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What Latin American Literature Can Teach the Current Leaders of Latin America

Ariel Dorfman Has Some Recommendations for Culturally Illiterate Presidents and Autocrats

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Daniel Noboa, the president of Ecuador, might have saved himself a lot of trouble, if he had only read more Latin American literature. Perhaps he would not have ordered the police to storm the Mexican embassy to arrest former Vice President Jorge Glas, who had been granted asylum there. That unprecedented action—breaching long standing treaties that guarantee the inviolability of diplomatic premises—was met by enormous international repercussions: Mexico broke relations with Ecuador, a near unanimity of Latin American governments of all stripes added their condemnation and Noboa is being hauled in front of the World Court in The Hague.

All Noboa needed to do to avoid this turmoil was to have read El Derecho de Asilo (The Right to Asylum), a nouvelle by the great Cuban author, Alejo Carpentier. In that story, published originally in 1972, Carpentier narrates the adventures of a Secretary of Government of a Latin American country who seeks refuge in a friendly embassy when the president he served is overthrown. His life drags on in utter boredom until, little by little he begins to carry out all manner of labors in the embassy, bureaucratic but also erotic (he becomes the lover of the inept ambassador’s wife). Our anti-hero remains locked up in those confining premises for so many years that he ends up receiving the gift of citizenship from the host country and is subsequently appointed as ambassador to the government of what was once his native land.

Reading this playful nouvelle (which anticipates the satire of Carpentier’s virtuoso dictator novel, The Recourse to the Method, from 1974) would have offered Noboa the key to how to handle Jorge Glas when he fled Ecuador’s justice system: let him rot in the Mexican legation for decades. I can testify that being cramped and isolated in a monotonous enclosure, without being able (as Carpentier’s Asylum Seeker complains) “to make a leap, even to the cinema that is half a block away (there are already two guards stationed at the entrance of the Embassy),” is not a bed of roses.

It is, indeed, an ordeal that I endured when I sought refuge in the Argentine embassy in September 1973, after Pinochet’s coup d’état. As the claustrophobic months went by, and the dictatorship did not grant me the safe-conduct I required to leave Chile, I felt evermore trapped in a circular time that repeated itself like “a calendar of dead leaves” (Carpentier’s words), often wondering if it was not better to risk the dangers of the free streets of Santiago rather than continue cowering tediously behind four eternal walls, transformed into my own jailer.

How can I not indulge in imagining the revenge of literature against men of power?

It is to this misfortune that Noboa, if he had but known Latin American literature a little better, should have condemned his enemy.

To be fair, Noboa is not the only leader who would do well to delve a little deeper into the masterpieces of our continent. If that other Daniel (Ortega), who has persecuted and exiled his former comrades, were to read Adiós, Muchachos by Sergio Ramírez, the most impressive novelist Central America has produced, perhaps the current dictator of Nicaragua would be visited by a momentary epiphany, thrust face to face, if only for a moment, with the vileness of having betrayed the cause of the Sandinista revolution.

In truth, a reading list could be compiled for several of Noboa’s fellow heads of state. I recommend Facundo for Javier Milei. In that classic of 19th-century Argentina—one of the great texts of Latin American letters—Sarmiento shows the extremes to which a caudillo’s delirium can take his country, and warns future megalomaniacs what fate awaits those who would defy the laws of civilization.

As for Bukele, in El Salvador, he would benefit from plunging into the ardent poems of his distinguished fellow citizen, Roque Dalton, a reminder of what a tender, seductive land his country could be if it renounced authoritarianism and populist demagoguery. And as for the Peruvian President Dina Boluarte, if she were to delve into Vargas Llosa’s Conversation in the Cathedral, she would be reminded that corruption and duplicity at the top of a regime ends up perverting every corner of the country.

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And then there is Maduro, who would be forced to recognize that he is just another Venezuelan autocrat who leads his people to misery if he chanced to even glance at Uslar Pietri’s novel, Oficio de Difuntos, which masterfully skewers the long reign of the dictator Juan Vicente Gómez, who ruled Venezuela with an iron fist from 1908 to 1935.

None of these ignorant leaders, of course, will follow my advice. Not in a continent where literature seemingly has zero influence on politics.

Let me console myself, then, with the following visualization of a possible future. I conjecture a day when Daniel Noboa, laid low by his own mistakes, will himself need to seek refuge in an embassy. Would it not be ironic if his hosts had placed by the bed of their illustrious visitor a copy of Carpentier’s The Right to Asylum, as his only reading material?

I savor the scene. Noboa, bored to death and lonely, reads that novel and then reads it over and over again. Until, satiated, he sighs and says aloud (but no one hears him): “Oh, if only I had read it sooner.”

My fantasies, understandable in a writer who contemplates with despair the lack of culture of most of the rulers of the Latin America where I was born. But challenged by the constant frustration of our contemporary lands south of the border, how can I not indulge in imagining the revenge of literature against men of power who ignore and forget that literature and only read it when it is too late?

Ariel Dorfman was born in Argentina in 1942 and spent ten years as a child in New York, until his family was forced out of the United States by the anti-communist frenzy stirred by Joe McCarthy. The Dorfmans ended up in Chile, where Ariel spent his adolescence and youth, living through the Allende revolution and the subsequent resistance inside Chile and abroad after the dictatorship that overthrew Allende in 1973. Accompanied by his wife Angélica, Ariel wandered the globe as an exile, eventually settling down in the United States, where he holds the position of Walter Hines Emeritus Professor of Literature at Duke University. He is the internationally acclaimed author of many plays, novels, poetry, short stories, essays, and works of journalism and memoir, including the play and film “Death and the Maiden” (currently slated for a revival on Broadway), and the classic text about cultural imperialism, How to Read Donald Duck, recently reissued by OR Books. His books have been published in over fifty languages and his plays performed in more than a hundred countries. His most recent books are the novels Darwin's Ghosts, Cautivos, and The Compensation Bureau, as well as the children’s story, The Rabbits' Rebellion, and the poetry collection Voices From the Other Side of Death. He contributes regularly to major newspapers and magazines around the world and is active in the defense of human rights. His next novel, The Suicide Museum, was published by Other Press in September 2023.

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