A different viewpoint: Europe’s imported intellectuals

Article published on Sept. 8, 2003
community published
Article published on Sept. 8, 2003

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

Little would you realise, but Europe has been steadily accumulating intellectual capital in its ‘Offshore’ thinkers...

It could be the effect of globalisation, or indeed the Europeanisation achieved and longed for by so many thinkers and critics, but what is certain is that a large number of intellectuals born on the far side of the Atlantic Ocean have succeeded in becoming leading voices in debates on the old continent.

‘Localisms’ - like the embargo against Cuba or the Zapatista movement in Mexico led by Sub commander Marcos in Chiapas, or the extradition of Latin-American dictators and genocide - as well as matters of global significance like the war in Afghanistan or the Iraqi conflict, have invoked calls for many ‘foreign’ thinkers to voice their opinions in Europe’s major intellectual forums.

Mario Vargas Llosa (Peru), Carlos Fuentes (Mexico), Eduardo Galeano (Uruguay), Lula Da Silva (Brazil), Héctor Bianciotti (Argentina), Gabriel García Márquez (Colombia) or Rigoberta Menchú (Guatemala) are some of these South-American intellectuals who, when it’s time for debating worldwide issues, fill the opinion pages of Europe’s most prestigious newspapers, spokespeople on, and in many cases actual protagonists in, historical processes.

Utopias in disrepute

The long-standing embargo on Cuba and the subsequent execution of the three Cuban dissidents renewed the debate over the Caribbean island and the Castro revolution. Mario Benedetti (Uruguay), his compatriot Eduardo Galeano and Adolfo Pérez Esquivel (Argentina) were some of the protagonists in Europe’s open debate. They found themselves clashing with other intellectuals, also non-Europeans but with a more right-wing view of the ‘union’.

Without going so far as personal exchanges, the most infuriated of the intellectuals, namely Mario Vargas Llosa and the writer and poet Mario Benedetti, engaged in several scraps – in writing. Both have exchanged their homelands for Spain, as a result of exile and misfortune. While Vargas Llosa lives almost permanently in Madrid, Benedetti alternates between his native soil and the Spanish capital. The Peruvian was criticised by all sides for his eagerness to take a dim view of the Utopias. ‘Those who have tried to institutionalise them have failed miserably’. But for Benedetti, as for so many others, it’s better to be realistic and reach for the impossible. After all, the bringing of the Utopias into disrepute has always been the greatest weapon of an intelligent Right.

Into this debate enters Carlos Fuentes, a Mexican writer, who in various European newspapers maintains a critical standpoint on the political and imperial abuses of the United States against Cuba. It’s worth making the point, however, that almost all left-wing intellectuals have gone out of their way to assert that if they are opposed to the course the US is following, they disapprove too of the totalitarian and abusive policies of the Cuban government against its own people.

Perhaps less renowned, but no less deserving, is Héctor Bianciotti, who can also be found among the list of imported intellectuals. He was born in Argentina and exiled as a result of the political processes that prevented Peronism from presenting itself at the elections in the ‘50s. Also a writer, he was the first Latin-American to be accepted into the Académie Française last century, the institution founded by Cardinal Richelieu in the seventeenth century. After so many years of exile, Bianciotti writes like a Frenchman, with French syntax and even from a French standpoint. But even so, every one of his sentences still feels distinctly Argentinean.

What is paradoxical about this ‘exchange’ of intellectuals from one country to another and from one continent to another is that Europe too exports. The most notorious case as far as the mass media goes is that of Jesús Martín Barbero, a communications guru for all of Latin America who has always asserted that the mass media is guilty of the appropriation and transformation of popular culture, a ubiquitous theme in his writings. He has long been settled in Colombia and has been naturalised. One might imagine he was another ‘imported’ intellectual… but no: he’s Spanish. Having emigrated to Cali in the ‘70s as a philosophy teacher, he’s always said that, in those days, for anyone with a social or political conscience ‘Europe seemed pretty dull’.

Speaking for peace

The subjugation of many Latin-American peoples and the dictators who destroyed the rising political generations provided the breeding ground for new intellectuals. They were - and still are – the voices that denounce and condemn in Europe what’s happening in places remote from the Southern Cone. Rigoberta Menchú Tum, an indigenous descendent of the Maya culture, has succeeded from her position in UNESCO and the UN in publicising the miseries of the indigenous population of her country and throughout the continent. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992 and is now very frequently consulted in matters concerning indigenous conflicts.

Torture, humiliation and mistreatment made another Nobel Peace Prize winner, Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, one of the world’s most staunch defenders of human rights. His work in pacifist organisations in Latin America made him into a direct target for the military that governed Argentina in the ‘70s. Following 14 months in prison he continued his fight for human rights and exposed the atrocities suffered by the people of Argentina. The promotion of an international campaign calling all the world’s democracies to denounce these atrocities made him into another intellectual ‘for import’.

The intellectuals and Marcos

Along with so many other issues, the uprising of the Sub commander Marcos in Chiapas, Mexico is another point on which European progressivism has summoned offshore intellectuals to express their opinion. The possibility that this person could become a world leader against globalisation and neoliberalism aroused in the old continent the voices of Mexican intellectuals who support the liberation of the 57 ethnic groups Marcos talks of.

Roger Bartra, a left-wing essayist in Mexico, was angered by the ongoing perpetuation of false images of what was happening there, and he has even blamed certain people for creating a kind of ‘revolutionary tourism’. From European platforms he tried to clarify the motives of the Zapatista uprising and even gained the backing of Noam Chomsky, a left-wing intellectual par excellence, who didn’t rule out that Marcos, through links with various other social groups throughout the world, could alter the course of contemporary history.

Every one of these intellectuals, in a list that could be endless, contribute towards giving us a closer look at conflicts that threaten democracies and human rights around the world. Some of them live on the Continent, and this allows their criticism much wider scope. The fact that Europe ‘imports’ their opinions enriches any debate and brings us closer, albeit from the European perspective of many of them, to the local histories and processes enduring globalisation.