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Mario Vargas Llosa explores 1954 Guatemalan coup in new novel

Mario Vargas Llosa is seen during the inauguration of the XIV Atlantic Forum 'Ibero-America: democracy and freedom in hard times', on July 9, 2021, at Casa America, Madrid.
Eduardo Parra
Europa Press via Getty Images
Mario Vargas Llosa is seen during the inauguration of the XIV Atlantic Forum 'Ibero-America: democracy and freedom in hard times', on July 9, 2021, at Casa America, Madrid.

At 85-years-old, the Nobel-Prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa is one of Latin America's most significant writers.

The Peruvian, who rose to international prominence in the 1960s, has a new book out called Harsh Times. And, like most of his work, it examines the dangers of power and corruption in Latin America.

Harsh Times, historical fiction set in the 1950s, follows military officer and politician Jacobo Árbenz as he is elected president of Guatemala. Árbenz begins a land reform program to give peasants and farmworkers land owned, but not used, by the United Fruit Company of New Orleans.

"I remember very well," said Vargas Llosa, who joined Weekend Edition on Nov. 20. "I was in Peru, very far away from Guatemala. And we were following what was happening in Guatemala with great enthusiasm, a democratic regime who was respecting the law and changing the structures of the country, you know, creating a new land for the peasants."

In 1954, however, the CIA supported a general, Carlos Castillo Armas, who led a coup to overthrow Guatemala's democratically-elected government. The story goes that United Fruit's eminent New York public relations firm promoted a false story that President Árbenz was somehow a supporter of Soviet Communism.

"That was not exactly the real situation because Árbenz was a great admirer of United States," Vargas Llosa said. "And he had never thought to bring the Soviet Union in his country. On the contrary, he was much more in favor of United States. And so he was very confused when he discovered that the United States was supporting Castillo Armas in his coup against him."

Vargas Llosa believes U.S. support of that 1954 Guatemalan coup d'état set off a series of unintended consequences just as Fidel Castro was gaining popular support for the revolution he would lead in Cuba.

"And suddenly, the way in which America intervened was very disappoint[ing] for us," he said. "And I think that a new period started in America Latina, in which many, many young people who were very enthusiastic with Arbenz decided — because of the failure of Arbenz — to support, you know, the rebellion against democracy following the example of Cuba. In this sense, I think the tragedy of Guatemala was a tragedy for Latin America."

Harsh Times is a novel, of course, but Vargas Llosa creates characters so vivid and compelling that it makes you wonder sometimes. There's Martita, the mistress of powerful men, who mistakenly believes they can control her, and a mysterious American who shows up at opportune times.

Vargas Llosa actually ran for president of Peru in 1990 as the candidate of a center-right party.

"I was in my youth very leftist and then I discover the real thing, the way in which the leftists were supporting the Soviet Union and they supported that dictatorship," he said. "So I became very democratic and my candidacy in the year 1990 was a Democratic candidacy."

He lost the election to Alberto Fujimori, who is still a controversial figure in Pervivian politics today.

"I was very respectful of what was happening in Peru the two years in which Fujimori was a Democratic president," Vargas Llosa said. "But when he gave a coup, a military coup and suspended, you know, the Congress, I started to criticize him because I am against any coup d'etat in Latin America," Vargas Llosa said.

"I am against the government of Venezuela, the government of Cuba, the government of Nicaragua and I am against, you know, what has happened in my own country."

Vargas Llosa said he's already at work on his next book.

NPR's Isabella Gomez Sarmiento produced Scott Simon's interview with Mario Vargas Llosa for NPR's Weekend Edition. Kroc Fellow Mia Estrada adapted it for the web.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Isabella Gomez Sarmiento is a production assistant with Weekend Edition.
Mia Estrada
Mia Estrada is a 2021-2022 Kroc Fellow. She will spend the year rotating through different parts of NPR, including the Culture Desk, National Desk and Weekend Edition.