Wednesday, May 02, 2007

The Return of the Latin American Idiot

I got a thrill out of Alvaro Vargas Llosa's article, "The Return of the Idiot," on Latin America's populist leaders, in the current issue of Foreign Policy. I especially enjoyed the article because of Vargas Llosa deft attack on the resurgence this particular brand of lame-brained caudillos, whose style of authoritarian populism was prominent in Latin American a few decades back. The article's especially good at elaborating the intersection of the rise of such thugs as Hugo Chavez and their connection to the anti-American left, especially in the United States.

It turns out that Vargas Llosa co-published a book earlier, Guide to the Perfect Latin American Idiot, which laid out his theory of the politics of drastically dysfunctional Latin American populism:

The “Idiot” species, we suggested, bore responsibility for Latin America’s underdevelopment. Its beliefs—revolution, economic nationalism, hatred of the United States, faith in the government as an agent of social justice, a passion for strongman rule over the rule of law—derived, in our opinion, from an inferiority complex. In the late 1990s, it seemed as if the Idiot were finally retreating. But the retreat was short lived. Today, the species is back in force in the form of populist heads of state who are reenacting the failed policies of the past, opinion leaders from around the world who are lending new credence to them, and supporters who are giving new life to ideas that seemed extinct.

Because of the inexorable passing of time, today’s young Latin American Idiots prefer Shakira’s pop ballads to Pérez Prado’s mambos and no longer sing leftist anthems like “The Internationale” or “Until Always Comandante.” But they are still descendants of rural migrants, middle class, and deeply resentful of the frivolous lives of the wealthy displayed in the glossy magazines they discreetly leaf through on street corners. State-run universities provide them with a class-based view of society that argues that wealth is something that needs to be retaken from those who have stolen it. For these young Idiots, Latin America’s condition is the result of Spanish and Portuguese colonialism, followed by U.S. imperialism. These basic beliefs provide a safety valve for their grievances against a society that offers scant opportunity for social mobility. Freud might say they have deficient egos that are unable to mediate between their instincts and their idea of morality. Instead, they suppress the notion that predation and vindictiveness are wrong and rationalize their aggressiveness with elementary notions of Marxism.
Here's Vargas Llosa's discourse on anti-globalization as a font of support for Latin American populism:

The Idiot’s worldview, in turn, finds an echo among distinguished intellectuals in Europe and the United States. These pontificators assuage their troubled consciences by espousing exotic causes in developing nations. Their opinions attract fans among First-World youngsters for whom globalization phobia provides the perfect opportunity to find spiritual satisfaction in the populist jeremiad of the Latin American Idiot against the wicked West.

There’s nothing original about First-World intellectuals’ projecting their utopias onto Latin America. Christopher Columbus stumbled on the shores of the Americas at a time when Renaissance utopian ideas were in vogue; from the very beginning, conquistadors described the lands as nothing short of paradisiacal. The myth of the Good Savage—the idea that the natives of the New World embodied a pristine goodness untarnished by the evils of civilization—impregnated the European mind. The tendency to use the Americas as an escape valve for frustration with the insufferable comfort and cornucopia of Western civilization continued for centuries. By the 1960s and 70s, when Latin America was riddled with Marxist terrorist organizations, these violent groups enjoyed massive support in Europe and the United States among people who never would have accepted Castro-style totalitarian rule at home.

The current revival of the Latin American Idiot has precipitated the return of his counterparts: the patronizing American and European Idiots. Once again, important academics and writers are projecting their idealism, guilty consciences, or grievances against their own societies onto the Latin American scene, lending their names to nefarious populist causes. Nobel Prizewinners, including British playwright Harold Pinter, Portuguese novelist José Saramago, and American economist Joseph Stiglitz; American linguists such as Noam Chomsky and sociologists like James Petras; European journalists like Ignacio Ramonet and some foreign correspondents for outlets such as Le Nouvel Observateur in France, Die Zeit in Germany, and the Washington Post in the United States, are once again propagating absurdities that shape the opinions of millions of readers and sanctify the Latin American Idiot. This intellectual lapse would be quite innocuous if it didn’t have consequences. But, to the extent that it legitimizes the type of government that is actually at the heart of Latin America’s political and economic underdevelopment, it constitutes a form of intellectual treason.
The article's certainly polemical (and a bit emotional, frankly), but for the most part Vargas Llosa is right on target. For a more analytical, policy-related article on the "good vs. bad" Latin American regimes, check out Jorge Castaneda's outstanding article, "Latin America's Left Turn," in the May/June 2006 issue of Foreign Affairs.

Reading the Vargas Llosa piece reminded me of the Wall Street Journal's phenomenal columnist, Mary Anastasia O'Grady. O'Grady cuts through the baloney on Latin American politics once a week in her Journal articles. I try not to miss them.
One of my recent favorites was her exposition of the "Guevara Myth" in a Christmas Day article from last year, documenting the pure hypocrisy of the anti-American left's fascination with Che Guevara. O'Grady cites Alvaro Vargas Llosa as a key source in her piece -- Vargas Llosa's apparently published another important book on Latin American politics, "The Che Guevara Myth and the Future of Liberty."

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