His main thought is that Latin America HAS NOT progressed during the last century but in some cases, has regressed, due to the popular emergence of a "strongman" or caudillos like Fidel Castro and now Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. In fact he has cited many evidences of this. He also likens the Western "intellectuals" who think the rise of these dictators is good for Latin America, to idiots as well. Idiots because they too, DENY THE FACTS.
He writes, "Ten years ago, the Colombian writer Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza, the Cuban writer Carlos Alberto Montaner and I wrote Guide to the Perfect Latin American Idiot, a book criticizing opinion and political leaders who clung to ill-conceived political myths despite evidence to the contrary. 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 re-enacting 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.
Today's young Latin American Idiots prefer Shakira's pop ballads to Perez 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.
Latin American Idiots have traditionally identified themselves with caudillos, those larger-than-life authoritarian figures who have dominated the region's politics, ranting against foreign influence and republican institutions. Two leaders in particular inspire today's Idiot: President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and President Evo Morales of Bolivia. Chavez is seen as the perfect successor to Cuba's Fidel Castro: He came to power through the ballot box, which exonerates him from the need to justify armed struggle, and he has abundant oil, which means he can put his money where his mouth is when it comes to championing social causes. The Idiot also credits Chavez with the most progressive policy of all: putting the military, that paradigm of oligarchic rule, to work on social programs.
For his part, Bolivia's Evo Morales has indigenista appeal. In the eyes of the Idiot, the former coca farmer is the reincarnation of Tupac Katari, an 18th-century Aymara rebel, who, before his execution by Spanish colonial authorities, vowed, "I shall return and I shall be millions." They believe Morales when he professes to speak for the indigenous masses, from southern Mexico to the Andes, who seek redress of the exploitation inflicted on them by 300 years of colonial rule and 200 more of oligarchic republican rule.
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 the British playwright Harold Pinter, the Portuguese novelist Jose Saramago and the 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 publications 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 at the heart of Latin America's political and economic underdevelopment, it constitutes a form of intellectual treason.
The most notable example today of the symbiosis between certain Western intellectuals and Latin American caudillos is the love affair between American and European Idiots and Hugo Chavez. The Venezuelan leader, despite his nationalist tendencies, has no qualms about citing foreigners in his speeches in order to strengthen his positions. Just witness Chavez's speech at the United Nations last September in which he praised Chomsky's Hegemony or Survival: America?s Quest for Global Dominance.
Likewise, in presentations at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Chomsky has pointed to Venezuela as an example for the developing world, touting social policies that have achieved success in education and medical assistance and rescued the dignity of Venezuelans. He has also expressed admiration for the fact that "Venezuela successfully challenged the United States, and this country doesn't like challenges, much less so if they are successful."
But in actuality, Venezuela's social programs have, with help from the Cuban intelligence services, become vehicles for political regimentation and social dependence on the government. Furthermore, their effectiveness is suspect. The Centro de Documentacion y Analisis Social de la Federacion Venezolana de Maestros, a teachers' union think-tank, reported in 2006 that 80% of Venezuela's households have difficulty covering the cost of food-- the same proportion as when Chavez came to power in 1999, and when the price of oil was one-third what it is today. As for the dignity of the people, the real story is that there have been 10,000 homicides per year in Venezuela since Chavez became president, giving the country the highest per-capita murder rate in the world.
Another nation that certain American opinion leaders have a soft spot for is Cuba. In 2003, Fidel Castro's regime executed three young refugees for hijacking a boat and trying to escape from the island. Castro also sent 75 democratic activists to prison for lending banned books. In response, James Petras, a longtime sociology professor at the State University of New York at Binghamton, wrote an article titled "The Responsibility of the Intellectuals: Cuba, the U.S. and Human Rights." In his essay, which was reprinted by various left-wing publications around the world, he defended Havana by arguing that the victims had been in the service of the United States government.
