CARACAS, Venezuela – The Nobel Prize in literature brings a long-awaited accolade to Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa, and also a new platform for him to assail leftist leaders Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Fidel Castro of Cuba.
The 74-year-old writer has been a combative political activist in denouncing what he views as threats to democracy and freedoms in Latin America. As he basked in praise for winning the prize Thursday, he pointedly singled out Venezuela and Cuba during a news conference in New York, saying those two countries represent a step backward for a hemisphere emerging from an era of strongman leaders.
"That trend, which is an authoritarian, anti-democratic trend, is a trend that seems on its way out, for which there is less support all the time," Vargas Llosa told reporters.
"I'm going to keep defending the ideas I have, the defense of democracy, the defense of freedom ... criticisms of all forms of authoritarianism," he said.
Vargas Llosa has regularly directed barbs at Chavez, denouncing him as autocratic. When the novelist visited Venezuela last year to attend a pro-democracy forum, he was stopped by authorities at the airport for nearly two hours. He said he was questioned and told that as a foreigner he didn't "have the right to make political statements" in Venezuela.
Chavez disputed that account at the time, saying his critics were putting on a show to discredit his government. Chavez invited Vargas Llosa and other intellectuals to debate on live television, then backed away from a direct debate after critics suggested a one-on-one contest with Vargas Llosa — with equal time for each.
The author, who made an unsuccessful run for Peru's presidency in 1990, said Thursday that he has felt an obligation as a writer to participate in public debates.
"I think literature is an expression of life and you cannot eradicate politics from life," he said.
The usually loquacious Chavez did not have anything to say publicly about the Nobel announcement.
But an article in the Cuban Communist Party newspaper Granma criticized the choice, saying Nobel commitee members "should have chosen him for the Anti-Nobel" in ethics.
"No one doubts his innovative contributions to world literature," the article said. It quickly added, however: "What he has built with his writing he has destroyed with his moral bearing, his conservative tantrums, the denial of his roots and his obeisance to the dictates of the empire," a reference to the United States.
Chile's conservative president, Sebastian Pinera, praised the selection of his friend, who supported his political candidacy. Pinera saluted Vargas Llosa for his contribution to Latin American literature, "but also for his strong commitment to the values of freedom."
Vargas Llosa's pointed political commentary, which has also been aimed at authoritarian regimes on the right, has long been a part of his writing.
He burst onto the literary scene in the early 1960s with the novel "The Time of the Hero" (the Spanish title was "La Ciudad y los Perros") — a book that drew on his experiences at a Peruvian military academy and angered the country's military. One thousand copies of the novel were burned by military authorities, with some generals calling the book false and Vargas Llosa a communist.
Years later, he satirized the Peruvian armed forces in "Captain Pantoja and the Special Service" and deconstructed Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo in "Feast of the Goat."
He is the first South American winner of the $1.5 million Nobel Prize in literature since Colombia's Gabriel Garcia Marquez in 1982, and the first Spanish-language writer to win since Mexico's Octavio Paz in 1990.
Vargas Llosa's writing is celebrated throughout Latin America, but his gradual shift from the left toward an embrace of the free market has put him at odds with left-leaning Latin American intellectuals.
He was an early backer of the Cuban revolution led by Castro, but he later grew disillusioned and denounced Castro's Cuba. By 1980, he said he no longer believed in socialism as a solution for developing nations.
Vargas Llosa once irritated his centrist friend Paz by playfully describing Mexico's political system — which was dominated at the time by a single party — as "the perfect dictatorship."
In a famous 1976 incident in Mexico City, Vargas Llosa punched former friend Garcia Marquez in the face, and later ridiculed him as "Castro's courtesan." It was never clear whether the fight was over politics or a personal dispute.
Ricardo Gonzalez Vigil, a literature professor at the Catholic University of Peru, said Vargas Llosa "has never held back from giving his opinion about major problems."
He also has had his share of clashes in his native Peru, going back to the 1970s, when he was at loggerheads with those supporting the military government of Gen. Juan Velasco.
In 1990, Vargas Llosa ran for president but lost to Alberto Fujimori. Disheartened by the broad public approval for Fujimori's authoritarian rule, Vargas Llosa took Spanish citizenship, living in Madrid and London — a decision that led many Peruvians to view him, at least for a time, as embittered.
He maintained a penthouse apartment in the Peruvian capital of Lima overlooking the Pacific coast, but tended to keep a low profile during visits home long after Fujimori fled to Japan in 2000 to escape a corruption scandal.
Vargas Llosa remains active in Peruvian politics and helped win support for building a museum to the memory of the nearly 70,000 people killed in Peru's 1980-2000 conflict with Shining Path rebels.
He recently objected to a government legislative decree that would have put a statute of limitations on crimes against humanity. To protest it, he tendered his resignation as head of a committee picked to oversee the design and construction of the museum. The government later rescinded the decree.
While some controversies he once ignited have faded, Vargas Llosa's books haven't. They are even widely read now at the Leoncio Prado Military Academy where he once studied.
"The 800 students here read all of Vargas Llosa's books as part of the Peruvian literature class," said Carmela Fry, a teacher. "Many of them identify with the characters in 'La Ciudad y los Perros.' That book used to be prohibited here, but those times have passed."
Associated Press writers Carla Salazar and Franklin Briceno in Lima, Peru; Frank Bajak in Bogota, Colombia; Federico Quilodran in Santiago, Chile; Andrea Rodriguez in Havana; and Ana Elena Azpurua and Hillel Italie in New York contributed to this report.