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Landscape Architect

1.

What phase of development has Latin America entered right now? What place does it occupy in “the march of history,” with respect to the rest of the world? Octavio Paz puzzled over that question in an exquisitely writ-ten passage of his book on Sor Juana, the Baroque convent poet.* And he concluded that, for reasons peculiar to Hispanic life, no answer can be given. “Our history has never been a march, in any of the accepted meanings or variations of that word: the straight line of the evolutionists, the zigzag of the dialecticians, the circle of the neo-Platonists.” The history has been, instead, “a discontinuous process made of leaps and falls.”

In Paz’s interpretation, the Hispanic world has always consisted of several different civilizations superimposed on one another, with each civilization jostling against each of the others. And the consequences, for anyone trying to identify the stages of development, can only be exasperating. “Again and again we Spaniards and Hispano-Americans rub our eyes and ask ourselves: What time is it in the history of the world? Our time never coincides with everyone else’s. We are always ahead or behind.”

The title of Alma Guillermoprieto’s book, Looking for History: Dispatches from Latin America, expresses something of that same Hispanic bafflement. In the last few years, writers from various places around the world other than Latin America have demonstrated, in their own book titles, a serene confidence in their ability to identify history’s direction and even its pace. Francis Fukuyama could write his self-assured The End of History and the Last Man because, from his American perspective, the collapse of communism plainly demonstrated that liberal democracy was history’s ultimate end, and the forward march was indisputable.

A few years later the writer Eva Hoffman returned to the Eastern Europe of her childhood, took a look around, and rebutted Fukuyama’s interpretation in a book called Exit into History—though Hoffman’s refutation consisted mostly in showing that, from an Eastern European perspective, Fukuyama’s “end” could more accurately be called a beginning. History’s progress remained visible, either way. But Guillermoprieto’s Looking for History proposes no such conclusion, or even rebuttal—only a search. And the distinctly Latin American flavor of her book is evident even in its title.

A generation ago, many thoughtful and serious people on the left imagined that Latin America had taken its place in history’s march forward, and might even be at its head. The Cuban revolution radiated an air of success, and the heroic figures of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro led many people to suppose that Cuba’s triumphs were destined to spread across Latin America and to Africa and, in time, perhaps, to everywhere else. Guillermoprieto’s Looking for History includes an essay about Che called “The Harsh Angel,” commenting on the recent biographies of him by Jon Lee Anderson and Jorge G. Castañeda. And it is striking that, of all the essays in her book—there are seventeen, adapted from her pieces in these pages and The New Yorker—“The Harsh Angel” is easily the most emotional and even intimate.

Guillermoprieto reminds us that Che’s example inspired middle-class young people all over Latin America to abandon their lives of privilege and to join the left-wing guerrilla armies, in whose ranks they were slaughtered by the tens of thousands. She recalls that one of her friends, and her friend’s brother, and even her friend’s mother were among those people. Usually Guillermoprieto writes as an objective and neutral observer, faithfully reporting on Latin American events for the English-speaking world. But in the essay on Che, she slips into the possessive pronoun “our,” as if the subject has intensified the sense of her own Latin American identity. “So many of our leaders have been so corrupt,” she says, “and the range of allowed and possible public activity has been so narrow, and injustice has cried out so piercingly to the heavens, that only a hero could answer the call, and only a heroic mode of life could seem worthy.” But her final judgment of Che is icy:

He was an artist of scorn, heaping it on the sanctimonious, the officiously bureaucratic, the unimaginatively conformist, who whispered eagerly that the way things were was the best way that could be arranged. He was a living banner, determined to renounce all the temptations of power and to change the world by example. And he was a fanatic, consumed by restlessness and a frighteningly abstract hatred, who in the end recognized only one moral value as supreme: the willingness to be slaughtered for a cause.

In another essay Guillermoprieto describes the dying Evita Perón of Argentina, who said in her autobiography (or at least was said to have said, by her ghost writer), “Fanaticism turns life into a permanent and heroic process of dying; but it is the only way that life can defeat death.” That was Che’s idea, exactly.

Fidel Castro strikes Guillermoprieto as a different kind of leader entirely, but that is not to say he is any saner than Che. In Cuba almost four years ago, at the time of the Pope’s visit, Guillermoprieto caught sight of Castro on late-night television giving a live press conference. The conference began at nine in the evening and the Maximum Leader talked on and on. The journalists got in barely a word. By 3:30 in the morning he was still going strong. The performance seemed lunatic. On the other hand, this outlandish personality of his has always displayed traits that, in Guillermoprieto’s analysis, do have their dark enchantments—“a Spanish-inspired vision of what dignity consists of,” shaped by “twinned obsessions with virility and with being condemned by the gods to the loser’s fate.” It is a heroic personality, which is to say, rigid and doomed.

She describes the poverty and social disasters that have come of this man’s dictatorship, the suppression of the Catholic religion (lifted somewhat, as she records, on the occasion of the Pope’s visit), the tinselly degradation that accompanies Cuban sex tourism. Guillermoprieto expresses in her understated and sometimes even humorous way her compassion for the victims of Cuba’s many calamities—the young prostitute and her loyal boyfriend in Havana, the idealistic provincial doctor who was jailed for speaking up about some concealed cases of cholera, the doctor’s bereft wife. But Guillermoprieto’s most touching sympathy goes out to the people in Cuba who, in their innocence, still somehow cling to their belief in Castro and his revolution.

