Mario Vargas Llosa: The intellectual defense of liberal racism in Latin America

Mario Vargas LlosaIn the weeks since the announcement of the recipients of the 2010 Nobel Prizes, the Latin American novelist and essayist Mario Vargas Llosa has been inescapable in the international media. He may indeed deserve the Nobel in Literature for his large body of fiction–I have not in fact read any of his novels, but I will certainly be obligated to read him at some point in my investigation of Latin American literature. I am more familiar with his political essays, published regularly in the Spanish newspaper El País and re-published abroad, as in Guatemala’s El Periódico. Many of the articles celebrating Vargas Llosa have attributed his Nobel win to his tireless defense of liberal values, of individual freedom as antidote to collective tyranny, whether personified by Peru’s bloodthirsty Maoists or Cuban dissidents challenging power-mad Castro. This discourse is indeed quite palatable to an international audience, as well as to the Latin American middle- and upper-classes who read–and own–newspapers like those cited above.

Vargas Llosa’s noble discourse of individual rights and liberties, however, has a sharp reactionary edge. In The Art of Political Murder, Francisco Goldman’s captivating investigation of the 1998 murder of Guatemalan Catholic Bishop Juan Gerardi by Guatemalan military intelligence, Goldman recounts how Vargas Llosa uncritically parroted right-wing conspiracy theories about the Bishop’s death, theories that were very likely part of a military psychological operations campaign to discredit the life and work of a noted defender of human and indigenous rights. This is not to suggest that the Latin American and international left has not similarly fallen for its own conspiracy theories, or not failed to acknowledge of atrocities commited in the furtherance of its ideology. Nor is it to suggest, as Evo Morales recently did, that the Nobel Prize committee is somehow suspect. Life-long Communist José Saramago received the prize for Literature in recent years, and a discussion of the Peace prize would of course reveal even more contradictions.

Rather, the reason I feel compelled to write about Vargas Llosa is an article, written twenty years ago, that was recently republished on the blog of Harper’s Magazine, several days before October 12, the Day of Indigenous Resistance–the Day Formerly Known As Columbus Day. The article is titled “Questions of conquest: What Columbus wrought, and what he did not,” and it continues to pick at my brain every time I see Vargas Llosa’s photo in the news, as it offers a clear expression of and justification for North American and Latin American racism against indigenous peoples. According to my reading of this piece, Vargas Llosa offers a poisonous discourse sweetened by nuanced rhetoric, and wields the intellectually and ethically unassailable language of individual rights as antidote to counterargument.

Vargas Llosa poses two questions: one, how could America’s powerful indigenous civilizations be defeated by small groups of Spanish conquerors; and two, why have indigenous communities remained marginalized and excluded in modern Latin American societies? On their face, these appear to be important questions, worthy of serious inquiry, and to answer them Vargas Llosa turns to the humanist discipline of history, drawing on the chronicles of first-hand observers of the conquest, themselves a kind of magical realist literature whose “exaggerations and fantasies often reveal more about the reality of the era than its truths”:

“Astonishing miracles from time to time enliven the tedious pages of the Crónica moralizada, the exemplary chronicle of Father Calancha; sulfurous outrages come from the male and female demons, fastidiously catechized in the Indian villages by the extirpators of idolatries like Father Arriaga, to justify the devastations of idols, amulets, ornaments, handicrafts, and tombs. This teaches more about the innocence, fanaticism, and stupidity of the time than the wisest of treatises.”

Wise treatises, also, may contain their own exaggerations, fantasies, naïvete, fanaticism, and stupidity. What does Vargas Llosa’s discourse tell us about our own era, and how we got here?

How, he asks, did the first small army of Spanish conquistadors defeat the vast Inca civilization? (A small army, “not counting”–of course–“the black slaves and the collaborating Indians”, a telling admission of failure to consider the impact of the time-honored Imperial strategies of divide and conquer, of using oppressed peoples as cannon fodder.) Vargas Llosa’s answer to this question is worth quoting at length, as it encodes characterizations of indigenous cultures that inform racist stereotypes of indigenous people:

