I am especially grateful to those who have awarded me this prize because, according to the introduction, they are honoring me not only for my literary work but also for my ideas and political views. Believe me when I tell you that this is something new. In the world in which I move most frequently, Latin America and
But I feel I should explain my political position in some detail. It is not enough to claim that I am a liberal. The term itself raises the first complication. As you well know, "liberal" has different and frequently antagonistic meanings, depending on who says it and where. My late beloved grandmother Carmen used to call a man liberal when referring to a gentleman of dissolute habits, someone who not only did not go to Mass, but also spoke ill of the priests.
Here in the United States, and in the Anglo-Saxon world in general, the term "liberal" has leftist connotations and is sometimes associated with being a socialist and a radical. In Latin America and Spain, where the word was coined in the nineteenth century to describe the rebels who fought the Napoleonic occupation, they call me a liberal--or, worse yet, a neo-liberal--to exorcize or discredit me, because the political perversion of our semantics has transformed the original meaning of the term--a lover of liberty, a person who rises up against oppression--to signify conservative or reactionary, that is, something which, when it comes from the mouth of a progressive, means to be an accomplice to all the exploitation and injustices befalling the world's poor.
To complicate matters further, liberals themselves cannot seem to fully agree on what it means to be a liberal. Because liberalism is not an ideology, a dogmatic lay religion, but an open, evolving doctrine that yields to reality instead of trying to force reality to do the yielding, there are diverse tendencies and profound discrepancies. Liberals like me, agnostics and supporters of separation between church and state and defenders of the decriminalization of abortion and gay marriage, are sometimes harshly criticized by liberals who have opposite views. These discrepancies are healthy and useful because they do not violate the basic precepts of liberalism--political democracy, the market economy, and the defense of individual interests over those of the state.
There are liberals who believe that economics is the field through which all problems are resolved and that the free market is the panacea for everything from poverty to unemployment to social exclusion. These liberals, true living algorithms, have at times generated more damage to the cause of freedom than did the Marxists, the first champions of the absurd thesis that the economy is the driving force of the history of nations and the basis of civilization. It simply is not true. Ideas and culture are what differentiate civilization from barbarism, not the economy. The economy by itself, without the support of ideas and culture, may produce optimal results on paper, but it does not give purpose to the lives of people; it does not offer them reasons to resist adversity. It is culture, a body of shared ideas, beliefs and customs--among which religion may be included--that gives warmth and life to democracy and permits the market economy, with its competitive, cold mathematics of awarding success and punishing failure, to avoid degenerating into a Darwinian battle in which, as Isaiah Berlin put it, "liberty for wolves is death to the lambs." The free market is the best mechanism in existence for producing riches and, if well complemented with other institutions of democratic culture, launches the material progress of a nation to the spectacular heights with which we are familiar. But it is also a relentless instrument, which, without the spiritual and intellectual component that culture represents, can reduce life to a ferocious, selfish struggle in which only the fittest survive.
Foundations of Liberty
Thus, the liberal I aspire to be considers freedom a core value. Thanks to this freedom, humanity has been able to journey from the primitive cave to the stars and the information revolution, to progress from forms of collectivist and despotic association to representative democracy. The foundations of liberty are private property and the rule of law; this system guarantees the fewest possible forms of injustice, produces the greatest material and cultural progress, most effectively stems violence and provides the greatest respect for human rights. According to this concept of liberalism, freedom is a single, unified concept. Political and economic liberties are as inseparable as the two sides of a medal.
Because freedom has not been understood as such in Latin America, the region has had many failed attempts at democratic rule. Either because the emerging democracies respected political freedom but rejected economic liberty, which inevitably produced more poverty, inefficiency and corruption, or because they installed authoritarian governments convinced that only a repressive regime could guarantee the functioning of the free market. This is a dangerous fallacy, and explains why all the Latin American "free market" dictatorships have failed. No free economy functions without an independent justice system, and no reforms are successful without control and the criticism that only democracy permits. Those who believed General Pinochet to be an exception because his regime enjoyed economic success have discovered, with the revelations of murder and torture, secret accounts and millions of dollars abroad, that the Chilean dictator, like all of his Latin American counterparts, was a murderer and a thief.
Political democracy and the free market are foundations of a liberal position. But these two expressions have an abstract quality that dehumanizes and removes them from the experience of the common people. Liberalism is much, much more. It is tolerance and respect for others, especially for those who think differently from ourselves, who practice other customs and worship another god or who are non-believers. By agreeing to live with those who are different, humans took the most extraordinary step on the road to civilization. This attitude preceded democracy and made it possible, contributing more than any scientific discovery or philosophy to counter violence and calm the instinct to control and kill. It is also what awakened that natural distrust of power, of all powers, which is something of a second nature to us liberals.
We cannot do without power, of course, except in the utopias of the anarchists. But it can be held in check and counterbalanced so that it does not become excessive. It is possible to take away its unauthorized functions that quell the individual, that being who we liberals believe is the touchstone of society and whose rights we must respect and guarantee. Violating these rights inevitably unleashes a series of escalating abuses, which, like concentric waves, sweep away the very idea of social justice.
