His political identity as a right-wing maverick began in the late 1980s when he led a mass movement against a decision by President Alan García, then in his first term (1985-1990), to nationalize the country’s banks.
That movement morphed into a political party, Fredemo, with Mr. Vargas Llosa at the helm. Many of Peru’s current political elite got their start with the movement and Vargas Llosa was easily expected to capture that country’s presidency in 1990. The novelist-turned-politician, however, did not count on the emergence of an unknown math teacher, Alberto Fujimori.
Mr. Fujimori came from nowhere to easily beat Vargas Llosa. Fujimori co-opted the economic and political recipes that Vargas Llosa espoused on the campaign trail.
Vargas Llosa became a leading international voice against Fujimori after the 1992 decision to close Congress and the judiciary and rule by decree. He was one of the few people denouncing Fujimori, who was president from 1990 to 2000 and is now serving a 25-year prison sentence on human rights abuse charges.
Politics and the prize
Antonio Cisneros, a Peruvian poet who recently won one of Latin America’s top literature prizes, says Vargas Llosa’s politics is likely why it took the Nobel committee so many years before recognizing his achievements.
“Mario has deserved this prize for many years," says Mr. Cisneros, who recently won the Pablo Neruda Iberian-American poetry prize in Chile. "The only thing that kept him on the short list and not among the winners probably had to do with his politics. He has never kept his opinions quiet,”
Alejandro Guerrero, dean of the journalism school at the Technological University of Peru, says Vargas Llosa would have captured the world’s top literature prize years ago if he had not been an outspoken defender of economic liberalism.
“Vargas Llosa should have been awarded the Nobel Prize much earlier if he had kept the left-wing tradition of other Latin American writers,” such as Colombia’s Gabriel Garcia Marquez, says Mr. Guerrero.
While living and working outside of Peru for years, Vargas Llosa has maintained close ties with his home country, most recently agreeing to head a committee to build a Memory Museum that would explore the years of political violence in the country unleashed by two communist insurgencies: the Shining Path and Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA).
Vargas Llosa's political clout
The museum has been a sore spot for a large swath of Peru’s right wing, which identifies with Vargas Llosa economically but not politically since the Fujimori years. Fujimori’s political allies, including his daughter, Keiko Fujimori, who is running for president, oppose the museum.
Vargas Llosa is still a strong supporter of the museum, but in September he abruptly quit as head of the organizing committee when the government – again run by a newly reelected Mr. Garcia (2006-present) – passed legislation redefining how crimes against humanity would be tried.
In a letter to Garcia, Vargas Llosa said the legislation was a thinly veiled effort to provide amnesty for human rights violators.
Vargas Llosa's resignation is widely credited with ouster of the defense minister who wrote the questionable law and the government’s decision to ask Congress to repeal it within two weeks of its passage.
Garcia said there was no bad blood between him and Vargas Llosa, announcing earlier this week that another well-known local icon, painter Fernando de Syzlo, would head the committee. Mr. de Syzlo and Vargas Llosa are contemporaries and friends. His selection was interpreted as a nod to Vargas Llosa.
Garcia said today, in a public statement recognizing Vargas Llosa’s win, that he chose him for the museum committee for his “universal objectivity.”