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The Bitter Education of Vargas Llosa

One hardly knows whether to wince or laugh at his description of some of his rallies. Addressing the country’s largest labor confederation toward the end of his campaign, he instructs his listeners on the evils of job security, which make it impossible for Peru “to attract investment and stimulate the creation of new businesses and the growth of ones that already existed.” The workers who benefit from job security are a tiny minority, he points out gently to his audience—to those very beneficiaries, that is, of job security, men and women clinging with their nails to the last raft in the economic shipwreck. “It was not a happenstance that the countries with the best job opportunities in the world, such as Switzerland or Hong Kong or Taiwan, had the most flexible labor laws,” he tells them. And then he adds, describing this scene, “I don’t know if we convinced anyone.”

Whether he did or not was actually not important at the beginning of his campaign, because it so happened that Vargas Llosa decided to run for president at a time when there was absolutely no other candidate on the field whom people might be prepared to vote for. Alan García had brought his nationalist populist party, the APRA, to ruin, hopelessly tarnishing any would-be successor. The parties of the right, embodied by former president Fernando Belaúnde Terry, could not hope to offer—and furthermore, programmatically did not want to offer—any remedy for the impoverished majority’s urgent desperation. The left in Peru historically had never obtained more than 20 percent of the vote in any national election. More to the point, as Vargas Llosa’s campaign consultant at the New York public relations firm Sawyer/Miller understood all too clearly from the first, the traditional politicians who had ransacked Peru and bartered away its future were a lost cause.

Peruvians wanted a break with the old politics. They despised the old politicians,” writes Mark Malloch Brown, the Sawyer/Miller consultant, in a brief memoir also published in Granta. To the degree that Vargas Llosa represented a break with politics, his audience was willing to give him a hearing, despite the message he preached. For the first few months of the campaign, Sawyer/Miller’s polls looked more than encouraging. The candidate’s mass rallies had masses in attendance. His organization, Libertad, grew nationwide. But by early 1990 Vargas Llosa was starting to show up in the polls as a potential loser. It wasn’t just the candidate’s great distance from the destitute masses of his native country that turned out to be a fatal problem. It was his closeness to the people those masses most loathed: the politicians and business class.

And yet, who but the novelist Vargas Llosa has done a better job of describing the mechanisms of power, despotism, and corruption as practiced in his native country? Conversation in the Cathedral, published in 1969, begins with the memorable question ¿En qué momento se había jodido el Peruú? (At what point did Peru lose it, lose all hope, fuck itself, fuck itself over, fuck itself up?) The novel is an investigation of that problem, focusing on the corrupt intimate life and intimate relations between the rich and the powerful of Peru. The two central characters on whom the plot hinges are Cayo Bermúdez (“Cayo Mierda”), in charge of repression, espionage, and torture for the Odría dictatorship, and Fermín Zavala, the wealthy, suave father of the main character, whose sordid connections to the dictatorship are forged in the course of the novel. In A Fish in the Water the author points out that Peru is so jodido that there are barely any rich people left, but for his campaign he chose to ally himself with these few survivors, and to predicate an economic program on the private sector’s selflessness, ingenuity, discipline, initiative, courage, and acumen, although the historical evidence is that the business class of Peru is almost entirely lacking in these virtues, and that its complicity with the most dreadful regimes is central to the country’s political history. Why did Vargas Llosa the politician fail to see what his novels know?

Partly it is because, in his own mind, the candidate was allying himself with the middle classes—“office workers, professionals, technicians, tradesmen, state employees, housewives, students”—who seemed to him more capable of reason and civilized political action than the masses whose greedy enthusiasm made him cringe at rallies. But office workers and tradesmen were not the people who put up the money—variously estimated at four and a half million dollars (by the author) and ten million dollars (by skeptics equipped with a calculator)—for the most expensive campaign in Peru’s history. The novelist decided that as president he would be able to avoid any unethical obligations to his campaign financers by the simple expedient of refusing to be told who was contributing what amount, and he made the crucial, foolish, and innocent mistake of confusing his financial backers with his potential voters. One could suspect the author of A Fish in the Water of disingenuousness, were it not for the image that lingers throughout the memoir of the teen-age Mario, endlessly shuttled, according to the family fortunes, between the seedier Lima neighborhoods of the lower middle class and the dazzling beachside district of Miraflores. There is, as an explanation for so much political ineptitude, the possibility that, as an adult, he never ceased feeling illegitimate and deferential in the presence of the moneyed class, and willing to suspend disbelief.