Two decades out of date, Harold Pinter delivered a flabbergasting account of the Nicaraguan Sandinista government in his 2005 Nobel lecture. Perhaps thinking that a vindication of the populists of the past might help the populists of today, he said that the Sandinistas had "set out to establish a stable, decent, pluralistic society," and that there was "no record of torture" or of "systematic or official military brutality" under Daniel Ortega's government in the 1980s. One wonders, then, why the Sandinistas were thrown out of power by the people of Nicaragua in the 1990 elections. Or why the voters kept them out of power for nearly two decades-- until Ortega became a political transvestite, declaring himself a supporter of the market economy. As for the denial of Sandinista atrocities, Pinter would do well to remember the 1981 massacre of Miskito Indians on Nicaragua's Atlantic coast.
Under the guise of a literacy campaign, the Sandinistas, with the help of their Cuban cadres, tried to indoctrinate the Miskitos with Marxist ideology. But the independent-minded Indians refused to accept Sandinista control. Accusing them of supporting opposition groups based in Honduras, Ortega's men killed as many as 50 Miskitos, imprisoned hundreds and forcibly relocated many more. The Nobel laureate should also remember that his hero Ortega became a capitalist millionaire thanks to the distribution of government assets and confiscated property that the Sandinista leaders split among themselves after losing the 1990 elections.
Foreign observers are missing an essential point: Latin American populism has nothing to do with social justice. It began as a reaction against the oligarchic state of the 19th century, in the form of mass movements led by caudillos who blamed rich nations for Latin America's plight. These movements based their legitimacy on voluntarism, protectionism and massive wealth redistribution. The result, throughout the 20th century, was bloated government, stifling bureaucracy, the subservience of judicial institutions to political authority and parasitic economies.
Populists share basic characteristics: the voluntarism of the caudillo as a substitute for the law; the impugning of the oligarchy and its replacement with another type of oligarchy; the denunciation of imperialism (with the enemy always being the United States); the projection of the class struggle between the rich and the poor onto the stage of international relations; the idolatry of the state as a redeeming force for the poor; authoritarianism under the guise of state security; and "clientelismo," a form of patronage by which government jobs --as opposed to wealth creation -- are the conduit of social mobility and the way to maintain a "captive vote" in elections.
The legacy of these policies is clear: Nearly half the population of Latin America is poor, with more than one in five living on US$2 or less per day. And one to two million migrants flock to the United States and Europe every year in search of a better life.
Even in Latin America, part of the left is making its transition away from Idiocy -- similar to the kind of mental transition that the European left, from Spain to Scandinavia, went through a few decades ago when it grudgingly embraced liberal democracy and a market economy. In Latin America, one can speak of a "vegetarian left" and a "carnivorous left." The vegetarian left is represented by leaders such as Brazilian President Luiz Inacio "Lula" da Silva, Uruguayan President Tabare Vazquez and Costa Rican President Oscar Arias. Despite the occasional meaty rhetoric, these leaders have avoided the mistakes of the old left, such as raucous confrontations with the developed world and monetary and fiscal profligacy. They have settled into social-democratic conformity and are proving unwilling to engage in major reform -- which is why Brazil's gross domestic product (GDP) growth is not expected to top 3.6% this year -- but they signify a positive development in the struggle for modernizing the left.
Does it really matter that the American and European intelligentsia quench their thirst for the exotic by promoting Latin American Idiots? The unequivocal answer is yes. A cultural struggle is underway in Latin America -- between those who want to place the region in the global firmament and see it emerge as a major contributor to the Western culture to which its destiny has been attached for five centuries, and those who cannot reconcile themselves to the idea and resist it. Despite some progress in recent years, this tension is holding back Latin America's development in comparison to other regions of the world-- such as East Asia, the Iberian Peninsula and Central Europe -- that were backward not long ago. Latin America's annual GDP growth has averaged 2.8% in the past three decades -- against Southeast Asia's 5.5%, or the world average of 3.6%.
This sluggish performance explains why about 45% of the population is still poor and why, after a quarter-century of democratic rule, regional surveys betray a profound dissatisfaction with democratic institutions and traditional parties. Until the Latin American Idiot is confined to the archives -- something that will be difficult to achieve while so many condescending spirits in the developed world continue to lend him support -- that will not change."
- Alvaro Vargas Llosa is director of the Center on Global Prosperity at the Independent Institute.