Ten years ago, Colombian writer Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza, Cuban writer Carlos Alberto Montaner, and I wrote Guide to the Perfect Latin American Idiot, a book criticizing opinion and political leaders who clung to ill-conceived political myths despite evidence to the contrary. The “Idiot” species, we suggested, bore responsibility for Latin America’s underdevelopment. Its beliefs—revolution, economic nationalism, hatred of the United States, faith in the government as an agent of social justice, a passion for strongman rule over the rule of law—derived, in our opinion, from an inferiority complex. In the late 1990s, it seemed as if the Idiot were finally retreating. But the retreat was short lived. Today, the species is back in force in the form of populist heads of state who are reenacting the failed policies of the past, opinion leaders from around the world who are lending new credence to them, and supporters who are giving new life to ideas that seemed extinct.
Alvaro knows the landscape like the palm of his hand:
…todays’ young Latin American Idiots prefer Shakira’s pop ballads to Pérez Prado’s mambos and no longer sing leftist anthems like “The Internationale” or “Until Always Comandante.” But they are still descendants of rural migrants, middle class, and deeply resentful of the frivolous lives of the wealthy displayed in the glossy magazines they discreetly leaf through on street corners. State-run universities provide them with a class-based view of society that argues that wealth is something that needs to be retaken from those who have stolen it. For these young Idiots, Latin America’s condition is the result of Spanish and Portuguese colonialism, followed by U.S. imperialism. These basic beliefs provide a safety valve for their grievances against a society that offers scant opportunity for social mobility.
The Idiot’s worldview, in turn, finds an echo among distinguished intellectuals in Europe and the United States. These pontificators assuage their troubled consciences by espousing exotic causes in developing nations. Their opinions attract fans among First-World youngsters for whom globalization phobia provides the perfect opportunity to find spiritual satisfaction in the populist jeremiad of the Latin American Idiot against the wicked West.
Vargas Llosa coins a great term: the vegetarian left
Even in Latin America, part of the left is making its transition away from Idiocy—similar to the kind of mental transition that the European left, from Spain to Scandinavia, went through a few decades ago when it grudgingly embraced liberal democracy and a market economy. In Latin America, one can speak of a “vegetarian left” and a “carnivorous left.” The vegetarian left is represented by leaders such as Brazilian President Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva, Uruguayan President Tabare Vázquez, and Costa Rican President Oscar Arias. Despite the occasional meaty rhetoric, these leaders have avoided the mistakes of the old left, such as raucous confrontations with the developed world and monetary and fiscal profligacy. They have settled into social-democratic conformity and are proving unwilling to engage in major reform—which is why Brazil’s gross domestic product (GDP) growth is not expected to top 3.6 percent this year—but they signify a positive development in the struggle for modernizing the left.
By contrast, the “carnivorous” left is represented by Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez, Evo Morales, and Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa. They cling to a Marxist view of society and a Cold War mentality that separates North from South, and they seek to exploit ethnic tensions, particularly in the Andean region. The oil windfall obtained by Hugo Chávez is funding a great deal of this effort.
And don’t miss the list of Nobel Prize winning idiots.