Mario Vargas Llosa on the price of American profit in Latin America


Hard times, the latest novel by Mario Vargas Llosa, is an educational book. Set before and after the US-orchestrated coup that overthrew Guatemalan socialist President Jacobo Árbenz in 1954, its message is spelled out repeatedly over some 300 pages, then again – as if the reader might miss it. the point – in its last paragraph. : “Ultimately, the North American invasion of Guatemala delayed the democratization of the continent for decades at the cost of thousands of lives, as it helped popularize the myth of armed struggle and socialism throughout Latin America.

Despite all the endless debate about the proper role of politics in literature, I don’t know if I have ever seen such a vivid example of what you might call liberal realism. Vargas Llosa has long been an outspoken member of the market-friendly center-right, so much so that in 2014 he was made a member of the Mont Pèlerin Society, the organization founded by economist Friedrich Hayek in 1947 to fight leftist ideas in academia and government. Again Hard times is not an ode to the free market: the novel is largely a sour denunciation of the extent to which the role of corporate interests in establishing the American superpower has come at a high social and political cost.

This is not the first time that Vargas Llosa has fictionalized significant historical events in Latin America. But reducing the ideological battles of the Cold War to little more than “tragic” deviations from a democratic ideal, the novel, although written by a literary genius, often falters on the verge of reducing its actual characters to substitutes for a moral piece designed for the Davos setting.

Hard times, the latest novel by Mario Vargas Llosa, is an educational book. Set before and after the US-orchestrated coup that overthrew Guatemalan socialist President Jacobo Árbenz in 1954, its message is spelled out repeatedly over some 300 pages, then again – as if the reader might miss it. the point – in its last paragraph. : “Ultimately, the North American invasion of Guatemala delayed the democratization of the continent for decades at the cost of thousands of lives, as it helped popularize the myth of armed struggle and socialism throughout Latin America.

Despite all the endless debate about the proper role of politics in literature, I don’t know if I have ever seen such a vivid example of what you might call liberal realism. Vargas Llosa has long been an outspoken member of the market-friendly center-right, so much so that in 2014 he was made a member of the Mont Pèlerin Society, the organization founded by economist Friedrich Hayek in 1947 to fight leftist ideas in academia and government. Again Hard times is not an ode to the free market: the novel is largely a sour denunciation of the extent to which the role of corporate interests in establishing the American superpower has come at a high social and political cost.


Hard times: a novel, Mario Vargas Llosa; translated by Adrian Nathan West, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 304 p., $ 28.00, November 2021

This is not the first time that Vargas Llosa has fictionalized significant historical events in Latin America. But reducing the ideological battles of the Cold War to little more than “tragic” deviations from a democratic ideal, the novel, although written by a literary genius, often falters on the verge of reducing its actual characters to substitutes for a moral piece designed for the Davos setting.

There are few awards on earth that 85-year-old Vargas Llosa hasn’t won. His 2010 Nobel Prize in Literature—awarded “For his cartography of power structures and his cutting-edge images of resistance, revolt and defeat of the individual” – almost sounds like old news now that he was admitted at the Académie française in November 2021 even though he had never written a book in French. Super Mario, the Argentinian-Peruvian writer Pola Oloixarac called him — and it’s hard to disagree.

Yet such a work – 20 novels over 60 years – can only compare to itself, and Hard times fits perfectly into what my grandfather, a Vargas Llosa completist who shared a hometown with the Peruvian author, called his “minor work”. Which is not to say that the novel is not, on occasion, very entertaining. Vargas Llosa’s kaleidoscopic storytelling blends the entertaining pleasures (and well-worn tropes) of political thriller with that of historical fiction.

While Hard times‘the strongest moments recall the author’s best novels, its weakest recall his most biased opinion columns: a tote of pre-fabricated lines drawn from six decades of wildly prolific production. The result is an uneven haze, a mixture of literary brilliance and the beginnings of a political ideology which, if not dead, has certainly fallen out of favor in the era of populist reactionaries and the retreat of democratic governance. in the whole world.


Hard times is a fictional account of Washington’s disastrous decision to view the labor and land reforms undertaken by Guatemala’s first democratically elected presidents as a looming communist threat. The story, in Vargas Llosa’s account, begins with the meeting between two historical figures: Sam Zemurray, a “crass self-taught impresario” who ran the infamous United Fruit Company (the predecessor of Chiquita Brands International), and Edward L Bernays , the man who made public relations “the central political, social and economic weapon of the twentieth century”.

