John — In Latin America, the Cult of Revolution Wanes

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From the NYTimes
May 18, 2003
BUENOS AIRES — More than 100 Latin American intellectuals published a vigorous protest last month after Cuba sentenced 75 dissidents to long prison terms and executed three men who had hijacked a ferry and tried to flee to the United States.
“We appeal to the conscience of the world to avoid a new trampling of the principles that guide” civilization, their manifesto read.
But the group, which included the writers Gabriel García Márquez, Ariel Dorfman, Eduardo Galeano and Luisa Valenzuela, was not objecting to Mr. Castro’s actions. Instead, citing “our moral authority,” it supported Mr. Castro’s argument that Cuba, like Iraq, “is the object of harassment that could be the pretext for an invasion” by the United States.
It was a time-honored reaction. Since Mr. Castro came to power in 1959, intellectuals in this part of the world have reflexively accorded him and other revolutionary, anti-American leaders — Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, Hugo Chávez in Venezuela — immunity to the moral standards applied to other leaders. But if the politics of the signatories was old, the response to them marked the changes that are undermining the old orthodoxies of Latin American politics and culture.
Another large, politically diverse group of intellectuals and artists — including the Spanish director Pedro Almódovar, the Spanish writer Fernando Savater, the Brazilian songwriter Caetano Veloso and the Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa — responded with a countermanifesto.
“Injustices and crimes against humanity must be denounced, no matter where they originate or who commits them,” reads one of their documents, published in Madrid late last month.
The dispute began about a month ago, when the American writer Susan Sontag, at a book fair in Bogotá, criticized Mr. García Márquez, a longtime friend of Mr. Castro’s, for his silence after the recent jailings and executions. Mr. García Márquez responded in El Tiempo, the main Bogotá newspaper, citing his opposition to the death penalty.
He also said, “I couldn’t calculate the number of prisoners, dissidents or conspirators that I have helped, in absolute silence, get out of jail or emigrate from Cuba in no less than 20 years.”
He did not, however, criticize Mr. Castro’s long, dictatorial rule, as his critics pointed out, and the affair has since become the focus of a public debate being aired from Mexico City to Buenos Aires, filling the airwaves and the pages of newspapers and magazines. It’s a debate that matters to people because of the central role that intellectuals still play in defining the political culture of Latin America.
“The prestige of the lettered over the unlettered is a tradition that can be traced back to the colonial period,” when illiteracy in Ibero-America was much higher than in British colonies in North America, said Jean Franco, author of “The Decline and Fall of the Lettered City: Latin America in the Cold War.”
Intellectuals, she said, offered “a voice based on something that was not force and violence, that appealed to legality and reason and gave people a sense of what might be, a society based on the rule of law.”
Initially, Latin American intellectuals were drawn to the Cuban revolution in part because Mr. Castro, unlike leaders of their own countries, was willing to stand up to the United States. He also promised an egalitarian society, in direct contrast to the seemingly ineradicable class divisions and social injustices that bedevil most Latin American societies.
That attitude was reinforced at prestigious university campuses, where largely middle- and upper-class students were exposed to a glamorous, seductive vision of the possibilities of revolution, in which the mystique of a Che Guevara merged admiration for past heroes like Simón Bolívar and Emiliano Zapata. To be of the left, and to see revolution as the hope for a better society became the default position of the bright, energetic and entitled youth of Latin America.
Of course, some intellectuals quickly came to see Mr. Castro as a dictator. As early as 1968, the Cuban poet Heberto Padilla was forced to make a degrading public self-criticism of his work, which led to his imprisonment three years later on charges that his poetry “supplied arguments to the enemies of the revolution.”
At that point, distinguished figures, including Mr. Vargas Llosa, the Mexican poet and future Nobel laureate Octavio Paz and the novelist Carlos Fuentes, defended Mr. Padilla’s right to self-expression and criticized Cuba’s repressive actions. But Mr. García Márquez, the Argentine novelist Julio Cortázar and many others remained loyal to Mr. Castro and his revolution.
In recent years, though, Mr. Castro, now 77, has seemed more and more of an anachronism — someone mocked by comedians and caricatured by editorial cartoonists. José Saramago, the winner of the 1999 Nobel Prize in Literature, recently admitted that Mr. Castro “has lost my confidence, destroyed my hopes and deceived my illusions.”
If the Latin American left has an icon today, it is Brazil’s new president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Mr. da Silva comes from a poor rural family and was a factory worker and labor leader. But he, together with the writers and professors from the salons of São Paulo who helped him found the Workers’ Party more than 20 years ago, claim to be searching for a “third way” between capitalism and Communism.
Mr. Castro himself seems to sense that the tide is finally shifting. “It really pains us that they have not been able to understand a single word of the realities that Cuba and the world are living through,” he said of his former allies and new critics in an interview published last week by Pagina/12, a leftist Argentine daily.
Still, the loyalty of many older intellectuals has not waned, even as evidence of the injustices and economic failure of the Castro regime has grown.
“Ultimately, you may have to resort to a psychological explanation,” suggests Paul Hollander, the author of “Political Pilgrims,” a book about the fascination of Western intellectuals with Communist regimes. “It becomes very difficult for people to let go of these beliefs and commitments, especially when they were made at a young age. Their sense of identity derives from the political stance they have taken.”