While Foreigners Enjoy Latin American Fiction, We Have to Live It

Leaders like José Mujica might be interesting to foreigners, but they don't solve our problems in Latin America
Leaders like José Mujica might be interesting to foreigners, but they don’t solve our problems. (Unión Jalisco)

EspañolIn the 1960s, Latin American writers conquered world literature with their original novels by combining two elements: European surrealism and Latin American reality.

A style that originated around that time was what Alejo Carpentier called “the marvelous real.” The Cuban novelist explained that “everything incredible, amazing, everything that exceeds established norms is marvelous … It is the living American reality, whose physical and spiritual diversity comes across as marvelous because of its incredibleness, its wonder.”

Carpentier rejected the notion that his novels were just the products of his imagination. Rather, he built on true stories. He discovered how “marvelous” Latin American history and culture actually were.

Unfortunately for our people, what makes for good literature consumed abroad is not what creates the conditions for good living standards here.

A prime example of this is the myth around the former Uruguayan President José Mujica (2010-2015), the world-famous “humble president.” Of all his administration’s “marvelous” legacies, we will just focus on one: the virtual bankruptcy of the government-owned oil firm ANCAP.

ANCAP has the monopoly on the production and management of everything related to alcohol and fuel in Uruguay: importing, processing, and selling petroleum and related products. It also manufactures Portland cement.

After the progressive País Alliance came to power in 2005, the Uruguayan government began signing contracts with Venezuela to import oil at very attractive prices. Authorities at the time boasted they were doing it “for the people.”

However, the facts have shown rather strongly that profits went anywhere but to the common citizen. Over the last decade, we have suffered from some of the highest fuel prices in the region.

Mujica, during much of his term, put someone who had never even run a newsstand at the helm of ANCAP. Raúl Sendic had just one merit: being the son of the president’s close friend.

Under Sendic’s administration, the firm embarked on disastrous projects and extravagant expenses that quickly dilapidated around US$800 million. For instance, a party to celebrate the inauguration of a new plant cost almost $400,000.

Several investments were overpriced, and the firm’s debt rose to a staggering $2.2 billion, surpassing total assets by four to one.

In short, the Mujica administration drove ANCAP to the ground. And these data are only coming to the fore because the opposition in Congress set up an oversight committee to investigate the firm’s books.

Faced with these serious accusations, Mujica, now a congressman, nonchalantly claimed that he didn’t know what was going on in ANCAP during his tenure as president. He even attacked the congressional commission, calling it a “disaster.”

[adrotate group=”8″]However, he did acknowledge that his administration was “sloppy in the finances,” sparking national outrage. The “sloppiness” cost the country close to $1 billion, a bill the people will have to foot through taxes or higher rates for water, electricity, fuel, and communications.

This became a reality in January, when the monopoly utility companies hiked their rates by 10 percent. Likewise, some taxes have gone up.

The “marvelous real” has continued with Mujica’s successor and fellow party member, Tabaré Vázquez.

In an attempt to disguise the financial situation, the Economy Ministry wrote off its $500 million debt with ANCAP. That is, Vázquez wants to give the impression that it disappeared as if an act of magic, when the truth is that the liability simply went from the oil firm’s balance sheet to the taxpayers’, who will now foot the bill.

But the most “marvelous” aspect of the whole affair is that the bankrupt firm’s managers, board members, and president have all kept their jobs, enjoying juicy salaries and bonuses. Sendic even got a promotion — he’s the sitting Uruguayan vice president.

The ruling party has embarked on a mission to bail out ANCAP, claiming its activities are “strategic for national development.” That’s why the governing majority in Congress suspended the recess in early January and green-lighted the debt write-off, as well as a $250 million loan from the Development Bank of Latin American.

When voting for the bailout, progressive congresswoman Lilián Galán argued that “not only that which turns a profit is efficient.” She defended ANCAP’s financial disaster because the firm fulfills “a social role.”

Developed nations will keep enjoying Latin America’s forays into the “marvelous real” for many years still. As for us, until we don’t turn the page to this cultural burden and embrace rationality, surrealism will keep holding us back.

We will remain a quaint and fascinating region, yet a materially and ethically failed one.

Translated by Daniel Duarte.

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