“What is the profound explanation for that defeat from which the Inca population never recovered? The answer may perhaps lie hidden in the moving account that appears in the chronicles of what happened in the Cajamarca Square the day Pizarro captured the last ruler of the empire, Inca Atahualpa. …At the precise moment the Inca emperor is captured, before the battle begins, his armies give up the fight as if manacled by a magic force. … The Spaniards discharged their harquebuses, thrust their pikes and swords, and charged their horses against a bewildered mass, which, having witnessed the capture of their god and master, seemed unable to defend itself or even to run away. …The vertical and totalitarian structure of the Tawantinsuyu was without doubt more harmful to its survival than all the conquistadores’ firearms and iron weapons. As soon as the Inca, that figure who was the vortex toward which all the wills converged searching for inspiration and vitality, the axis around which the entire society was organized and upon which depended the life and death of every person, from the richest to the poorest, was captured, no one knew how to act. And so they did the only thing they could do with heroism, we must admit, but without breaking the 1,001 taboos and precepts that regulated their existence. They let themselves get killed. …Those Indians who let themselves be knifed or blown up into pieces that somber afternoon in Cajamarca Square lacked the ability to make their own decisions either with the sanction of authority or indeed against it and were incapable of taking individual initiative, of acting with a certain degree of independence according to the changing circumstances. Those 180 Spaniards who had placed the Indians in ambush and were now slaughtering them did possess this ability. It was this difference, more than the numerical one or the weapons, that created an immense inequality between those civilizations.”

Here we are introduced to an indigenous population which lacks individual will and identity, that understands only total submission to power, that is governed by superstition and fear; contrasted with the individual vitality and agency of the European. All of these notions are and have been integral facets of Euro-descendant stereotypes of indigenous peoples, used to justify the destruction of indigenous cultures. How convenient it is for the contemporary inhabitants of the Americas to imagine that the indigenous societies of these continents “let themselves get killed.” And yet while Vargas Llosa cloaks his regressive view of indigenous societies in historical and anthropological specificity–he devotes many erudite words to description of the structure of the Inca Empire–he later makes the crucial step of generalizing these descriptions onto entire peoples, and extending them into the present. “At least one basic problem is the same” in contemporary Latin America as at the time of the conquest: “Two cultures, one Western and modern, the other aboriginal and archaic, hardly coexist, separated from each other because of the exploitation and discrimination that the former exercises over the latter.” This reasoning justifies reading Vargas Llosa’s descriptions of the historical Inca as contemporary stereotypes of indigenous people: as people without a present, unaffected by historical change, ultimately inferior. Vargas Llosa’s conspicuous recognition of the injustice of relations between dominant and subaltern social groups does not forgive this violent representation.

Vargas Llosa’s characterization of the European conquerers makes the racist nature of his argument even more clear, despite the subtleties and condemnations he scrupulously includes: “Those who destroyed the Inca Empire and created that country called Peru, a country that four and a half centuries later has not yet managed to heal the bleeding wounds of its birth, were men whom we can hardly admire. They were, it is true, uncommonly courageous, but, contrary to what the edifying stories teach us, most of them lacked any idealism or higher purpose.” He goes on, however, to impute to these men a high purpose indeed:

“…these semiliterate, implacable, and greedy swordsmen … represented a culture in which, we will never know whether for the benefit or the disgrace of mankind, something new and exotic had germinated in the history of man. In this culture, although injustice and abuse often favored by religion had proliferated, by the alliance of multiple factors–among them chance–a social space of human activities had evolved that was neither legislated nor controlled by those in power. This evolution would produce the most extraordinary economic, scientific, and technical development human civilization has ever known since the times of the cavemen with their clubs. Moreover, this new society would give way to the creation of the individual as the sovereign source of values by which society would be judged.”

This argument, to my reading, commits several errors of reasoning. First, despite his valorization of the free individual, Vargas Llosa persists in seeing each individual as a representation of a homogeneous, all-defining cultural force or “civilization” which cannot co-exist with difference, but can only conquer or be conquered. Second, he will go on to undermine his initially ambiguous judgment of individualism as a historical development, leaving no doubt in his argument as to whether he considers this a “benefit” or “disgrace.” Third, though it is self-consistent with his broader argument and philosophy, I would question the notion of the “individual as the sovereign source of values by which society [is] judged.”

