Ten years ago, Colombian writer Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza, Cuban writer Carlos Alberto Montaner, and I wrote Guide to the Perfect Latin American Idiot, a book criticizing opinion and political leaders who clung to ill-conceived political myths despite evidence to the contrary. The "Idiot" species, we suggested, bore responsibility for Latin America's underdevelopment. Its beliefs -- revolution, economic nationalism, hatred of the United States, faith in the government as an agent of social justice, a passion for strongman rule over the rule of law -- derived, in our opinion, from an inferiority complex. In the late 1990s, it seemed as if the Idiot were finally retreating. But the retreat was short lived. Today, the species is back in force in the form of populist heads of state who are reenacting the failed policies of the past, opinion leaders from around the world who are lending new credence to them, and supporters who are giving new life to ideas that seemed extinct.
Because of the inexorable passing of time, today's young Latin American Idiots prefer Shakira's pop ballads to Pérez Prado's mambos and no longer sing leftist anthems like "The Internationale" or "Until Always Comandante." But they are still descendants of rural migrants, middle class, and deeply resentful of the frivolous lives of the wealthy displayed in the glossy magazines they discreetly leaf through on street corners. State-run universities provide them with a class-based view of society that argues that wealth is something that needs to be retaken from those who have stolen it. For these young Idiots, Latin America's condition is the result of Spanish and Portuguese colonialism, followed by U.S. imperialism. These basic beliefs provide a safety valve for their grievances against a society that offers scant opportunity for social mobility. Freud might say they have deficient egos that are unable to mediate between their instincts and their idea of morality. Instead, they suppress the notion that predation and vindictiveness are wrong and rationalize their aggressiveness with elementary notions of Marxism.
Latin American Idiots have traditionally identified themselves with caudillos, those larger-than-life authoritarian figures who have dominated the region's politics, ranting against foreign influence and republican institutions. Two leaders in particular inspire today's Idiot: President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela and President Evo Morales of Bolivia. Chávez is seen as the perfect successor to Cuba's Fidel Castro (whom the Idiot also admires): He came to power through the ballot box, which exonerates him from the need to justify armed struggle, and he has abundant oil, which means he can put his money where his mouth is when it comes to championing social causes. The Idiot also credits Chávez with the most progressive policy of all -- putting the military, that paradigm of oligarchic rule, to work on social programs.
For his part, Bolivia's Evo Morales has indigenista appeal. In the eyes of the Idiot, the former coca farmer is the reincarnation of Túpac Katari, an 18th-century Aymara rebel who, before his execution by Spanish colonial authorities, vowed, "I shall return and I shall be millions." They believe Morales when he professes to speak for the indigenous masses, from southern Mexico to the Andes, who seek redress of the exploitation inflicted on them by 300 years of colonial rule and 200 more of oligarchic republican rule.
The Idiot's worldview, in turn, finds an echo among distinguished intellectuals in Europe and the United States. These pontificators assuage their troubled consciences by espousing exotic causes in developing nations. Their opinions attract fans among First-World youngsters for whom globalization phobia provides the perfect opportunity to find spiritual satisfaction in the populist jeremiad of the Latin American Idiot against the wicked West.
There's nothing original about First-World intellectuals’ projecting their utopias onto Latin America. Christopher Columbus stumbled on the shores of the Americas at a time when Renaissance utopian ideas were in vogue; from the very beginning, conquistadors described the lands as nothing short of paradisiacal. The myth of the Good Savage -- the idea that the natives of the New World embodied a pristine goodness untarnished by the evils of civilization -- impregnated the European mind. The tendency to use the Americas as an escape valve for frustration with the insufferable comfort and cornucopia of Western civilization continued for centuries. By the 1960s and 70s, when Latin America was riddled with Marxist terrorist organizations, these violent groups enjoyed massive support in Europe and the United States among people who never would have accepted Castro-style totalitarian rule at home.
The current revival of the Latin American Idiot has precipitated the return of his counterparts: the patronizing American and European Idiots. Once again, important academics and writers are projecting their idealism, guilty consciences, or grievances against their own societies onto the Latin American scene, lending their names to nefarious populist causes. Nobel Prizewinners, including British playwright Harold Pinter, Portuguese novelist José Saramago, and American economist Joseph Stiglitz; American linguists such as Noam Chomsky and sociologists like James Petras; European journalists like Ignacio Ramonet and some foreign correspondents for outlets such as Le Nouvel Observateur in France, Die Zeit in Germany, and the Washington Post in the United States, are once again propagating absurdities that shape the opinions of millions of readers and sanctify the Latin American Idiot. This intellectual lapse would be quite innocuous if it didn't have consequences. But, to the extent that it legitimizes the type of government that is actually at the heart of Latin America's political and economic underdevelopment, it constitutes a form of intellectual treason.