When I interviewed Nobel Prize laureate Mario Vargas Llosa last week, I was most surprised by his renewed optimism about Latin America, and by his confidence that Chavismo — the region’s authoritarian populist movement — is rapidly losing ground.
Vargas Llosa, probably Latin America’s most talked-about public intellectual these days, has just published a new novel set in Peru, “El Héroe Discreto,” (The discreet Hero). It tells the story of a businessman in the northwestern city of Piura who has benefitted from his country’s economic prosperity, and who decides to stand up against corruption when anonymous criminals demand that he pay them protection money.
It may be his most “optimistic” novel, he says, in the sense that it takes place amid Peru’s growing economic affluence. While the story is fiction, the background is real, he says.
“It’s the first time in history that Peru has three consecutive governments born out of free elections,” he told me. “These governments represent different options, but they have maintained a model that brings along progress and development: political democracy and a free economy.
“And fortunately, that’s not just Peru’s case: just look at countries like Colombia, like Chile, like Brazil, like Uruguay, which have been unquestionably growing in recent years, some more than others, but all in the right direction,” he said.
Furthermore, he added that he is optimistic about the whole region because “today, most Latin Americans accept democracy as the framework in which one must fight the battle against underdevelopment, and that those who still dream with dictatorships, or with revolutionary or socialist governments, are a minority, and a really small minority.”
He added, “And there is something else that’s new, and that is a very wide consensus in support of a free economy. In the past, only a minority supported that modern option, while populism and socialism mesmerized the young generations. My impression is that that’s over.”
What about Venezuela and its Chavista allies? I asked him.
“Well, I think that Chavismo is crumbling,” he said. Referring to food shortages, massive corruption, record inflation rates and widespread public disenchantment with the government in Venezuela, he said that “the Venezuelan regime today is bankrupt, and the only thing we can hope for is that it disappears as fast as possible, and that it does so peacefully, through an electoral process.”
Referring to Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s recent expulsion of the top diplomats at the U.S. Embassy in Caracas on accusations of conspiring with opposition leaders to sabotage the economy, Vargas Llosa said, “these are desperate actions that all demagogues and all dictators engage in” when their economies are plunging. “They seek scapegoats, whether it’s the United States or the opposition,” he added.
Asked about Mexico, where the once-authoritarian PRI party returned to power in 2012, Vargas Llosa said that Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto has turned out ““much better than I expected.” The ruling party “has learned to accept the democratic rules of the game” and is carrying out “well-oriented” reforms, he said.
On Argentina, Vargas Llosa said that “it’s a serious problem, because I think the Kirchner couple has been truly disastrous,” he said, referring to President Cristina Fernádez de Kirchner and her late husband, former President Nestor Kirchner. But he added that there are “hopeful signs,” because Kirchner’s party is likely to lose upcoming Oct. 27 congressional elections that would have allowed her to rewrite the constitution and run for a new term.
My opinion: Vargas Llosa is probably right about being generally optimistic about Latin America, and about forecasting the gradual demise of Venezuelan-styled populism.
The rise of Latin America’s populism has been directly proportional to the rise in world commodity prices, and most of the region’s populist regimes are now financially strangled by the recent — and probably long-term — slowdown in commodity prices. It’s becoming increasingly evident that without domestic and foreign investments, their countries will go bankrupt.
I would only add that, in an increasingly knowledge-based global economy, it won’t be enough for Latin America to pursue sound economic policies and respect democratic freedoms. Countries will need to dramatically improve the quality of their education systems in order not to be left behind by their Asian and Eastern European competitors.
If Mexico and Brazil succeed in their ongoing crusades to have more qualified teachers and improve student test scores — and don’t succumb to political pressures from radical teachers’ unions that are rioting in Mexico City and Rio de Janeiro — others may follow their example, and Vargas Llosa’s optimism will prove justified.