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Mario Vargas Llosa: The Peruvian Novelist Who Abandoned Castroism and Became a Leading Classical Liberal

Mario Vargas Llosa rose from humble means to became one of the world's most celebrated writers. But his journey was not a straight line.

Image Credit: Daniele Devoti-Flickr | CC BY 2.0

[Editor’s note for English readers: For Latin Americans and Spanish speakers, the term liberal is not used as a synonym for progressive or leftist. In Spanish, the term liberal refers to classical liberals or libertarians.]

Mario Vargas Llosa had little chance of becoming one of the most universally read writers at birth. When his eyes opened to the world, and his brain was just beginning to process emotions, he was in Arequipa, Perú, far from the great publishing circuits in Europe or the United States. His mother’s decisions would not bring him too close to a future and promising literary career, because, from Arequipa, they moved to Cochabamba in Bolivia, where Mario would spend most of his childhood, until an unexpected reunion with his father (whom he thought was dead), would lead him to live in Lima, the Peruvian capital.

In his autobiographical work El pez en el agua, the future winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature said that in his early adolescence he never dreamed of being a writer. On the contrary, when he was asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, he was quick to answer that he wanted to be a sailor. However, time, fate, and, in a certain way, the market, would show Mario the way to a prodigious literary career.

The Peruvian writer says that due to the loneliness in the military high school in which his father enrolled him by force, he began to read and also to write, perhaps as a way to drain so many frustrations. Then, word spread that he was good with letters. Suddenly, he began to receive offers from other cadets to write love letters to their sweethearts, and it was then that Vargas Llosa discovered that he could make a living from writing.

The love letters for cadets gradually turned into short novels that he sold to his fellow cadets for small sums of money to buy cigarettes, and from then on, Mario would never stop writing. The novelitas, as he called them, became great novels that industrialized publishers would edit, translate, and distribute all over the world. Vargas Llosa’s pen became one of the most sought after in every corner of the planet, and this would also give birth to a great thinker.

From Castroism to Classical Liberalism

Despite Mario Vargas Llosa’s enormous intellectual efforts, like many thinkers of his time, he didn’t escape the spells of collectivism and the powerful Cuban propaganda that spread throughout the West.

Fidel’s revolution in Cuba seduced the whole world. From the New York Times to the BBC and the main Spanish newspapers, there was nothing but praise for Cuba’s dictator. Vargas Llosa was part of that huge group of people who believed that what Castro had done was the way forward for humanity.

However, unlike many of the thinkers of his time who continued to praise Castro despite the enormous evidence of authoritarianism in Cuba, Vargas Llosa distanced himself from Castroism after making several trips to the island. He gradually began to discover the evils of collectivism on these trips, to the point where he radically reshaped his thinking and became a great classical liberal thinker.

In his essay La llamada de la tribu, Vargas Llosa breaks down the thinking of Adam Smith, José Ortega y Gasset, Friedrich von Hayek, Karl Popper, Isaiah Berlin, Raymond Aron, and Jean-Francois Revel.

“Opting for liberalism was above all an intellectual process of several years that was helped by my having lived in England since the late 1960s, teaching at the University of London, and having lived closely through the eleven years of Margaret Thatcher’s government,” Vargas Llosa wrote.

The Nobel Prize laureate further admits that Karl Popper’s The Open Society and its Enemies and Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom are two of his bedside books.

In this essay, Vargas Llosa makes a series of analyses and interpretations of these thinkers and comes to the conclusion that: “Liberalism is a doctrine that does not have answers for everything, as Marxism claims, and admits divergence and criticism.” This is precisely one of the greatest strengths of liberalism: the admission of open debate and discussion of ideas.

“We liberals are not anarchists, and we do not want to abolish the state. On the contrary, we want a strong and efficient state, which does not mean a large state, bent on doing things that civil society can do better than it can in a regime of free competition. The state must ensure freedom, public order, and respect for the law,” wrote Vargas Llosa, adding: “The more the state grows and the more powers it arrogates to itself in the life of a nation, the more the margin of freedom enjoyed by its citizens diminishes.”

In this book, the Peruvian writer also admits that one of the Latin American writers who most influenced his thinking was the Venezuelan Carlos Rangel, who I’ve written about here. I, like Mario, consider Rangel to be one of the most brilliant and underrated minds in Latin America, the liberal world, and the political debate.

An Evolving Liberal Mind

Vargas Llosa, at 86 years of age, and with the incredible lucidity that has characterized him, recognizes perfectly that liberalism, in addition to the free market, must be accompanied by pluralism and the debate of ideas, with the purpose of creating little by little the agreements that every nation needs for social, cultural, and economic progress.

To exemplify this, here is a quote from Mario in an interview with the Swedish magazine Neo Magasinet:

“Those achievements cannot be reached through collectivist planning, trying to create an ideal of an egalitarian society in which every individual lives according to a certain pre-established pattern. That is a mistake, and it has led to the most monstrous repression and brutal violence in history. We have to accept that moderation is the best way to improve things, we have to accept that reforms are carried out little by little, through agreements. It is not perfection, it is not paradise, but we have to take into account what the alternative is. The dream of a perfect society led us to hell.”

Undoubtedly, Mario, that child born in Arequipa and raised in Cochabamba, has become one of the most important global and liberal thinkers of the last century, a writer who, I hope, can continue to dazzle us with his pen and his thoughts for many years to come.

This article was adapted with permission from El American.

  • Emmanuel Rincón is a lawyer, writer, novelist and essayist. He has won several international literary awards. He is Editor-at-large at El American