Vargas Llosa on the Death of Hugo Chávez

by Joseph Cherrez

“It is to the long and illustrious tradition of the Caudillos that Comandante Hugo Chávez Frías truly belongs.” So begins an important account of the legacy of the recently deceased Venezuelan leader.

In majestic prose appearing in the Spanish newspaper El País earlier this month, Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa attempts to explain the subconscious roots of Hugo Chávez’s enormous appeal. This requires a lyrical and artistic understanding. Echoing Karl Popper’s Open Society, Vargas Llosa continues:

“In all this we see the fear of freedom — the fear that comes to man as a legacy from his primitive past, from the world before democracy and before the individual, when man was a material and gave over his free will and his initiative to a demigod, who made all the important decisions about his life.”

He knows whereof he speaks. The author traced the same psychological threads in his book The Festival of the Goat, profiling Dominican strongman Rafael Trujillo. Just what might we expect from such a figure?

“At the crossroads between superman and buffoon, the Caudillo makes and unmakes at his discretion, inspired by God or by an ideology that almost always mixes both socialism and fascism — the two forms of collective super-statism.”

And how will we recognize the Caudillismo when we see it? One clue is its style.

“The Caudillo communicates directly with his people, through demagoguery, rhetoric, and vast spectacles and scenes of magical-religious importance.”

 Vargas Llosa’s remarkable article, still available only in Spanish, is a must-read for anyone seeking to understand both Hugo Chávez and the seismic changes wrought in Latin America by this historic figure. The author also has a message for the wider world: “Although more visible in Latin America, this line of the Caudillos continues to loom everywhere, in France and in the other mature democracies.”

It’s a timely observation. After attending Chávez’s funeral, France’s minister for overseas territories told a French radio station that the world needed “more dictators” like him. There have also been calls by left-wing French political parties to name a Parisian street after the late leader.

“Neither Chávez nor any other Caudillo can appear without a climate of prior skepticism and disgust such as existed in Venezuela in February 1992,” adds Vargas Llosa.

In these days of European strife, where clear-minded reform and leadership are urgently demanded, Vargas Llosa’s poetic insight has relevance and resonance reaching far beyond the confines of the Latin American situation he describes.