One spring morning in May 1998, a visitor on an unusual mission arrived in my office in the White House. The mission was to deliver a confidential message from Cuban President Fidel Castro about possible cooperation on terrorism investigations. The messenger was the Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez.
While the meeting did not produce any breakthroughs (our relations with Cuba were tense, and remained so), García Márquez was clearly delighted to be stirring some minor intrigue into Western Hemisphere diplomacy. We had met a few nights earlier at the Washington home of former Colombian President César Gaviria. Our White House session confirmed my first impressions: He was charming yet serious, an avid listener and shrewd political observer, a bridge builder rather than a bridge burner.
Over the next years and several visits, I came to regard García Márquez as a friend, something he attributed partly to us both being “men of the South.” His death last month at age 87 caused an outpouring of tributes recognizing him as a literary giant and a cultural icon of Latin America. Less commented on was his role in connecting the northern and southern halves of our hemisphere, with all their similarities, differences and richness.
García Márquez had a complicated relationship with the United States. For decades he was denied a visa to visit, apparently because of a brief association with the Colombian Communist Party in the 1950s. He was often a critic of U.S. foreign policy. And he retained a lifelong, personal loyalty to Castro, a position sharply at odds with his support of free speech and human rights elsewhere, and baffling to many friends and admirers. I frequently disagreed with him on policy, and nowhere more vigorous than regarding Cuba.
But he also held deep affinities with the “Colossus of the north.” He once told my wife, Donna, “I didn't know how to write until I read William Faulkner.” In 1961, after a job as a journalist in New York, he and his young family rode a Greyhound bus on a tour of the South. Arriving in Mexico, poor and unknown, he began work on One Hundred Years of Solitude, the novel that would win him millions of fans around the world.
One of them became the 42nd president of the United States. Bill Clinton had read One Hundred Years of Solitude while in law school and declared García Márquez his “literary hero.” The two men met in 1994 on Martha's Vineyard at the home of the novelist William Styron. García Márquez would recall his astonishment at hearing a U.S. president reciting from memory passages from The Sound and the Fury. A bond was formed.
García Márquez took poetic license when he insisted that Latin America began at the Mason-Dixon line. But it's true that there are qualities of warmth, family, faith and even elements of “magical realism” common to the Colombia of his childhood and the Arkansas of mine. During decades of intense travel and work in Latin America, I've always felt at home. This connection was an important discovery for me.
Most Americans know far too little about Latin America and feel more distant from it than history and geography have placed us. (I exclude the 50 million Latinos living in the United States). García Márquez’s legacies is having awakened millions of readers in the United States to our common bonds of humanity and culture. Along with other authors of the “boom,” he put Latin America on the map of our North American imaginations.
Today, the United States has less influence in the region than when One Hundred Years of Solitude was written. This is largely a reflection of positive trends, including the transition across the region from dictatorship to elected governments (with Cuba as the perennial outlier) and from economic dormancy to vitality. Latin American states are more independent and integrated into a global economy.
But I would argue that the United States has pulled too far back from the region. As we justifiably focus on Ukraine, Venezuela is enduring months of civil unrest and political violence. Talks between the government and opposition are being sponsored by the Vatican and neighboring countries. In the United States, they are scarcely on the public's radar.
Meanwhile, there is virtually no coverage in the American press of ongoing peace talks in Havana between the Colombian government and FARC guerillas to end a decades-long conflict in which the United States has played a big role, especially in our anti-drug policies.
I have no doubt that García Márquez would be in the thick of these negotiations, and would be urging the United States to play a constructive part. It is one of the happy ironies of García Márquez’s life that the author of One Hundred Years of Solitude did so much to end Latin America's isolation. The world seems lonelier without him.
Mack McLarty was White House chief of staff and Special Envoy for the Americas under President Bill Clinton. He currently serves as Chairman of McLarty Associates and McLarty Companies.