Internationally renowned Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa is no stranger to picking up honors. What caught him pleasantly off-guard Wednesday was being feted without having to apologize for his political beliefs.
The author of “Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter” and “The Way to Paradise” picked up the American Enterprise Institute’s Irving Kristol Award at the Washington Hilton, capping the honor with an impassioned speech outlining his “liberal” leanings. (The term, of course, doesn’t mean quite the same overseas as it does stateside.)
A conservative think tank and its 1,500-plus guests raising glasses to a literary giant may seem like science fiction, given the overwhelmingly leftward bent of most Latin American writers. However, Mr. Vargas Llosa, though not a dyed-in-the-wool conservative, supports free trade, the lure of democracy and other underpinnings of the AEI’s conservative mind-set.
His dinner speech, humorous in spurts but with deliciously sharp moments, left no question where the author stood regarding some of Latin America’s most notorious leaders.
Cuba’s Fidel Castro? “An authoritative fossil.” Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez? Merely “an adequate contender to become a lower-case Fidel Castro.”
Mr. Vargas Llosa said the threats free countries face aren’t necessarily different from ones they conquered in the past.
“Yesterday it was called Nazism and fascism. Today, it’s called nationalism and religious fanaticism,” said the man who once (in 1990) ran unsuccessfully for the Peruvian presidency.
The honoree doesn’t see eye to eye with everything America stands for — he cited its war on drugs and the death penalty as two key differences. However, he said he feels the United States has a greater ability for self-criticism than any other country on earth.
Former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, a longtime pal of the guest of honor’s, noted during his introductory remarks that one honor continues to elude his friend.
“The world of literature is not a very generous one. It’s an injustice that the Nobel Prize hasn’t been awarded to Mario,” said Mr. Aznar, who earned a standing ovation for his stalwart support of the U.S. war on terror before uttering his first syllable.
The pre-dinner reception found Mr. Vargas Llosa greeting a throng of well-wishers, including former Pentagon adviser Richard Perle, former U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, AEI President Christopher DeMuth, Judge Robert Bork, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and a gentleman normally found hunkered down in an “undisclosed location.”
Vice President Dick Cheney casually slipped into the VIP reception in the Hilton’s Cabinet Room along with his wife, Lynne, before mixing with guests just like a regular Joe.
“I know him as an advocate of freedom and free enterprise systems,” Mr. Cheney said of the evening’s honoree, not forgetting to affirm that “his history and background are in keeping with the principles of the AEI.”
— Christian Toto