cover of book

Mario Vargas Llosa: Public Intellectual in Neoliberal Latin America
by Juan E. De Castro
University of Arizona Press, 2011
eISBN: 978-0-8165-4846-0 | Cloth: 978-0-8165-2948-3
Library of Congress Classification PQ8498.32.A65Z639 2011
Dewey Decimal Classification 863.64

It would have been an ardent debate: Hugo Chávez, outspoken emblem of Latin American socialism, on one side and Mario Vargas Llosa, Peruvian novelist, polemical champion of the free market, and eventual winner of a Nobel Prize for literature, on the other. Unfortunately, it was not to be. For author Juan E. De Castro, what was most remarkable about the proposed debate was not only that it was going to happen in the first place but that Chávez called it off, a move that many chalked up to trepidation on the Venezuelan president’s part. Whatever the motivation, the cancellation served to affirm Vargas Llosa’s already substantial intellectual and political stature.

The idea of a sitting president debating a novelist may seem surprising to readers unfamiliar with Latin American politics, but Vargas Llosa has enjoyed considerable influence in the political arena, thanks in no small part to his run for the Peruvian presidency in 1990. Though he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2010 for his literary achievements, he is as well known in the Spanish-speaking world for his political columns as he is for his novels. In his widely syndicated political pieces, Vargas Llosa asserts a position he calls “liberal” in the classical sense of affirming the importance of a free market and individual rights, though as De Castro argues, he has often aligned himself with groups that emphasize the former at the expense of the latter.

What makes Vargas Llosa’s rise to political prominence compelling is “not only that he is still a vibrantly active writer, but that he was at the time of the beginning of his rise to literary fame, and throughout the 1960s, a staunch defender of the Cuban Revolution.” While his early literary output seemed to proclaim an allegiance with the Left, Vargas Llosa was soon to take a right turn that De Castro argues was anticipatory and representative of the Latin American embrace of the free market in the 1990s. Understanding Vargas Llosa’s political thought is thus of more than biographical interest. It is a key to understanding the social and cultural shifts that have taken place not only in Peru but throughout Latin America.
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