Erasing Indigenous Peru

Mario Vargas Llosa is one of the most famous intellectuals in Latin America. His name ranks with those of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jorge Luis Borges, Isabel Allende, and Miguel Angel Asturias as one of the top writers of the legendary Latin American “boom” of the sixties and seventies. His novels are probing, philosophical, and often hilarious page-turners. In the first decade of his career, Vargas Llosa retooled the structure of the novel with the confidence and mastery of a seasoned expert, or, in his case, a genius. Many times he has left my jaw on the floor and my mind reeling.

Mario Vargas Llosa is also a Peruvian. He was born and raised in Peru, and his first novels took place in Peru and explored Peruvian history and life. His masterpiece, Conversation in the Cathedral, is widely considered to be The Great Peruvian Novel, and a contender for The Great Latin American Novel. I am a particular fan, having read the novel twice in the original Spanish. Even while I was punch drunk with the power of the story, however, I knew that something was terribly wrong.

There are no indigenous people in Conversation in the Cathedral. The novel, which mostly takes place in Lima, probes many class and race issues between European descendants, mestizos and African descendants. The millions of indigenous people living in the Andes, the Amazon basin, and cities throughout the country, however, are missing.

This largely explains why Vargas Llosa lost the presidential race against Alberto Fujimori in 1990. A commentator at the time noted that Vargas Llosa ran his campaign throughout the Peruvian countryside as if he were running for office in Switzerland. Fujimori, an unknown professor at a Lima-based agricultural university, slaughtered him. Fujimori then ripped off Vargas Llosa’s neoliberal economic program, became an iron-fisted dictator, and, eventually, a self-exiled criminal protected from extradition by the Japanese government. Vargas Llosa moved to Europe and returned to novels, most of which stepped out of Peruvian reality.

Now Vargas Llosa is back, kind of. In an article published in the national Mexican newspaper, La Reforma, on 12 March 2006, Vargas Llosa lamented the poll results showing that the retired army commander, Ollanta Humala, is number two in the race, with a third of the decided voters. Vargas Llosa’s attack against Humala and his defense of the Christian Democrat candidate, Lourdes Flores, are of little interest compared to his description of who Humala’s supporters are, and why they support him. This, in turn, puts forth Vargas Llosa’s views on who is poor and why in Peru. His answer is stunning and worth quoting in full:

“At least a third of the population lives trapped in conditions that shut them out of all the benefits derived from Peru’s good macroeconomic statistics.

“Rural peasants, marginalized urban sectors, migrants who cannot fit themselves into the cities, unemployed, and retired people who cannot plug the gap with their thin pensions, etcetera.”

Who is missing? One of the largest and most diverse indigenous populations on the planet. Unless they are supposed to be captured in Vargas Llosa’s “etcetera,” they simply do not exist for him. They are not there. The word “indigenous” does not appear anywhere in his article.  

Humala’s suppporters, Vargas Llosa continues, “due to ignorance, injustice, or desperation, believe that the democratic system and the economy are responsible for their dog luck [perra suerte].” Thus the political anaylsis of poverty and exclusion in Peru, by the country’s most famous intellectual, really only amounts to bad luck. And the political analysis of those who find themselves in conditions of extreme deprivation—keep in mind the image, perra suerte, like dogs in the street—really only amounts to their own ignorance, trauma, or desperation. There is no political explanation for their misery, it was just they way the cards fell.

Funny, Vargas Llosa does not mention the more than five hundred years of violence, economic exclusion, and institutional racism against the indigenous people of Peru.

How is this possible? Vargas Llosa is undoubtedly aware of his country’s history and contemporary political life. He is also, I still believe, a genius. He couldn’t have just missed this point, skipped over the word ‘indigenous’, or simply forgotten. He does not include the indigenous in his vision of the country—does not include them even amongst the dirt poor and the outcasts—because they do not fit into the cartel market ideology that he supports in Peru and abroad.

Rural peasants, unemployed, retired, and migrants can all be fit, with some airbrushing, into the logic of capitalism. Indigenous cultures cannot. They are a threat. They do not want to sell the land where they live and work, the rivers where they fish and drink, their knowledge of medicinal plants, their lives. They are not for sale. This is why the nation states that guard transnational capitalism try to eliminate them. This is why the intellectuals that strive to bestow legitimacy on transnational capitalism either push them into a ghetto of the past or simply leave them out of the discussion. Like the communist dictator in Milan Kundera’s novel, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, who erases people who no longer fit into the official ideology from photographs. Erases people from history. Erases people.  

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