The passing of Gabriel García Márquez last Thursday was a particularly painful moment for anyone in Latin America – or elsewhere – who ever indulged in the sublime pleasure of reading any of the literary master’s works. But for me, the pain of the event was not exclusively due to “Gabo” all of a sudden not being among us mortals anymore. There are aspects of people’s lives that suddenly seem more alive and grave precisely when they breathe their last. So today, my awe and admiration for García Márquez’s pen clashes within with my utmost disillusionment about his political folly.
The details of his friendship and work with Fidel Castro are legendary. In 1959 he joined the Prensa Latina press agency, founded by Che Guevara and Jorge Ricardo Masetti. Whenever he came to the island he stayed in one of the luxurious protocol villas that El Comandante reserved for his friends. There they shared their culinary passions. Gabo’s favorite dish was “Lobster à la Macondo,” Fidel’s “Turtle Consommé.” But above all, they shared their dreams of how the revolution would bring, some day, endless prosperity for the ordinary Cubans that queued for hours under the sun, ration books in hand, for a few pounds of rice and beans.
In 1988, living in Havana, García Márquez made progress on the General in his Labyrinth, a book about Simón Bolívar’s final years. Gerald Martin, author of García Márquez’s first full biography published in English, suggests his description of Bolívar was inspired by traits of Castro. In 1989 he dedicated the book to one of his great friends, Antonio “Tony” la Guardia, a Colonel in Cuba’s Ministry of Interior: “For Tony, may he sow good.”
That same year, de La Guardia was sentenced to death on charges of drug trafficking and treason. When De la Guardia’s daughter begged García Márquez to intercede on her father’s behalf, he told her that “Fidel would be crazy” if he allowed the execution, raising her hopes. But shortly afterwards, Tony was executed.
Apparently García Márquez became so devoted to Castro that he came to rationalize de la Guardia’s execution as just “a quarrel among officers,” as he told Francois Miterrand during the bicentennial celebration of the French Revolution. He also publicly claimed that the charges of treason were justified, and that given the situation, Castro had no alternative.
What’s most sad about García Márquez though, is that his attitude is the prototypical example of the Latin American “lefty” intellectual – always ready to idolize petty tyrants as soon as they throw out an anti-imperialist or social-justice slogan.
Upon reading “Operación Carlota: Cuba in Angola,” an acclaimed chronicle written under Castro’s supervision, fellow Literature Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa accused García Márquez of being Castro’s “lackey.” Once great friends, the writers grew distant due to ideological differences. And just as sadly, Vargas Llosa became his perfect nemesis, idolized by supposedly libertarian, right-wing intellectuals across Latin America.
Perhaps the most striking example of Vargas Llosa’s own tragic rationalization of evil authority involved many more deaths than the execution of a single man. In the run-up to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, Vargas Llosa had publicly and vehemently opposed it. But a few months later, after covering the invasion on the ground on assignment for El País newspaper, he proclaimed that despite the massive loss of life and treasure he witnessed, if he would have been in an Iraqi’s shoes, he “would have supported the intervention [sic], without hesitation.”
Sad as it is, the contrast of the ideological myopia and literary genius of each writer on his own can’t even compare with the profound suffering that the clash between the two worldviews they so typically represent has caused for Latin America. Too many of our cultural inferiority complexes boil down to our obsession with the superpower, either as the cause to every single one of our social problems, or as a divine source of peace, prosperity and justice. Inevitably, any rational thought on how to structure our relationship with it, or how to get our own political act together like grownups should, is lost in an endless, divisive blame game of epic proportions.
Each writer represents the archetype of Latin American rebellion towards one form of authority, and submission towards another. Maybe we are forever cursed by some sort of magic-realist spell that condemns us to forever live attached to one of the extremes of this false dichotomy. But I like to think that exposing ourselves to the internal contradiction brought about by reading every single word these two great and tragically amiss writers put on paper, will help us break it.