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Vargas Llosa: Technology Is Killing The Very Idea Of Culture

Just before last week's death of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, El Espectador spoke with arguably the only other Latin American author in his league, 2010 Nobel Laureate Mario Vargas Llosa.

Vargas Llosa in 2011
Vargas Llosa in 2011
Nelson Fredy Padilla Castro

LIMA —It is no small feat to manage to interview Mario Vargas Llosa. I was put on a waiting list in 2009 when I first contacted his assistant Fiorella Battistini, saying I wanted to discuss the importance of theater in his novels. He seemed to become even less accessible after 2010 when he won the Nobel Prize for literature. "I am asked for so many interviews I'd have to devote my entire life to them," he says.

But I'd finally scored the prized opportunity to speak with the 78-year-old, with the interview taking place on April 11 as Vargas Llosa was preparing to head the Peruvian delegation to the Bogotá Book Fair later this month.

(It would turn out to be just one week before the death of fellow South American literary legend Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The two used to be friends until a falling out in the 1970s that included a fist fight. Vargas Llosa brushed off a question during the interview about Garcia Marquez, but after the Colombian's death, he said: "a great writer has died.")

We spoke on the sixth floor of his residence in Lima, with views onto the grey expanse of the Pacific Ocean. He spends summers on this arid coastline, and the rest of the year in Madrid, London or New York. Politically, he hovers between center and right: he has backed the policies of Peru's centrist President Ollanta Humala and promoted the presidential aspirations of the First Lady Nadine Heredia as his fitting successor. He has spoken in favor of a proposed law to allow civil union between homosexuals and another to decriminalize abortion in Peru, and welcomed the legalization of marijuana in Uruguay.

When Vargas Llosa speaks, he is heard, both here and throughout Latin America. Colombia is of particular interest to him, as is Venezuela.

EL ESPECTADOR: What have all the many revolutions done for Latin America?
VARGAS LLOSA: The revolutions have left us with many dead, injured, a lot of poverty. They have quite notably delayed the modernization process, and unfortunately left us with a residue of grudges and buried violence. All this has delayed, but not impeded the democratic culture finally taking root. I think the process is today a reality in Latin America. It is defficient because we are still dragging with us reminiscences of the time when people thought you could bring social justice with bullets, guerrillas, bombs, terrorism and kidnapping. Today the problems are of another kind. In a country like Colombia I have the impression that the problem is much less political and more to do with artificial interests present there, which use the guerrilla and ideological vocabulary when all there is behind them are mafia groups, cartels and drug trafficking.

Don't you think there has been an evident increase in the gap between the rich and the poor? One only has to go the edges of cities like Lima or Bogotá.
No. I don't think that is true. Let's say there are great inequalities, but the central fact about Latin America is not that, but the growth of the middle classes. There may be inequalities but in a positive, not negative sense, because there is more wealth. In Peru's case, the popular classes may be proving themselves more dynamic in creating firms and jobs than the prosperous sector. That explains our countries' relative stability now compared to the past.

How do you see the peace process undertaken by the government of President Juan Manuel Santos with the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) in Cuba?
I see behind these talks the search for a more or less honorable solution, though personally I have quite a few doubts about their successful outcome. Now if it does arrive and means the guerrillas' surrender, it's welcome. Who believes in the Cuban model these days? Cuba itself is looking for more discreet ways of not being Cuba.

Your essay the Civilization of the Spectacle captures the cultural reality we live in now, but it leaves one the impression of your defending the status of an intellectual aristocracy against the mass culture that has become popular through the Internet say, or social networking websites. Why?
There are people who believe that the great audio-visual revolution of our time is for the first time creating a democratic culture. I do not think that is true; what has created this phenomenon is information reaching everyone for the first time, or reaching a formerly inconceivable number of people. I accept this and believe there are many positive elements, like the increasing difficulty of imposing censorship. Technology dynamites censorship systems, and that is very positive. But it is a mistake to confuse culture with information. Culture was always and will always be elitist.

Hierarchies and differentiation of specialized areas are disappearing and there is an idea today that everything is culture, or nothing is culture. This has created an enormous confusion that is depriving culture of its natural function, which was to create critical and dissatisfied citizens who would not let themselves be manipulated. There is a passivity and conformism now derived from this hugely idealized technology as a cultural pseudo-product. And I think that has serious consequences for society, liberty and democracy. If culture becomes entertainment and starts to compete with soap operas or the circus, I think that Orwell's nightmare may start to materialize, with a world filled with top specialists and highly informed but soulless individuals being manipulated by powers that control technology. A supposed scientific revolution that could take us toward dictatorship.

Gao Xingjian, China's first Nobel Prize winner, recently declared at the Bilbao Festival of Letters that our current crisis is not just economic and financial crisis but also social and intellectual, because we have become stuck in the ideologies of the 20th century. He said intellectuals from across the world should set in motion a new way of thinking, or new Renaissance. What should the premises of this 21st Renaissance be?
In this extraordinarily changed world, liberty is at the end an essential protagonist of peaceful coexistence. We do not have a clear idea of the effects of this technological revolution that comes with the collapse of all values and beliefs. We no longer know what is good and what is bad, what is beautiful or ugly. These categories are no longer accepted in the great cultural centers. Relativism is so generalized now that humanity's greatest conquest, liberty, could unexpectedly begin to disappear. We face the possibilty of a revival of the authoritarian and totalitarian tradition, but in its modern manifestation, the collapse of what culture has achieved throughout history.

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In Northern Kenya, Where Climate Change Is Measured In Starving Children

The worst drought in 40 years, which has deepened from the effects of climate change, is hitting the young the hardest around the Horn of Africa. A close-up look at the victims, and attempts to save lives and limit lasting effects on an already fragile region in Kenya.

Photo of five mothers holding their malnourished children

At feeding time, nurses and aides encourage mothers to socialize their children and stimulate them to eat.

Georgina Gustin

KAKUMA — The words "Stabilization Ward" are painted in uneven black letters above the entrance, but everyone in this massive refugee camp in Kakuma, Kenya, calls it ya maziwa: The place of milk.

Rescue workers and doctors, mothers and fathers, have carried hundreds of starving children through the doors of this one-room hospital wing, which is sometimes so crowded that babies and toddlers have to share beds. A pediatric unit is only a few steps away, but malnourished children don’t go there. They need special care, and even that doesn’t always save them.

In an office of the International Rescue Committee nearby, Vincent Opinya sits behind a desk with figures on dry-erase boards and a map of the camp on the walls around him. “We’ve lost 45 children this year due to malnutrition,” he says, juggling emergencies, phone calls, and texts. “We’re seeing a significant increase in malnutrition cases as a result of the drought — the worst we’ve faced in 40 years.”

From January to June, the ward experienced an 800 percent rise in admissions of children under 5 who needed treatment for malnourishment — a surge that aid groups blame mostly on a climate change-fueled drought that has turned the region into a parched barren.

Opinya, the nutrition manager for the IRC here, has had to rattle off these statistics many times, but the reality of the numbers is starting to crack his professional armor. “It’s a very sad situation,” he says, wearily. And he believes it will only get worse. A third year of drought is likely on the way.

More children may die. But millions will survive malnutrition and hunger only to live through a compromised future, researchers say. The longer-term health effects of this drought — weakened immune systems, developmental problems — will persist for a generation or more, with consequences that will cascade into communities and societies for decades.

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