Following his characterization of the conquering warriors, Vargas Llosa offers another example of the European as cultural supremacy incarnate: Father Bartolome de Las Casas. Here, as well, his argument is nuanced, but it furthers his project of apology for the destruction of indigenous cultures and peoples. Vargas Llosa portrays Father Las Casas, as have many others, as the archetypal Latin American human rights crusader, and as such appeals to readers to identify with the project of Western Civilization as a project of freedom, human rights and self-determination:

“Father Las Casas was the most active, although not the only one, of those nonconformists who rebelled against the abuses inflicted upon the Indians. They fought against their fellow men and against the policies of their own country in the name of a moral principle that to them was higher than any principle of nation or state. This self-determination could not have been possible among the Incas or any of the other pre-Hispanic cultures. In these cultures, as in the other great civilizations of history foreign to the West, the individual could not morally question the social organism of which he was a part, because he existed only as an integral atom of that organism and because for him the dictates of the state could not be separated from morality. The first culture to interrogate and question itself, the first to break up the masses into individual beings who with time gradually gained the right to think and act for themselves, was to become, thanks to that unknown exercise, freedom, the most powerful civilization in our world.”

The virtues Vargas Llosa imputes to the West are inherent and, most importantly, unique. Without this liberatory essence of European colonialism, is it logical therefore to reason that humanity would lack Ghandi, Mandela, or of so many other great anti-colonial geniuses? This argument suffers from a paradox of origin: of course it was both European and local cultural and intellectual influences–as well as the violence of colonialism–which gave birth to these leaders and the collective movements they represented. It would make just as much sense–that is, not much, outside the realm of rhetoric–to cast individual liberty not as a gift but as an infectious virus, like so many other diseases, inventions, and ideas exchanged between continents and peoples–or imposed one upon the other–throughout history. How wonderful, though, for those who identify with European heritage to imagine that despite all the violence, it was ultimately an experience of nascent liberation when “disguised as a handful of invading treasure hunters, killing and destroying–the Judeo-Christian tradition, the Spanish language, Greece, Rome, the Renaissance, the notion of individual sovereignty, and the chance of living in freedom reached the shores of the Empire of the Sun”, or those of other indigenous societies blessed by the arrival of their European colonizers. Vargas Llosa’s argument is more self-justifying, more deterministic than that of other historians who have considered a more complex vision of history, examining factors such as environment, disease, and simple historical contingency to explain the rise of European empires to world hegemony. (See Alfred Crosby’s Ecological Imperialism or Janet Abu-Lughod’s Before European Hegemony for just two widely-read historical narratives which convincingly undermine Eurocentric history.)

Vargas Llosa makes clear his awareness of the ongoing degradation of indigenous communities, and professes a desire to understand and change the social relations that maintain indigenous peoples subordinated and impoverished: “Even as I write, not only the Amazonian rain forests but the small tribes who have managed for so long to survive there are being barbarously exterminated in the name of progress.” But his acknowledgment is no less “pious and hypocritical” than the “indigenous rhetoric of our men of letters and our politicians.” At least he implicates himself in sharing “the mentality of the conquistadores” as he denies any possibility for pluriclutural societies in the Americas:

“Important as integration is, the obstacle to achieving it lies in the huge economic gap between the two communities. Indian peasants live in such a primitive way that communication is practically impossible. It is only when they move to the cities that they have the opportunity to mingle with the other Peru. The price they must pay for integration is high–renunciation of their culture, their language; their beliefs, their traditions and customs, and the adoption of the culture of their ancient masters. After one generation they become mestizos. They are no longer Indians.”

There is no questioning why and how inequality between indigenous and European-descendant populations exists or is maintained, though Vargas Llosa’s elsewhere makes clear that he understands that inequality is the result of economic and political structures: “it was during the republic (in the nineteenth century), not during the colony, that the native cultures were systematically exterminated” he notes. Racism and genocide are foundational aspects of the modern, liberal, capitalist nation-state in the Americas. “In the Amazon jungle, and in the mountains of Guatemala, the exterminating continues.” Why is this? Is it simply a natural fact, a state of being, that indigenous communities should be sacrificed? Or do racism and genocide remain integral to the maintenance of the state and the expansion of the capitalist economy? In any case, despite being conscious of the degradation of indigenous communities and cultures, Vargas Llosa’s allegiance is unquestionable. Following the paragraph quoted above, he continues:

“Perhaps there is no realistic way to integrate our societies other than by asking the Indians to pay that price [the loss of their identity]. Perhaps the ideal–that is, the preservation of the primitive cultures of America–is a utopia incompatible with this other and more urgent goal–the establishment of societies in which social and economic inequalities among citizens be reduced to human, reasonable limits and where everybody can enjoy at least a decent and free life. In any case, we have been unable to reach any of those ideals and are still, as when we had just entered Western history, trying to find out what we are and what our future will be. …If forced to choose between the preservation of Indian cultures and their complete assimilation, with great sadness I would choose modernization of the Indian population, because there are priorities; and the first priority is, of course, to fight hunger and misery.”