Defending the individual is the natural consequence of believing in freedom, because within a society, freedom is measured by the level of autonomy citizens enjoy to organize their lives without unjust interference--to strive for "negative freedom," as
Isaiah Berlin called it. Collectivism was inevitable during the dawn of history, when the individual was simply part of the tribe and depended on the entire society for survival, but began to decline as material and intellectual progress enabled man to dominate nature, overcome the fear of thunder, the beast, the unknown and the other--he who had a different color skin, another language, and other customs. But collectivism has survived throughout history in those doctrines and ideologies that place the supreme value of an individual on his belonging to a specific group--a race, social class, religion, or nation. All of these collectivist doctrines--Nazism, fascism, religious fanaticism, and communism--are natural enemies of freedom and bitter adversaries of liberals. In every age, that atavistic defect, collectivism, has reared its ugly head to threaten civilization and throw us back to the age of barbarism. Yesterday it was fascism and communism; today it is known as nationalism and religious fundamentalism.
Although the term "liberal" continues to be a dirty word in Latin America, liberal ideas and attitudes have begun to infect both the Right and the Left on the continent of lost illusions for some time now. This explains why, in recent years, Latin American democracies have not collapsed or been replaced by military dictatorships, despite the economic crises, corruption, and failure of so many governments to realize their potential. Of course, Cuba has Fidel Castro, who with 46 years of enslaving his country, is the longest-living dictator in Latin American history. The ill-fated Venezuela now suffers at the hand of Hugo Chavez. But they are two exceptions on a continent that has never had so many civil governments engendered from relatively free elections. And there are encouraging cases such as that of former populist Lula in Brazil who once espoused economic nationalism and the traditional hostility of the Left toward the market, who now embraces fiscal discipline and promotes foreign investment, private business, and globalization. Argentine President Kirchner is following his example, if unwillingly. There are indications that the recently inaugurated government in Uruguay, led by TabarŽ Vazquez, is willing to follow Lula's economic policy example rather than repeat the state-controlled, centralist recipe that has caused so much devastation on our continent. The privatization of pensions has occurred in 11 Latin American countries, whereas the more backward Left in the United States opposes the privatization of Social Security.
If the Latin American Left has accepted liberal politics, albeit cloaked in a rhetoric that denies it, it is a step forward suggesting that Latin America may finally shed the ballast of underdevelopment and dictatorships. It is an advance, as is the emergence of a civilized Right that no longer believes the solution to problems is to knock on the door of the military headquarters but rather to accept the vote and democratic institutions and make them work.
Another positive sign in Latin America is that the old anti-American sentiment pervading the continent has diminished notably. Today, anti-Americanism is stronger in Spain and France than in Mexico or Peru. The war in Iraq has mobilized vast sectors across the European political spectrum, whose only common denominator seems to be not a love for peace but hatred of the United States. In Latin America, this mobilization has been marginal and mostly confined to the hard-line sectors of the far Left.
There are two reasons for the change in attitude toward the United States, one pragmatic and the other one of principle. Latin Americans who have retained their common sense understand that for geographic, economic, and political reasons, fluid, robust trade relations with the United States are indispensable for our development. In addition, U.S. foreign policy, rather than back dictatorships as it did in the past, now consistently supports democracies and rejects authoritarian tendencies. This rapprochement and collaboration are crucial for Latin America to quickly advance in its fight to eliminate poverty and underdevelopment.
The Dream of Freedom
This liberal who speaks before you today has frequently been entangled in controversy because he defended a real image of the United States--which passions and political prejudice have occasionally deformed to the point of caricature. The problem for those of us who try to combat these stereotypes is that no country produces as much anti-U.S. artistic and intellectual material as the United States itself--the native country, let us not forget, of Michael Moore, Oliver Stone, and Noam Chomsky.
I do not like everything in America. I lament the fact that many states still apply the aberration that is the death penalty, and that repression takes priority over persuasion in the war on drugs despite the lessons of Prohibition. But after completing these additions and subtractions, I believe that the United States has the most open, functional democracy in the world, and the one with the greatest capacity for self-criticism, which enables it to renew and update itself more quickly in response to the challenges of changing historical circumstances. It is a democracy that I admire for that formidable mixture of races, cultures, traditions, and customs, which have succeeded in co-existing without killing each other, thanks to that equality before the law and the flexibility of the system that makes room for diversity within the common denominator of respect for the law and for others.
The presence in the United States of almost 40 million people of Latin American heritage does not threaten the social cohesion of the country. To the contrary, it bolsters the nation by contributing a cultural and vital current of energy in which the family is sacred. With its desire for progress, capacity for work, and aspirations for success, this Latin American influence will greatly benefit the open society. Without denouncing its origins, this community is integrating with loyalty and affection into its new country and forging strong ties between the two Americas.
When my parents were no longer young, they became two of those millions of Latin Americans who immigrated to the United States in search of opportunities their countries did not offer. They lived in Los Angeles for almost 25 years, earning a living with their hands, something they never had to do in Peru. When my father died, my mother stayed here, lived alone, and obtained U.S. citizenship, with pride and gratitude. For her there was never anything incompatible about considering herself both Peruvian and American; there was no hint of conflicting loyalties.
Perhaps we can see a glimpse of the future in this example--a world stripped of fanatics, terrorists, and dictators, a world of different cultures, races, creeds and traditions, co-existing in peace thanks to the culture of freedom, in which borders have become bridges that men and women cross in pursuit of their goals.
Then it will not be necessary to talk about freedom, because it will be the air that we breathe.
~~Mario Vargas Llosa