Magic realism lives on in Latin American politics

Patricio Navia @patricionavia

Buenos Aires Herald, April 22, 2014


The death of Gabriel García Márquez (GGM) has brought renewed attention to magic realism, the genre that the Colombia Nobel laureate so greatly contributed to with his celebrated novels. Though magic realism continues to have a strong following in literature, film and the arts, nowhere has the genre been more influential than in the exercise of politics in Latin America. GGM has died, but One Hundred Years of Solitude remain alive in the ways and means of many Latin American political leaders.


Cuba is the Latin American capital of political magic realism. As a friend of the Cuban revolution, GGM often overlooked the ongoing human rights violations perpetrated by the 55-year old communist regime. Choosing to emphasize the progress made by the Castro regime in providing free universal health and education, GGM disregarded, for a long time, fact that Castro evolved into one of the stereotypical dictators that he so eloquently made fun of in his novels.  As social networks are permanently flooded with rumors about the passing away of Fidel Castro, who is rarely seen in public now, Big Mama’s Funeral might very well describe what will end up happening when the father of the Cuban revolution finally dies.


In GGM’s native Colombia, the bitter attacks that former president Álvaro Uribe publicly launches against his former ally and current president Juan Manuel Santos can be easily compared to the violent civil wars brilliantly narrated by GGM.  In his war against Santos, Uribe has chosen twitter to display the same discipline and stubbornness that GGM attributed to his most famous character, Colonel Aureliano Buendia.


In Bolivia, President Evo Morales, who made news around the world when he became the first indigenous Bolivian to reach the presidency, occasionally descends into magical realism mode to explain the world. A few years ago, Morales attributed the existence of homosexuality—and baldness—in Europe to the high consumption hormone-bred chicken. Granted, the Bolivian president did not receive formal education—he was the victim of a society that has historically discriminated against indigenous people—but Morales had no need to speculate on why he thought indigenous Bolivians were less likely to be bald (and homosexual).


In Venezuela, after the death of the charismatic, polemic and populist Hugo Chávez, his hand-picked successor, Nicolás Maduro, has transformed the image of Chávez into a founding father of a sort, comparable only to the beloved father of Independence, Simón Bolívar. In the middle of a profound economic, social and political crisis, Maduro has confided that he believes that Chávez visits him in the form of a little bird.  The opposition in Venezuela also seems to have taken a few things right out of a GGM novel. Some of the opposition leaders that denounce the government as dictatorial lack democratic credentials themselves, as they were directly involved in the 2002 military coup attempt. 


Both rightwing and leftwing presidents in Chile have consistently denied Bolivia an opportunity to regain access to the Pacific Ocean. Citing treaties signed after Chile defeated Bolivia and Peru in the 1879 War of the Pacific, the Chilean government staunchly opposes any mechanism that can grant Bolivia access to the ocean. The two bordering countries have limited diplomatic relations and there is little bilateral trade and integration. Replicating a GGM novel setup, Bolivia has brought a case against Chile to the international court in The Hague to do what neighbors should logically do, talk and negotiate to solve their problems.


In all over Latin America, the persistent presence of inequality stands out as one of the prominent characteristics of the region. Though Latin America is no longer rural as in GGM’s novels—and there are no Remedios the Beauty ascending into the sky—the differences between the haves and the have-nots continue to be as dramatic and noticeable as in GGM’s works. 


A few things have changed, whereas GGM underlines the influence of the United States as the main trade partner and the force behind the growth of the extractive sector in Latin America, China has emerged as a growing force in driving the export-led growth that Latin American countries have experienced in the past decade. 


Though Latin America—with the exception of Cuba—is no longer ruled by authoritarian leaders, institutions remain weak and presidents are permanently tempted to tinker with electoral rules to expand their permanence in power. Corruption remains widespread and government social programs continue to prove insufficient to provide a bridge into middle class status for the 25% that live in poverty and the 40% that live just above poverty.  For millions of Latin Americans who are living in poverty or are clinging on a vulnerable middle class status, magic realism is the way the struggle to make ends meet on a daily basis.


With the death of García Márquez, fans of magic realism can find solace in that the genre is still producing innumerable works in the field of Latin American politics. When it comes to governments, politicians and political events in Latin America, magic realism refuses to die.