Mario Vargas Llosa is one of the greatest writers of our time, whose collection of novels earned him the 2010 Nobel Prize in Literature.
He's also someone with the curiosity and the intellectual courage to change his mind when faced with evidence that contradicts his beliefs, as detailed in a new trilingual booklet entitled My Intellectual Journey: From Marxism to Liberalism that has just been released in bookstores across the province of Quebec.
This booklet is based on a very moving and fascinating talk Mr. Vargas Llosa gave in Montreal last year at an MEI gala event, in which he explained how he came to be an admirer at one time of Fidel Castro's Cuban experiment, as were many Latin American and other intellectuals of his generation. Understandably, though, his enthusiasm began to wane somewhat when he learned of the concentration camps to which were sent a mix of dissidents, common criminals, and homosexuals.
Indeed, he met Castro in the 1960s along with a group of a dozen other writers in order to protest these unjust incarcerations. He was very impressed by the man, describing him as a force of nature on account of his ability to speak, with such dynamism and contagious enthusiasm, practically uninterrupted for twelve solid hours, barely pausing to take a breath or to let anyone else have a turn. He was impressed, but not convinced.
He also visited the Soviet Union in 1966, which disillusioned him further with Marxism. What he discovered was a country where the distance between the powerful political elite and the powerless majority was even greater than in Latin America, and where a person needed a visa just to travel to another city.
In addition to seeing the failures of Cuba and the U.S.S.R. firsthand, he was also influenced by the works of numerous thinkers and philosophers. Raymond Aron's The Opium of the Intellectuals was particularly important in helping him understand the seductive appeal of Marxism for writers, artists, and intellectuals, as were Isaiah Berlin's biography of Marx and Karl Popper's The Open Society and Its Enemies, and works by other towering figures of the 20th century such as André Gide and George Orwell. These authors also introduced him to a different vision, one of tolerance, democracy, and the importance of freedom, including economic freedom, for achieving any kind of progress.
But some intellectuals, including some here in Canada and Quebec, have refused to face the facts, and so have not undergone this kind of intellectual journey. Instead, they continue to sing the praises of a Caribbean island prison from which thousands of people still attempt to flee by homemade raft every year, a perilous journey that an estimated one in four do not survive. To be a fan of the Cuban experiment when it started in the early 1960s is one thing, but how blinded by ideology do you have to be to remain a Castro booster over 50 years later?
Thankfully, by and large, the countries of Latin America have outgrown the brutal and corrupt military governments that were still the norm a few decades ago, which is why it is now possible, according to Mr. Vargas Llosa, to be optimistic about the future of this part of the world. Though still very far from the ideal, countries like Chile, Columbia, Peru, Brazil and Mexico have adopted political democracy and market economics, and are moving forward because of it. With any luck, Cuba's dictatorship will also soon crumble, and at long last allow its people to live in freedom.
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