The voters held him accountable for this, and for a parallel mistake: a few months into the Libertad movement’s existence, Vargas Llosa decided that he would not be able to build a nationwide organization in time for the elections capable of giving him a broad mandate for his drastic program of economic reforms, and he chose to ally himself with two traditional right-wing parties, one of whose leaders, the worldly, literate former president Fernando Belaúnde, Vargas Llosa admired. As his consultant, Mark Malloch Brown, understood immediately, this alliance with politics-as-usual was the kiss of death for his campaign. “To most Peruvians, it marked a betrayal…. He had bartered away his most precious asset, his independence.”

Vargas Llosa’s campaign thus came to grief because of his failure to take into account the nonrational needs of the electorate, because of his own irrational, respectful faith in his most powerful backers, and because of his intense reliance on his family and its immediate circle of associates. Brown writes:

Mario’s wife, Patricia, shared our fear of what the politicians would do to Mario’s public image and fought to keep him out of their clutches, but her alternative was to build a political base among blonde ladies from upper-middle-class suburbs of Lima. They began as a Libertad group that worked in the Lima slums, and it was said against them, by men, that they had persuaded their husbands to contribute the funds to construct the feeding centres, schools and playgrounds they operated. The women, many of whom were impressive and strong-willed, were fighting a battle with their husbands and a male-dominated Peruvian upper class. Their slum work did not help Mario’s battle for the barrios. The ladies, often wearing Paris and Milan fashions, were representatives of Vargas Llosa, the rich people’s candidate.

His decline was swift. By the spring of 1990 the candidate was exhausted, but despite his nonstop campaigning the polls showed that he was arousing hostility in certain crucial sectors of the population, and that his remaining support was not enough to guarantee him the 50 percent needed to avoid a runoff election. Closing up on him was the unknown, untested, untarnished, ideologically uncommitted candidate the voters had been waiting for. It could have been anyone. It could even have been Mario Vargas Llosa, if he had known how to play his cards. Instead it was a then fifty-one-year-old agricultural engineer who had never tried his hand at politics and who is now the strongman of Peru, Alberto Fujimori.

He was the rector of the Agrarian University of Peru, and he had absolutely no previous political experience. His presence on the presidential ballot was something of a fluke; a quirk in the constitution allowed anyone registering for the senatorial races to register simultaneously for the presidential candidacy, and, almost as a lark, Fujimori, the founder of a small businessmen’s movement called Cambio 90, had decided to take advantage of this option. Methodical and hardworking, he had campaigned on a shoestring, promising Honesty, Technology, and Work. To his astonishment, the voters paid attention, because he had no record at all, and, in the minds of the voters, this meant that he did not have the record of chicanery, mendacity, and sloth that they perceived as indistinguishable from professional politics. His spectacular rise in the polls paralleled Vargas Llosa’s decline.

The drama of Mario Vargas Llosa’s failed campaign culminates, in A Fish in the Water, with a rally outside his beloved Piura.

Armed with sticks and stones and all sorts of weapons to bruise and batter, an infuriated horde of men and women came to meet me, their faces distorted by hatred, who appeared to have emerged from the depths of time, a prehistory in which human beings and animals were indistinguishable, since for both life was a blind struggle for survival. Half naked, with very long hair and fingernails, never touched by a pair of scissors, surrounded by emaciated children with huge swollen bellies, bellowing and shouting to keep their courage up, they hurled themselves on the caravan of vehicles as though fighting to save their lives or seeking to immolate themselves, with a rashness and a savagery that said everything about the almost inconceivable levels of deterioration to which life for millions of Peruvians had sunk.

What were they attacking? What were they defending themselves from? What phantoms were behind those threatening clubs and knives? In the wretched village there was no water, no light, no work, no medical post, and the little school hadn’t been open for years because it had no teacher. What harm could I have done them, when they no longer had anything to lose, even if the famous “shock” [the package of neoliberal economic reform measures Vargas Llosa was proposing] proved to be as apocalyptic as propaganda made it out to be?…Despite the shower of stones…I made several attempts to talk to them over a loudspeaker, from the flatbed of a truck, but the outcries and the contention made such a din that I was forced to give up.

This is the Piura of the novelist Miguel Gutiérrez Correa’s savage fictional landscape, and, on coming face to face with it, Mario Vargas Llosa may have had his first inkling that he had been campaigning in the wrong country. An insult offered during a televised debate by the man who was to beat him at the polls still rankles. “It seems that you would like to make Peru a Switzerland, Doctor Vargas,” Alberto Fujimori said, with his characteristic tight-lipped smile. But, typically for Fujimori, his gibe was a few degrees off the mark: the point was, Vargas Llosa had campaigned as if Peru already were Switzerland.

