). Occasionally, the Nobel Prize for literature is awarded to a writer willing to challenge liberal pieties; this year’s just announced winner, Mario Vargas Llosa of Peru, is such a writer.

Here’s an excerpt from a 1992 essay published in Commentary:

…It is still possible to find in the average Latin American a curious love-hate relationship toward the United States, our rich and powerful neighbor. On the one hand, the country of Hollywood and skyscrapers stands as a kind of permanent reproach to people who in their own countries know only the difficult and insecure existence of underdevelopment (inflation, unemployment, political and social violence, a steady drop in living standards). From this angle of vision, the United States is something of an earthly paradise, a promised land of opportunities, where one can easily get rich, possess both cars and apartments of a superhuman scale, and live amid the last word in technological conveniences—just the way things appear to be on American television or in the movies. It does not matter that the reality is considerably more prosaic than the dream: what cannot be disputed (and in this, the statistics are conclusive) is that in spite of all the difficulties he may encounter in the United States, the Spanish-speaking immigrant has a better chance of prospering there than in his country of origin, whether the latter be Cuba’s totalitarian dictatorship or the solid democracy of Costa Rica. This is the lodestone, the magnet of fascination that attracts and will continue to attract to the beaches of Florida, the cities of California, the fields of Texas, or the huge industrial complexes in and around New York and Chicago the huddled Hispanic masses against whose force of entry there seems to be no customs house, no law, no frontier post capable of effective resistance.

The obverse of this Latin American sentiment of admiration is a gnawing complex of inferiority/superiority. It finds support in a fallacious argument—a pure product of ideology—that the Latin American intelligentsia has managed to convert into a maxim accepted without reservation by everyone from the distinguished jurist to the illiterate peasant in the fields—namely, that the American bonanza is the product of our sweat and our tears. “Their” wealth—that is, the wealth of the gringos—is the direct product of our poverty—the Indians, blacks, mulattoes, or people of mixed races who belong to “the other America.” First “they” pillaged our part of the continent; now they discriminate against and look down upon us. But we, although poor, are in some ways superior to our nouveaux-riches neighbors: thanks to the antiquity of our history; the glories of pre-Hispanic culture; our magnificent colonial past; our more refined and aristocratic manners, so superior to “their” democratic gaucherie.

Yet if the proximity of a powerful neighbor has been the source of many iniquities and abuses for the weaker party, it has also been, at the same time, an ideological and moral charter by which the Latin American exonerates himself from any sense of responsibility for the evils which have afflicted (and continue to afflict) our countries. To attribute to the United States the authorship of everything bad which happens to us—from our poverty to our military dictatorships; from corruption, the chaos of our institutions, and the fragility of our democratic systems to the cyclones and tidal waves that devastate our port cities (as I once heard the Nicaraguan poet Ernesto Cardenal explain to an ecstatic audience in Lima)—all this has the advantage of enhancing the comforts of victimhood and exempts us from all blame for our apathy and political ineptitude. Why try to do anything, after all, if nothing that we attempt is capable of changing our situation? Why move a finger, indeed, if everything good and bad that happens to us is determined by the Ogre/Santa Claus of the North?

The influence of the intellectual in spreading these attitudes has been simply enormous. Indeed, as the Mexican poet and Nobel laureate Octavio Paz recently remarked in an interview published in the prestigious Madrid daily El País, the intervention of Latin American intellectuals in politics has been, in general, “catastrophic” for our continent. Certainly no other group has contributed so hugely to feeding the hatred of the United States, and propagating the most negative stereotypes about it…

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