Nobel Panel Gets One Right With Vargas Llosa

Just as my HUMAN EVENTS colleague Adam Tragone noted earlier this week that the Nobel Peace Prize frequently goes to some ignoble recipients, one could also say that the Nobel Prize for Literature goes more often to writers of the Left than the Right.

Novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez is inarguably a man of letters from the Left. In his statements on public issues, he has firmly identified himself with leftist causes and politicians.

More than a few conservatives suspect that the other well-known Latin American novelist of our time was overlooked for a Nobel Prize precisely because he was an unabashed conservative.

That’s why it was a most cheering surprise to learn that Mario Vargas Llosa of Peru was, at 74, finally awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Profiled on international television, his picture on the front pages of the Financial Times and the Washington Post, Vargas Llosa’s amazing life and works are now being told to the world—from his days as a crime reporter at 15 to his recent worldwide successes with 15 acclaimed works from The Time of the Hero (a withering 1963 account of life as a Peruvian military cadet, copies of which were burned by Peru’s military dictatorship at the time) to Feast of the Goat (a gripping account of the last days of the Dominican Republic’s strongman Trujillo).

Less known about Vargas Llosa is his background as a conservative political activist. Like Whittaker Chambers and Arthur Koestler, he belonged to a Communist cell as a young man who began as a fan of communism but grew disenchanted and moved to the right.

The young Vargas Llosa admired Castro, but reports of human rights abuses in Cuba led him to embrace the causes of liberty and the free market. In 1987, when then-President Alan Garcia announced plans to nationalize Peru’s banks, Vargas Llosa helped launch and become the public face of the grass-roots movement against nationalization—an “Expresso Party,” you might say, as it was a forerunner of today’s Tea Party movement in this country.

The fledgling political activist helped form a coalition with other conservatives known as the Frente Democratico. In 1990, Vargas Llosa became its presidential nominee and campaigned on a platform of austerity, privatizing state services, free trade, and a market economy.

Unlike austerity candidates of today such as New Jersey’s Gov. Chris Christie who avoid specifics of their agenda on the campaign trail, Vargas Llosa spelled out exactly what he planned to do in office. This undoubtedly alarmed lower-income voters and Peru’s political class, and led to his defeat in the run-off at the hands of an obscure college rector named Alberto Fujimori.

In 2003, my wife’s birthday present to me was a ticket to a stirring talk at Washington’s Folger Theatre by Vargas Llosa. Later, as the novelist signed Feast of the Goat for me, I asked about his presidential campaign.

“I tried,” he told me, “and you’re not going to believe this, but three weeks before the voting, I had no idea who Fujimori was.” (After a few years in office, Fujimori had adopted much of Vargas Llosa’s economic agenda. But when the President assumed dictatorial powers, Vargas Llosa—then living in Europe—denounced Fujimori, citing the conservative economist Hayek’s teaching that one could not have economic freedom without political freedom.)

Mario Vargas Llosa never made it as a man of politics but is today honored as a man of letters. To the Nobel committee, admirers of his say thank you and, knowing full well their political leanings and Vargas Llosa’s, they are tempted to add: “It’s about time.”