The visit of a Nobel Prize winner in literature should not be taken as a subversive act in any country. But, it is clear that things are different in Venezuela with Mario Vargas Llosa. “I have not come to provoke anyone,” the writer declared on Thursday. He arrived in Caracas the night before and he will run through a tight schedule in two days. “I come to say the same thing I say in my own country and in Spain.”
Vargas Llosa, a fervent defender of liberalism and a champion of the written word, is not a newcomer to Venezuela. He received his first important literary laurel, the Rómulo Gallegos Prize, in this country in 1967 for his novel The Green House, earning him a prize of 100,000 dollars and the precocious distinction of being the symbol of the Latin American boom at 30 years old. Since then, he has been a faithful visitor. The last time he was in Caracas in May 2009 he accepted a challenge from Commander Hugo Chávez to a debate on the virtues and disadvantages of capitalism and socialism. Chávez then referred to him as “intellectualoide.” The duel was set, with date and time. But, Chávez decided against it the day before. “In order for Vargas to debate me,” said the ex-lieutenant colonel, “he would have to be president of Peru first.”
Five years after that cutting remark and with Chávez now dead, Vargas Llosa meets a country and a society in the midst of a transformation. Even though he comes with the excuse of attending the 30th anniversary celebration of the Cedice -a reputable center that promotes liberalism in Venezuela- the political opportunity has given the writer’s presence an unprecedented aura. Chávez’s successor, Nicolás Maduro, is stumbling in the face of a colossal economic crisis. He staggers to find his balance after more than two months of protests have forced him to sit down with representatives from the opposition group Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD) or Democratic Unity Roundtable. The opposition, including its most rebellious sectors, has received the Nobel as a moral weight who comes to bring new shine and visibility to the fight.
Few details of Vargas Llosa’s schedule in Caracas have been published, partly to open up rest time for a man who, though he has always been of an active and vigorous nature, is 78 years old. And, above all, to security considerations. A large group has been seen guarding the writer since his arrival.
His public presentations will take place in the Chacao Cultural Center, a project by the mayor’s office of opposition leader Ramón Muchacho. Plaza Altamira, the background for anti-government protests in February, falls under Muchacho’s jurisdiction. For eight years, Chacao was a bastion for former Mayor Leopoldo López, leader of the party Voluntad Popular or Popular Will. The Maduro administration holds López largely responsible for the riots. He has been in a military prison in a suburb of Caracas for 9 weeks.
Vargas Llosa has not stopped mentioning López or María Corina Machado in his remarks on this first day of events in Caracas. Machado, the ousted opposition leader and representative, now faces prison threats after losing her parliamentary immunity. “Maduro and Diosdado Cabello are not the voices of Venezuela in the world,” the writer said of the highest ranking members of the government. “The voices of Venezuela are López y Machado.” Vargas Llosa has, however, underscored his interest in the student movement leading the protests. This Thursday, while preparations for the third meeting between the government and opposition leaders were underway, and while in Mérida and Valencia security guards clashed with demonstrators, the author of Conversations in the Cathedral and The War of the End of the World, held two meetings with student leaders. Another meeting is scheduled for Friday, a source suggests. “Your dead, your tortured men and women and your battles are ours, too and we thank you,” Vargas Llosa said to the Venezuelan students at a press conference before the commemorative forum at Cedice, his official host to the country.
Being a figure known worldwide, the state media and private sector radio stations have had a hard time skipping over the visit of the Nobel Prize winner. Still, the main government television station, Venezolana de Televisión, figured out a way to not mention him. Aporrea.org, a news web site and opinion forum for non-official voices that tends to reflect positions from the left wing Chavista camp, called the writer “the biggest rabble-rouser.” The site published a statement signed by “revolutionary citizen journalists” denouncing the visit. Up until now, Vargas Llosa has only given interviews to Unión Radio and the independent 24-hour news channel, Globovisión.
In the past, the Chavista regime expelled speakers whom they considered impertinent without hesitation, no matter how high their profile was. The Peruvian Christian Democrat Lourdes Flores and José Miguel Vivanco, the director of Human Rights Watch are some of the visitors who, on other occasions, have issued statements the Venezuelan government found irritating enough to order their immediate removal from the country.
If there is any real threat, the writer’s radar has either not picked up on it or he is not letting it intimidate him. On the contrary, faithful to his promise to say “the same thing I always say” and in keeping with the militant support for freedoms in Venezuela he shows in his articles, now Vargas Llosa seems to want to take his statements further and test the limits. During his interference in these domestic affairs, he said he hoped the talks between the government and the opposition would lead to the liberation of political prisoners whose very existence the regime denies. He chastised the Venezuelan people for making a mistake in choosing Chávez and a project that “emulates Cuba and North Korea.” “Venezuela is going through a radical anachronistic crisis.” Such is the tenor of the remarks Vargas Llosa will keep making for the next few hours in Caracas, to the government’s unease.
Translation: Dyane Jean François