It is heartbreaking to read about one of Guillermoprieto’s stalwart Fidelista friends, a middle-aged black man from a dirt-poor family, who, thanks to the revolution, has climbed the social ladder and “is now fluent in two useless languages—Russian and Bulgarian,” and finds himself launched into modern life with “a degree in a useless discipline—Marxist economics.” Cuba has somehow ended up with more than its share of people like that, venerable Quixotes in the grip of strange and antique ideas, knocked about by the inevitable lurches of a giant windmill, yet incapable of being roused out of what she calls their “dream-like trance.”

In recent decades Latin America has produced quite a lot of people who, unlike those faithful and pathetic Fidelistas, have somehow mustered the strength to snap out of their political trances—whether the trances have been Marxist, populist, or nationalist in inspiration. Guillermoprieto presents the example of Mario Vargas Llosa, who has himself told the tale both in fiction (for example, The Real History of Alejandro Mayta) and in his memoir, A Fish in the Water, of running for president of Peru in 1990. Vargas Llosa recalls in that memoir how, as a young man, he used to pore over Jean-Paul Sartre’s magazine Les Temps Modernes, which arrived in the mail from Paris, and how, with French philosophical ideas racing through his head, he, too, dreamed the revolutionary dream. Guillermoprieto observes that in those years Vargas Llosa was driven by his own vision of personal dignity, which he conceived in a very Peruvian spirit of social rancor—the rancor of someone who grew up in a layered social system of economic classes and skin-tone sub-sub-groups, in which his father came from one minuscule group and his mother from a slightly higher one, and the war of group against group was bred into his bones.

But what happened to Vargas Llosa’s rancorous dignity when, waking from his left-wing sleep, he set out to rescue his country from guerrillas and populists? He adopted a doctrine of free-market democracy. And Guillermoprieto concludes that, in running for president in the dazzle of those newer ideas, Vargas Llosa somehow lost sight of every bitter truth about the business and social kingpins of Peru that he had so brilliantly recorded in his novels. His campaign went down to defeat, crushed by the populist demagoguery of Alberto Fujimori, and Vargas Llosa’s awakening did Peru no good at all.

The biggest and most impressive of Latin America’s efforts to shake off the old revolutionary somnolence has taken place in tiny steps over many years in Mexico, as described in several of Guillermoprieto’s dispatches, which amount to almost half the book. The ruling party in Mexico for the last seven decades, the Partido Revolucionario Institucional, or PRI, was always an authoritarian organization in the corporatist mode—an organization that aspired to mobilize Mexico’s population into column-like social structures, reaching downward to the humblest of the poor and upward to the super-rich. The PRI was at times a violent party, and over the years those column-like social structures became more and more corrupt. Still, the party never lapsed into the totalitarian extravagances of a Communist or fascist movement. And, as Guillermoprieto shows, by the 1980s the PRI, racing to keep up with reality, launched its own campaign for liberal reform—first under the pressure of some dissidents who broke away in 1987, and then through several policies enacted by Carlos Salinas de Gortari, who was Mexico’s president from 1988 to 1994.

Guillermoprieto reminds us that Salinas tried to push the economy forward by privatizing a few aspects of the moribund state system. He appointed a number of idealistic and even left-wing people to administer social programs. Those were genuine efforts to drag Mexico into the modern world, but they were not successful. Salinas’s administration never seemed truly legitimate to many Mexicans—he had ascended to the presidency only by virtue of what appeared to be a grotesque computer manipulation of the electoral returns. In the atmosphere of fraud and dishonesty that surrounded the PRI, his economic reforms were guaranteed to leak away into an ever-growing puddle of corruption.

Privatization meant theft. And the combination of political illegitimacy and failed reforms combusted finally into a series of bizarre and criminal events during the 1990s, of the sort that Suetonius might have recognized. There was the murder of Luis Donaldo Colosio, Salinas’s anointed successor in the PRI; the murder of Salinas’s ex-brother-in-law, the secretary- general of the PRI; the arrest and conviction (on tainted evidence, Guillermoprieto says) of the president’s brother, Raúl Salinas, for having masterminded the murder of the secretary-general; the suicide of the secretary-general’s brother; the digging up of a skeleton, which was said to be the remains of the secretary-general’s murderer but was actually someone else entirely, whose bones had been planted on Raúl Salinas’s farm at the behest of a fortuneteller who, as Guillermoprieto discovered, was a former leader of a PRI street mob. Raúl Salinas was meanwhile discovered to have salted away some $80 million in Swiss banks. The cardinal of Guadalajara was murdered in a blaze of gunfire at the Guadalajara airport. And President Salinas himself, after stepping down from office, launched a cranky hunger strike in order to protest his treatment at the hands of a vengeful press.

  1. *

    See Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz; o, Las trampas de la fe (Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1982), p. 201 (my translation). An English translation has been published by Belknap Press/ Harvard University Press under the title Sor Juana; or, The Traps of Faith, translated by Margaret Sayers Peden (1988).

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