EspañolPolitics in Latin America are as divided as the polarization generated by the writers Carlos Alberto Montaner and Álvaro Vargas Llosa. Just as countries in the region have joined the liberal-leaning Pacific Alliance, while others adopt 21st-century socialist policies, admirers and detractors of these two prominent representatives of Spanish-speaking liberalism offer either their ardent praise or brutal criticism.
While in Buenos Aires promoting their new book, Latest News on the New Ibero-American Idiot, the authors of the now classic Guide to the Perfect Latin-American Idiot spoke with the PanAm Post, after speaking at an event hosted by the Freedom Foundation of Argentina.
“Latest News on the New Ibero-American Idiot” is the third and final installment of a trilogy, coauthored by Montaner, Vargas Llosa, and Colombian writer Plínio Apuleyo Mendoza.
“Twenty thousand pages of essays and books are not going to bring about the revolution. Those little pamphlets will start a revolution. Those are much more effective,” says Vargas Llosa, paraphrasing Voltaire to explain the format of his new book.
Under the guise of integration, we have deepened and regionalized protectionism.
Just as other Latin-American revolutionaries used pamphlets to incite the masses to liberate their countries from the colonial yoke, the authors use the same technique to encourage Latin-American countries to correct course after their leaders have taken them down the “wrong path.”
Between Optimism and Pessimism
Vargas Llosa has “a lot of hope” in the Pacific Alliance as a true example of regional integration, despite his opinion that prior attempts “have all been a farce.”
“Under the guise of integration we have deepened and regionalized protectionism — especially Mercosur, an example of the denial of openness to the world.”
The policies of “mild wisdom and common sense” that countries like Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru have adopted are beginning to bear fruit.
However, this has not always been the case. Throughout a large part of the past two decades, the high price of raw materials, especially soy and oil, and the hyper-liquidation of the global economy “deformed everything in such a way that all countries appear to have made substantial progress,” he explains.
The Peruvian writer says this has masked the real impact of their failed economic policies. “At the time of greatest prosperity, it was very difficult to prove that the ideas behind Chavismo would end in failure,” he said as he concluded his presentation.
Fortunately, this has changed. “In Argentina, Brazil, and Venezuela voices are beginning to emerge to demand systems of government relatively similar to the systems of government of the Pacific Alliance.”
Carlos Montaner is not as optimistic. The Cuban journalist, who was exiled from the island in 1961, is now 71 years old, and says this accounts for his pessimistic outlook. “The pendulum has swung. It seemed like the idea of populism and the client state had abated. Then all of the sudden we see the rise of 21st-century socialism in 2000, and several countries moving in that direction.”
In true cyclical fashion, Montaner says this model is now “gradually sinking again,” and points to Brazil and potentially Uruguay as examples. “We return to a phase of believing in individual responsibility and the people, but their is no guarantee that this will continue.”
The liberals are determined to compete with populists for populism.
He describes Latin America as a “region committed to error.”
Populism, the Eternal Enemy
As business gurus often say, in every crisis there is an opportunity, and Vargas Llosa agrees. “Populism’s ability to persuade wanes in the face of crisis,” he says, cracking open a window of hope. “It creates a vacuum and I encourage liberals to fill it.”
Of course, this is not the first time opportunities like this have emerged. At times when it was possible for a “better people and ideas to govern and set the standard, the opportunity was squandered,” he says. “They haven’t given the population a clear alternative, and this has created enormous confusion. The liberals are determined to compete with populists for populism.”
The Peruvian’s words took a sharp turn when he began elaborating on the idea of “suitable leaders” in Latin America. “Those that profess ideas of political and economic freedom, of mild wisdom and common sense, have not had courage in the face of populism. They have been intimidated. They have believed they can take shortcuts to come to power, making concessions on fundamental issues.”
Why isn’t there a liberal soap opera in Latin America? Why do soap operas sell the message that wealth is a given fact and not a continuous creation, and the only means of becoming wealthy is to marry a rich person or through an inheritance?
Vargas Llosa’s first book was published 18 years ago, but the “Latin-American idiot” does not seem to have matured. “There is a tradition of Latin-American political idiocy,” Vargas Llosa says.
He contends that the great advantage of populists is their influence in popular culture, a place where liberalism is absent: “Why isn’t there a liberal soap opera in Latin America? Why do soap operas sell the message that wealth is a given fact and not a continuous creation, and the only means of becoming wealthy is to marry a rich person or through an inheritance? Why isn’t there a liberal protest song? Why isn’t there a liberal bolero?”
There is a potential to strengthen liberal ideas in Latin America, and Vargas Llosa says the idea struck him after experiencing “almost miraculous things” in his native Peru. “If someone wants to win an election, they cannot propose inflationary or statist policies.” He says the key lies in the middle class and their vested interests, not “ideological conviction or emotional ties.”
Self-preservation instincts to protect one’s prosperity is what often drives the development of sensible policies, he says.
Challenges for Latin America
“These countries have not hit bottom, [but] when countries experience a perceived crisis, a tremendous psychological and emotional shock is produced, opening the possibility of experiencing something radically different,” Vargas Llosa said during his presentation.
“In this moment, if relatively suitable leaders emerge and can carry out certain reforms, it is possible, after not too long of a time, for a critical mass of citizens to endorse the defense of private property, equality under the law, and the rule of law.”
Latin-American countries face a variety of problems. Chile, for example, has been able to develop a “common sense model with economic freedoms,” as Montaner puts it. But the prosperity that this model has brought about has shifted the discussion.
Egalitarianism has once again become the center of the debate in Chilean society. This is an additional obstacle liberals face. As Montaner puts it, “Economic freedom is counterintuitive.”
The children of Chilean success take the prosperity they were born into for granted. They are basically dedicated to claiming state privileges and a form of redistribution.
“The children of Chilean success take the prosperity they were born into for granted. They are basically dedicated to claiming state privileges and a form of redistribution,” says Vargas Llosa.
Over the generations, the spirit of savings, investment, and hard work have been lost, along with the notion of earned prosperity. This latest Chilean generation has “squandering the inheritance,” he says. When asked how to combat this phenomenon, Vargas Llosa replied: “I don’t have an answer.”
Cuba is currently initiating a process of dubious reforms that Montaner sees as purely superficial. “I don’t see [the communist regime] falling. I think it will transform under the weight of failure. But this generation won’t start a revolution, perhaps the one that comes next.”
“The regime is making cosmetic changes to the system to maintain control. They want to allow space for a private economy to emerge that is capable of creating 1.5 million jobs — scarcely important work — while the government reserves 2,500 medium and large businesses for the army. That doesn’t work, and they know it. But they don’t want to run the risk of losing power, because they don’t know what the consequences of this will be in the future,” Montaner explains.
Finally, I asked for their opinion on comments by the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano, author of Open Veins of Latin America. In an interview with El País, Galeano acknowledged not having “sufficient training” to write the book and considers it an “outdated era.”
Both men are encouraged by Galeano’s change of heart, although Vargas Llosa believes “there would have done much less damage if he has admitted this earlier, because it is a text that ignited many Latin-American generations.”
Similarly, Montaner added that Galeano’s work is “full of mistakes and blunders, and the worst part is it’s used as a text at universities, and students are required to read it.”
How will a continent so ravaged by bad policies continue to navigate the winding path to prosperity? The answer is a mystery, but the economic reality and the successful results of the most competent countries could begin to point the way for the rest of the region.