Orwell's nightmare emerges in Latin America: when political power corners literature

In an essay that George Orwell wrote in 1946 on intellectual freedom, the author of 1984 and Farm Rebellion He began by talking about two types of threats to the novelists of his time. They were obviously threatened by those who defended a totalitarian system – in the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany – and who demanded to copy the official discourse even in fictions. But in addition, says Orwell, the novelists faced other much more “practical” enemies: monopoly and bureaucracy. A writer who in a democracy depends on the will of an official or a small group of businessmen faces a danger very different from that of a poet censured by Stalin, but not for that reason an insignificant danger. “Everything in our time conspires to turn the writer, and also any other type of artist, into a minor civil servant who works on issues that are asked of him from above,” Orwell wrote.

More Half a century later, recent events in Latin America give clues that novelists continue to face new versions of the same two threats, both in democracies and in regimes such as Cuba or Venezuela. The most notorious case of the last month has occurred in Nicaragua, where the fight between the Daniel Ortega dictatorship against any freelance writer has returned to the headlines. More subtle are the recent ones and less dramatic are the confrontations of novelists against democratically elected governments in Peru, Colombia, or Mexico. A much more confusing battle, but not less.

From the Padilla case to the Ramírez case

In the dictatorship of Daniel Ortega there is no longer any attempt to disguise the antagonism against those who write critically. In addition to the serious allegations of torture against political opponents, the Government intervened a few weeks ago in the editorial staff of the newspaper La Prensa (the largest and longest-lived in the country), detained its general manager and froze the newspaper’s bank accounts. But what bothered him most recently was a fiction book, the novel titled Tongolele didn’t know how to dance, by the writer Sergio Ramírez. Before it could reach the readers, the copies were detained in the country’s customs and the Government accused the author of “laundering money, goods and assets; impairment of national integrity, and provocation, proposition and conspiracy. ”

Ramírez, Cervantes Prize of the 2017, is now in exile and says that the persecution against him is for his political novel. “It causes me to write a series of chronicles about the repression because, when someone reads in a report from a human rights commission that there is 427 dead, it’s a statistic, nobody reads a report, “Ramírez recently told EL PAÍS about his book, inspired by the protests of 2018 against Ortega.

A novel always has the potential to go beyond the figures and to look not only at the violent events, but also at the emotions that went through its protagonists. The “subjective feelings”, said Orwell, for the novelist also “are facts” to record, and facts that authoritarian governments seek to silence.

The case of Ramírez resonated with the famous Padilla case in Cuba at the beginning of the seventies, when the Government of Fidel Castro denounced the Cuban writer Heberto Padilla of subversion and he was imprisoned, later exiled. Padilla, like Ramírez, had initially been close to the revolution (the Nicaraguan was Ortega’s vice president in the eighties), but at the time the authors were critical of power (in the case of Padilla, for his poetry books Out of the game and Provocations ) had to leave the country.

The enormous difference between a case and another has to do with the reaction of the literary world. That of Padilla divided those who sharply and publicly denounced the arbitrariness of Fidel Castro since then (which we can call the Mario Vargas Llosa side) and those who remained close to the Government of Cuba for years, despite censorship (the Gabriel side García Márquez). In the case of Sergio Ramírez, on the other hand, not a single novelist in Latin America has exonerated Daniel Ortega’s arbitrariness. There is no revolution to defend there.

The silent threat of democratic bureaucracies

In a democracy, freedom of expression it must be guaranteed, or the right to disagree, but they can hide those enemies that Orwell called the “most practical.” The threat of a bureaucrat can occur in both left and right governments, but it is very rarely visible.

One of those rare occasions occurred last month when the Colombian ambassador in Spain he openly said that only “neutral” writers had been included in the official list of novelists who would represent their country at the Madrid Book Fair. Authors critical of the government – such as Fernando Vallejo, Piedad Bonnett or William Ospina – were not on the list. Very successful firms such as Pilar Quintana, winner of the Alfaguara award this year for Los Abismos , were not invited either. The diplomat said that he did not want “a literary fair to become a political fair,” but he did guarantee the presence of the country’s most important politician: President Iván Duque, who traveled to Spain to present his latest book. In protest of his statements, several invited novelists withdrew their participation in the official delegation. The ambassador retracted and the president never visited the Madrid Book Fair, but the damage was done.