On April 8, Mario Vargas Llosa got 27.6 percent of the vote and Fujimori 24.6. In the sixty days that elapsed between that date and the mandatory second round, electoral politics in Peru, such as they were, sank to shameful lows. The previously penniless Fujimori—now backed by President Alan García, according to strong rumors—spent money almost as recklessly as his rival on television ads that showed bits of a video-clip of Pink Floyd’s The Wall, in which a monster devours what the campaign depicted as the Peruvian electorate martyred by Vargas Llosa’s conservative economic program. To Vargas Llosa’s horror, his supporters’ campaign against Fujimori was, if anything, more dirty, but then, it was no longer really a campaign, and it was no longer Vargas Llosa’s to control.

It was class warfare, decreed by the upper-middle-class blond people of Lima against the darker-skinned multitudes now swarming at the gates. Peru’s conservative church hierarchy leaped into the fray with religious parades against the evangelical Protestants whom Fujimori had cannily wooed to his side. The press and television made fun of El Chinito—as the Japanese-descended Fujimori was universally known. The ruling classes’ xenophobia, racism, and conservative prejudices found expression in Mario Vargas Llosa’s campaign, even as the candidate haplessly defended his own agnosticism, decried racism, and took refuge in his daily readings of Karl Popper and the Spanish Golden Age poet Luis de Góngora.

The attacks on Alberto Fujimori were proof to the most desperate voters—who made up the vast majority—that anyone the ruling elite hated as much as it also appeared to despise them must be worth supporting. On June 10, 1990, Alberto Fujimori was elected president in the second voting round with a twenty-three point advantage over his rival, and he took power in July. It was the end of politics for Vargas Llosa, who boarded a plane with Patricia two days after the elections and headed back to the peace of his study and the libraries of Europe, where he became a Spanish citizen. But it was not, unhappily, the end of politics for Peru.


At this writing, Alberto Fujimori has been in power for nearly four years. He has brought down inflation to what is, by Peruvian standards, a modest 50 percent a year. The scourge of Peru, Abimael Guzmán, leader of the Shining Path, is now in prison, reading statements to his followers in which he orders them to put down their arms and praises the sagacity of his captors. Fujimori has built up Peru’s reserves, and even attracted a little foreign investment to the country.

He has also closed down Congress and replaced it with a puppet National Assembly, jailed a number of his enemies within the military, arrested dozens of journalists, set up an intelligence service that some people think rivals that of Conversation in the Cathedral‘s Cayo Mierda, and turned the hatred of politicians into something of a cult. He is popular. In fact, he may enjoy the most sustained popularity of any Peruvian president in history, and the easy betting is that, if he runs for reelection in 1995, as he appears eager to do, he will win. What did he offer Peruvians that Mario Vargas Llosa could not?

Perhaps it is easier to ask what Vargas Llosa offered the electorate that they did not want—at least, not at the price he was selling it. He offered Liberty and Democracy, and voters sizing up the offer decided that this meant the liberty of businessmen to fire workers in the name of the bottom line; the liberty of the state to fire tens of thousands of bureaucrats in pursuit of administrative efficiency; the liberty of the poor to fend for themselves without even token recognition from the state—their state—that it might owe them some protection from hunger and chaos. Fujimori wisely offered little beyond his campaign slogans, the second of which, for the runoff elections, was “A President Like You.”

This presumably meant a president who was like the poor, who understood the poor’s need for a little respite; but what Fujimori did on taking power was impose a package of economic reforms as harsh as anything Vargas Llosa might have proposed. Thanks to the sudden un-freezing of prices, Limeños lost 25 percent of their income virtually overnight, a blow struck against a population that had already lost half of its purchasing power during the preceding five years. Cholera and tuberculosis—diseases directly linked to poverty—reached epidemic proportions in the first year of the new regime. “The present reforms have put the economy on a sounder footing, but they have failed to further social justice, because they have not broadened in the slightest the opportunities of those who have less, so as to enable them to compete on equal terms with those who have more,” Vargas Llosa writes in the postscript to A Fish in the Water.