Priorities. How very pragmatic, and tragic. Is the loss of cultural identity not itself a cause of hunger, misery, and inequality, as economic subsistence and community cohesion are destroyed by expropriation, by dislocation, by assimilation? Are indigenous voices to continue to be silenced in the process of “trying to find out what we are and what our future will be”? No, in a cruel Catch-22, indigenous people are to be included in Vargas Llosa’s vision of a humane, decent, and free society, but only if they first cease to exist as indigenous people. Here we return to Vargas Llosa’s underlying, thoroughly racist conception of indigenous people: primitive, unchanging, outside of history, recalcitrant, ungrateful. If society is to progress, if the economy is to develop, the extermination, the disappearance of these peoples is a necessary precondition. Indigenous people are blamed for their own marginalization and impoverishment–their own culture impedes “modernization,” which is equated with the aleviation of economic and social inequality, rather than as a process intricately linked with their degradation. Vargas Llosa’s logic is little different from that of his country’s Shining Path, from that of Guatemala’s military dictatorships, from the United State’s own genocidal counterinsurgency in Vietnam: We had to destroy the village in order to save it. In order for the salvation of the indigenous population–from serfdom and capitalism by the communists, from communism and underdevelopment by the capitalists–the population as an integral collective must be liquidated.

Here it seems important to point out a parallel argument that Vargas Llosa develops very subtly in this piece, so subtly it almost seems unconscious, but it must, I think, be by design. Closely read and examine his diction in the long anthropological descriptions of the ancient Inca empire: “vertical,” “totalitarian,” “state religion,” “beehive,” “bureaucratic.” He describes the empire’s mechanisms of social control, including “a system called mitimaes, by which villages and people were removed en masse to faraway places where, feeling misplaced and lost, these exiles naturally assumed an attitude of passivity and absolute respect, which of course represented the Inca system’s ideal citizen.” He describes the civilization’s greatest achievement–the eradication of hunger in the whole of its vast territory. Consider the year of publication of the article: 1990, immediately following the successful conquest of the Soviet Union and European communism by capitalism. Consider Vargas Llosa’s consciousness, forged in the crucible of the Third World War, the worldwide struggle between the two totalitarian systems of capitalism and communism. Vargas Llosa implicitly equates indigenous civilization with a kind of authoritarian collectivism–ironically echoing Marx’s own theories of primitive communal societies. Though such a society is inherently fragile and, as demonstrated by the ease of its conquest, inferior, it still represents a threat to the colonizing society and its inheritors. And since, according to stereotype, indigenous culture does not develop, it follows that contemporary indigenous populations must be naturally susceptible to communist subversion. They remain “ant-like societies”–dangerous and not fully human. While such an argument may seem beyond logic, it is precisely this essentialist, paranoid anti-communist ideology which justified the Guatemalan military’s campaign of genocidal counter-insurgency against the country’s Maya population.

Returning to the question of social relations and inequality, we might ask, if individual liberty is such a powerful and world-historical development, why have so few benefitted from its imposition in the Americas? “Immense opportunities brought by the civilization that discovered and conquered America have been beneficial only to a minority, sometimes a very small one; whereas the great majority managed to have only the negative share of the conquest–that is, contributing in their serfdom and sacrifice, in their misery and neglect, to the prosperity and refinement of the westernized elites.” Is it because indigenous peoples are somehow congenitally incapable of realizing individual agency? If we can discard this answer as racist on its face, pointing to the example of great indigenous geniuses, artists, and leaders in Latin America and around the world, what answers are left? It is well beyond my abilities to offer a full analysis of this question, but I would ask whether individualism, as an ideology, as the highest principle of political and economic organization, is not linked to the production of inequality and class stratification. Whose interests are served by the ideology of the sovereign individual?

