MEXICO CITY – The role of the politically committed intellectual has a long and ubiquitous history. The Spanish-French novelist and screenwriter Jorge Semprún, who died recently, was for many years a member of the Spanish Communist Party’s Central Committee, and subsequently served as Minister of Culture in Spain’s first post-Franco Socialist government. Dissidents like Václav Havel had a decisive impact in the downfall of Eastern Europe’s communist regimes.
And, as recently as a few months ago, a French intellectual’s activism was crucial to initiating the so-far unsuccessful attempt to bring down Libya’s Colonel Muammar Qaddafi. For it was Bernard-Henry Lévy who convinced French President Nicolas Sarkozy to meet with Libya’s rebel leaders, an encounter that led directly to France taking a leading role in persuading the United Nations Security Council and US President Barack Obama to back military intervention.
But perhaps no one exemplified the tradition of the intellectuel engagé better than Jean-Paul Sartre. His point of view was quite different from that of artists and thinkers in the liberal tradition, like Octavio Paz and Isaiah Berlin. For Sartre (and for many of his contemporaries), intellectuals must not only express political stances, but must also be actively engaged in politics, fighting for the right causes (whatever that meant).
This led some, like Sartre, to defend Stalin and the Gulag; others, like André Malraux, formed part of Charles de Gaulle’s government; and still others, somewhat later, became unconditional defenders of Israel and its policies.
In Latin America, the committed intellectual is alive and well. Some – including me, up to a point – might have thought that once democracy had taken hold in the region, the disproportionate political weight of painters, writers, poets, and musicians would begin to decline; they would no longer be the voice of the voiceless, because the voiceless now had a voice of their own.
But Octavio Paz and Pablo Neruda, Gabriel García Márquez and Carlos Fuentes, Diego Rivera and the Nueva Trova Cubana and their successors did not fade into the background as representative democracy emerged in Latin America. On the contrary, they have continued to retain a great deal of influence, not only for their readers, but also for the broader public.
This persistence is best reflected in the role that Nobel Prize-winning novelist Mario Vargas Llosa plays in his native Peru. He was, of course, always an engagé: in the early 1960’s, when he supported the Cuban Revolution; when he later became one of Fidel Castro’s most ferocious and effective critics; and when he ran for Peru’s presidency in 1989 (losing to Alberto Fujimori). And he was a committed partisan in Peru’s recent presidential election.
In a sense, Vargas Llosa is a contradictory committed figure: in the European meaning of the word, he is probably the most liberal of Latin America’s public intellectuals, but also the most vocal and daring. He put his money where his mouth was by running for Peru’s presidency, and he became a virtual king-maker by throwing his support to Ollanta Humala, who has apparently abandoned populism to embrace the tenets of the modern Latin American democratic left.
Humala drew more votes than all of his rivals in the first round of the presidential election, but had to face Fujimori’s daughter, Keiko, in a run-off. Vargas Llosa initially declared that the choice was between AIDS and cancer, but later secured commitments from Humala on economic policy, democratic rule, and a one-term administration. With those conditions met, the novelist endorsed the former military officer with a penchant for coups and quirky ideas.
Vargas Llosa argued – eloquently and elegantly – that he could not vote for the daughter of a corrupt and repressive former president currently serving a 25-year prison sentence for human rights violations. But nor could he abstain or call for others to do so, since this would not only favor Keiko, but would also be a de facto abdication of the intellectuel engagé’s responsibility.
Exit polls did not measure the “Vargas Llosa effect,” so it is difficult to say whether his backing was decisive in Humala’s victory (the margin was less than 2%). But most observers seem to believe that his support was crucial in bestowing a mantle of legitimacy and democratic disposition on Humala, who in 2007 ran on an unabashedly pro-Hugo Chávez platform. And Alvaro Vargas Llosa, Mario’s son, has been helping Humala convince financial markets and the international community that he is now a true believer in capitalism.
The problem with all of this lies in the risk that Vargas Llosa and so many other Latin American public intellectuals run whenever they throw their considerable reputations and talents into the political arena. Whether they actually make a difference or are mistakenly perceived to have made even a minor contribution to a given cause (my own case with Vicente Fox’s election as Mexico’s president in 2000), they are held responsible for the results, for better or for worse.
If matters turn out well, they look like statesmen and visionaries; if things go sour, it was their fault for not foreseeing the obvious and inevitable. Ollanta Humala might keep his promises and complement Peru’s spectacular economic growth over the past decade with sensible social policies. Or he might not. One can admire Vargas Llosa for his courage in taking the plunge, without being entirely convinced that it was the right plunge to take.