But what of his other campaign offer, Democracy? It was a word that in the midst of the Peruvian maelstrom sounded infinitely less appealing than Order, and that even today, despite Fujimori’s quasi-dictatorial status, does not seem to have a strong market among most of Vargas Llosa’s countrymen. Democracy in Latin America has been the keystone of United States policy for the hemisphere for a decade now. Previously, it had been Anticommunism, with a concommitant high degree of tolerance for dictatorial and murderous regimes. Under the new priorities, elections are taken as virtually sacred proof that a country is on the right track and deserves Washington’s encomiums and loans. What is one to make, then, of Alberto Fujimori, whose freely elected Constituent Congress has provided the necessary rubber stamp for his April 5, 1992, autogolpe, the coup against his own elected government? Or of Fernando Collor de Mello, freely elected to plunder and despoil Brazil? Or of Guillermo Endara of Panama or Carlos Menem of Argentina, both of whose elections served to mask high degrees of corruption? Or of the reelection, in El Salvador, of the party whose name is inextricably linked to the country’s death squads? What is one to hope for Mexico, where carefully supervised elections in August could conceivably lead to the first loss in sixty-five years for the party in power, and thus, quite possibly, to national breakdown?

Throughout Latin America, elections and despair have proved to be a scary combination, and a decade of economic contraction and antipopular economic reform measures—however urgently needed many may have been—have led inevitably to extreme levels of popular despair. Everywhere half-mad but extremely wily candidates—television gameshow hosts, drug money launderers, astrologers, experts in the art of promising all—have run for office and come close. One wonders if the television emcee who ran briefly against Collor de Mello in Brazil—Silvio Santos—could have done a worse job than the people’s choice.

In this particular case, and in a few others, the electorate has been able to rectify its mistakes. Collor de Mello became the first president in Brazil’s history to be impeached. In Venezuela a corrupt old populist, Carlos Andrés Pérez, was stripped of his powers as president and ordered to stand trial on charges of misappropriating $17 million in public funding. In Panama, on the other hand, following Guillermo Endara’s embarrassing term in office, the likely victor in next month’s elections is the leader of the party founded by the dictator Manuel Antonio Noriega, back with some more of the demagogic, wasteful policies that kept Noriega popular for so many years. (It is worth recalling that the United States spent some effort and inflicted considerable ruin on Panama by invading it in order to depose Noriega and install the popularly elected Endara.) And in Peru, Fujimori looks as if he will last. “The support for the regime is based on a tissue of contradictions,” a wiser Vargas Llosa writes bitterly, and accurately, in his memoir’s postscript:

The entrepreneurial sector and the right hail in President Fujimori the Pinochet that they were secretly yearning for, the military officers nostalgic for barracks coups have him as their transitory straw man, while the most depressed and frustrated sectors, which racist and anti-establishment demagoguery have penetrated, feel that their phobias and complexes have somehow been explained, through Fujimori’s deliberate insults of the “corrupt” politicians and “homosexual” diplomats, and through a crudeness and vulgarity that gives these sectors the illusion that it is, at last, “the people” who govern.

And yet…. For all its horrors, Vargas Llosa is wrong to say that the Peru he tried to save is now worse off than the Peru of his childhood. Fujimori is not the same as the bloody dictator Odría, and he could not be because some things have changed in Latin America. Internationally, respect for human rights is becoming an established criterion for loans.* Domestically, the hordes that terrify the novelist are, to my eye at least, rather different from his vision of them. They have not sunk to the level of animals; they have been rushed into the late twentieth century, a change that is confusing and threatening for traditional communities, and that has dismantled their sense of identity and purpose and threatens to dismember all the familiar social links and hierarchies. But at the same time, however chaotically, it has pushed them into membership in a civil society that is only now being born.

The new political realities of Latin America are being created between the longing for the false certainties and real order of the past, and the attraction of the false promises and real freedoms of the future. This is the world in which the Indian campesinos of Mexico can hold aloft the banner of Emiliano Zapata and call for both democracy and Indian autonomy, and in which an improvised politician like Fujimori can prosper. It is not a world without hope, but rather one with too many unfulfilled expectations, and the sad, final truth of Vargas Llosa’s campaign is that he, too, failed to understand and address them. He concentrated instead on reforms that look orderly on paper but are not designed to deal with chaos, and on the formalities of a democracy that does not yet exist. (Elections, while an important step in the direction of democracy, are far from being the thing itself.) While Latin America awaits the emergence of a new, democratic, political class that can address the economy’s limitations and the citizenry’s needs with truly participatory programs, the door remains open for demagogues.

April 28, 1994


Correction November 3, 1994

  1. *

    As this edition goes to press, the Peruvian human-rights coalition, the Peruvian National Coordinator of Human Rights, reports that the Peruvian army has embarked on a scorched-earth offensive against the Shining Path in one of their strongholds along the Huallaga River. International observers and human-rights organizations, as well as the Red Cross, have been denied access to the region, but reports are filtering through of widespread rape, torture, and murder, as well as aerial strafing, by the Peruvian army.

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