Finally, I want to consider the question of individual and collective human rights, though I recognize that this discussion may also require a more nuanced philosophical argument than I am able to develop here. Under liberal theories, rights exist to guarantee the integrity of the individual against the state and the collective–freedom of speech and belief, freedom to organize, legal guarantees, and so on. Neoliberal conceptions of rights are even more strigent, subordinating all other rights to the right to property–from this foundation deriving the right to life (the body as mere property), the right to sell one’s labor and compete in the market, etcetera. Neither of these philosophies of rights, in my view, truly represents Vargas Llosa’s vision of the “individual as the sovereign source of values by which society [is] judged”, nor do they encompass the full sense of rights. Individuals may conduct themselves such as to express and defend their personal initiative and ideals, but rights are not the creation solely of individuals, nor much less a gift from God or a self-evident state of nature. Rights are nothing if not a social compact, defined by both individual and collective political action, applying both to individuals and collectives. The sovereign individual would need neither society nor rights; and yet except for those living in the most absolute solitude, individuals need society in order to survive. Society, in turn, is nothing but the multitude of individual subjectivities engaged in production and consumption, reproduction and destruction. If human rights are universal, it is because they are based in the few characteristics all humans share: our mutual difference, our common needs, and our inherent dignity. We know that humans are capable of incredible cruelty and injustice. And yet we also know that humans are capable of great acts of kindness, of solidarity, of understand, of discovering new alternatives and ways of living. Dignity encompasses and is recognized, negatively or positively, in both of these extremes of human experience.

Despite Vargas Llosa’s determination that indigenous cultures must be sacrificed in the name of progress, the last twenty years have seen a continental resurgence of indigenous resistance and dignity, revindications and revitalizations–even modernizations–of indigenous culture. Increasingly these separate and interconnected movements proclaim theirs as pluralistic projects, which have expressed old visions of individual rights in new ways, and have proclaimed collective rights to territory, culture, memory, and environment which have profound implications for all inhabitants of a global society. They are the Zapatista and other autonomous indigenous municipalities of México; the indigenous and peasant movements of Honduras, such as COPINH, whose proposals for the refounding of a pluricultural society are met with brutal repression by the dominant classes; CONAIE in Ecuador which courageously charts a path independent of the state and other interests in the midst of an attempted coup d’etat; the communities of Guatemala, Peru, Colombia, Brazil, Canada and many other countries which resist destructive megadevelopment projects and the loss of communal land; the survivors of genocide who struggle for justice for the crimes of the past. Their stories are not to be told here, as a counterargument to the stale rhetoric of a celebrated intellectual, they are being lived today.

Ultimately, Mario Vargas Llosa reveals himself as a tragically self-aware inheritor of the Latin American legacy of “idealistic” racism. Like Domingo F. Sarmiento, who he professes to admire, Vargas Llosa in this essay gives “moral and intellectual arguments in favor of…the decimation of the native population.” Should I be surprised to find this piece reproduced, without comment, by a magazine itself dedicated to the defense of individual rights, most admirably in its unceasing coverage of the legal processes surrounding torture and secrecy under the Bush and Obama administrations? Perhaps the most frightening aspect of Vargas Llosa’s discourse is the familiar taste of his honeyed, yet poisonous rhetoric. He lays bare the violence, the racism, and the egoistic self-justifications which continue to underly liberal institutions in their encounters with indigenous existence and resistance.

About cascadiasolidaria

Human rights and solidarity activist from Cascadia, North America, writing about issues of justice and security in Guatemala and Central America from a perspective of solidarity with human rights and social movements.
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4 Responses to Mario Vargas Llosa: The intellectual defense of liberal racism in Latin America

  1. Oscar says:

    This is so well written and argued. Thanks so much for sharing it!

  2. Pingback: Exhibits from Bolaño: Culture and atrocity | Cascadia Solidaria

  3. Pingback: Lisandro, your heart flourishes! | Cascadia Solidaria

  4. Karina G. says:

    Simply amazing. Well put.
    I am currently writing a mid-term paper on this topic for my Spanish 316 class, and I was convinced to believe Vargas Llosa was merely representing a controversial issue, but now that you have showed the other side of the coin, I am starting to believe there was something else that was not told- or at least it was left out.

    Thank You.

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