“The ambassador’s statements are incomprehensible clumsiness, but they are also a very precise comment on the deep antipathy that this Administration feels towards criticism and dissent, ”novelist Juan Gabriel Vásquez told El PAÍS, who had declined the official invitation before hearing the statements. He rejected it, he says, “thinking that this Government was going to try to use a cultural meeting to wash its face after an atrocious year, and it did not want to be used for that.”

The demand The neutrality of the elected could refer, for example, to the fact that they did not speak in their works of the citizens killed by the police during the demonstrations in the middle of the year. “Requiring a writer, albeit veiled, not to get involved in politics is an act of censorship,” wrote then the journalist María Jimena Duzán.

The official lists, in any case, they are almost always decided by bureaucrats and almost never formed in an open process of debate. In a conversation with the director of FIL Guadalajara, Marisol Schulz, explains that they can informally suggest that one or another name that they would like to see of the invited country be included, but the definitive relationship is completely in the hands of the governments.

Then there is the silent power of the bureaucracy, that which is so opaque that it gave Kafka a migraine due to its nonsense. Two weeks after what happened in Colombia, the same controversy moved to Peru, when the team of the new president Pedro Castillo decided to exclude seven writers who had been selected by the previous government to represent Peru at the FIL in Guadalajara. And he did it without a clear criterion.

“An official of the Ministry of Culture wrote to me on WhatsApp to give me the bad news that some invitations had been rejected because they had to meet two criteria” , says Renato Cisneros, a Peruvian writer and one of the excluded. The two criteria were to remove some writers from the capital to include others from regions and, the second, that firms that had already gone to other fairs did not go to FIL. “But if you review the final list, that principle is not necessarily fulfilled,” says Cisneros. For example, Karina Pacheco and Cronwell Jara, two of those excluded, are from the municipalities of Cusco and Piura, and in the new selection there are names that have gone to other fairs.

“All list it always has something whimsical, and controversial ”, acknowledges Cisneros. “The ideal would be for an official delegation to combine established or internationally visible authors with young authors: that some are the anchor of the others, that they open the door so that more can happen. But here I think a rather capricious criterion has been used. ”

If there were a hidden criterion and the Government wanted, for example, to exclude feminist writers ―from those excluded, Katya Adaui, Karina Pacheco and Gabriela Wiener are recognized voices in that sense – perhaps I would not have left out the aforementioned authors. Or if he wanted to remove opponents of his government, he would not have excluded Wiener, who has publicly expressed his support. But neither criterion fits very well, neither the exclusion nor the inclusion criterion. One of the new ones included, for example, is not an author but a little-known politician named Rubén Darío Apaza, former candidate to the Andean Parliament for the Peru Libre party.

“I don’t think they know why what they put or take away, but rather they give the impression of doing something, without having the slightest idea of ​​what, and they use us as guinea pigs of their experiments without any respect for our work ”, says the author Santiago Roncagliolo, who resigned from the list with another ten writers in protest at the abrupt changes introduced by the new government. Roncagliolo, however, recognizes that these arbitrariness do not occur only in Peru. “I have seen countries many times bring delegations of people who are not published in the country where the fair is held, because it is not often about promoting national culture but rather about distributing a trip to friends, especially when there are favors. politicians involved ”, he says.

Santiago Roncagliolo, escritor y dramaturgo, en la Costa Brava (Girona) en 2020. Foto de Toni Ferragut.
Santiago Roncagliolo, writer and playwright, on the Costa Brava (Girona) in 2020. Photo by Toni Ferragut. Toni Ferragut

“Criticism has focused in the Minister of Culture, but I believe that it is a responsibility of the State: there is a narrative that the Government is trying to impose, which is that of Lima compared to the other regions, ”says Cisneros. Authors, regardless of their works, must curdle in an official speech.

Although different from a fair, something similar happened in Mexico when the writer Brenda Lozano was named cultural attaché in Spain, but whose appointment was criticized by the president when it was learned that she had written critical comments to his government on gender issues. Should a cultural representative be a militant of the Government of the day? “If you don’t agree with our project, how are you going to represent us?” Said President López Obrador, who later promised to put an indigenous poet in Lozano’s place. “The controversy that arose left me alone in the middle of a political war and power struggles that, deep down, have little to do with me,” Lozano responded in a column published in El PAÍS.

Novelists are not neutral: they take positions, they debate, they are politically located both in their fictions and outside of them. But in polarized democracies, or in the space of bureaucrats, as Orwell said, “everything in our time conspires to turn the writer, and also any other type of artist, into a lesser civil servant.” Many, however, are unwilling to accept the boring charge.

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