Zemurray hires Bernays for two objectives: to clean up the image of United Fruit in the Anglo-American press and to put in place a means of rolling back the government of the newly elected Guatemalan president, Juan José Arévalo. Arévalo’s vocal support for unions and adherence to democratic principles for the poor and landless peasants of Guatemala was a problem for the company, whose dominance of the banana trade was so complete that it controlled the only line. railway, power grid and the only port in the Caribbean.

After a trip to Guatemala, Bernays delivers a nasty Bond-like speech to shareholders of United Fruit, claiming that while the “danger” of the Guatemalan government operating in tandem with the Soviets “is not real, it is convenient for us as people believe it exists, especially in the United States. In the audience of major shareholders are John Foster Dulles and Allan Dulles, respectively US Secretary of State and Director of Central Intelligence, under then US President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

With the geopolitical scene staged, Vargas Llosa turns to Guatemala. The narrative alternates between short discursive chapters which follow the main actors around the coup d’état supported by the United States against rbenz, the successor of Arévalo, who installed the military dictator Carlos Castillo Armas as president. In between are chapters that follow the two real characters who come closest to the page: Johnny Abbes García, a spy hired by the United States-backed Dominican dictator, Rafael Trujillo, and Marta Borrero Parra, a socialite. Guatemalan who becomes a cunning. political operator during the story.

The narrative of the novel moves in and out of each character’s consciousness, allowing Vargas Llosa to give the characters made of wood a certain depth in historical memory while moving swiftly through years of complex political intrigue.

Yet even in cases where the relative absence of the characters in the historical record gives Vargas Llosa more freedom, the overall lightness of the storytelling suggests more of a tinkering with the story than an intimate engagement with it. And while Vargas Llosa’s familiar Rabelaisian emphasis on grotesque physical features and outsized perversions certainly livens up the narrative, it just as often turns events into cartoonish melodrama.


In both historical and fictional stories, rbenz was overthrown after a lobbying campaign designed by the US State Department, funded by the CIA, backed by US-backed dictatorships across the region, and encouraged by the Anglo press -american.

The coup began on June 18, 1954, when Castillo Armas and his mercenaries crossed the border from Honduras near the town of Esquipulas while American pilots carried out bombing missions in San José, a port town on the the Pacific coast of Guatemala, and Guatemala City, the capital. (One of the best chapters in the book tells the story of Crispín Carrasquilla, a military cadet who leads an ill-fated attack on CIA-trained mercenaries after an American pilot bombs the military academy.)

Under pressure from US Ambassador John Emil Peurifoy – “forty-six years old, had the build of an orangutan” – Árbenz resigned on June 27 and in July Castillo Armas was installed. to the presidency. Seven decades of political chaos followed, culminating in a devastating civil war, the legacy of which is still felt in the current refugee crisis.

Historians more or less agree that Castillo Armas was killed by a member of his presidential guard, a leftist sympathizer named Romeo Vásquez Sánchez. Yet in the book’s most daring move in historical records, Vargas Llosa instead details a complex assassination plot involving Trujillo, Abbes García, Borrero Parra, and a bespectacled CIA agent operating under the pseudonym Mike Laporta. . (Although even this may turn out to be based on “reality”; Dominican writer and politician Tony Raful — to whom Hard times is dedicated — to argued that Trujillo organized the assassination with the help of Gloria Bolaños Pons, the Guatemalan-born American citizen on whom Borrero Parra appears to be based.)

Whether it’s true or not, Hard times Often has a similar effect to the best investigative journalism, where knowing what happened is always secondary to knowing how something happened. Even for those who are already disillusioned with the notion of the US government as a “good guy,” the sordid story illuminates how the McCarthy-era tendency to imagine a Soviet plot lurking in every shadow served as an effective mask. much coarser instincts.

Still, I can’t help but return to the novel’s final scene, where the narrator, in a self-fictional twist that many readers will find familiar, suddenly chat with a few friends over a good Italian meal in Washington. In the storyteller’s world, the characters in the story are either cynical or delusional. Believing that only he and his friends can tell the difference, the narrator succumbs to both positions at the same time.


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