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Vizcarra: the Peruvian Tantalus

The oral tradition of ancient Greece left humanity a legacy of myths and legends in the incessant search to explain, through those fantastic tales, the beauty and barbarity of human nature. In that universe, gods, demigods and mortals participated in an endless dance in which love and betrayal, brotherhood and vendetta, skirmish and peace converged. Such stories, often dramatic and tragic, should serve as a lesson, having witnessed the decadent circumstance in which our rulers, as protagonists of this infamous tragedy, pretended to play at being gods.

The myth of Tantalus and Vizcarra’s “vacunazo”

The tragedy of the “vacunazo” had Martin Vizcarra as a central character. The man from Moquegua, president of Peru until November 2020, conspired together with high-ranking officials of his government, diplomats and his own family, to surreptitiously vaccinate himself against SARS-CoV2 with a sample provided by the Chinese laboratory Sinopharm. In total, more than 700 people received the vaccine irregularly and without following the protocols established by Vizcarra’s own government or the former Minister of Health, Pilar Mazzetti, who was also a beneficiary of the infamous dose.

Between March and November, millions of Peruvians placed their trust in Vizcarra, in a context of national crisis. However, and as if from the pen of Homer, Vizcarra’s betrayal of the Peruvian people seems to have been the inspiring element for the myth of Tantalus.

The myth says that the mortal Tantalus, son of Zeus with a nymph, was invited to the table of the gods to participate in the Olympus and listen to the intimacies that were aired there. Such an invitation made Tantalus fall victim to pride, and he betrayed the trust of the gods by revealing the infidels heard sitting at the table of Zeus among mortals.

Not content with this, Tantalus devoted himself to stealing the ambrosia and nectar of the gods, sacred foods that conferred immortality. As if that were not enough, the ineffable guest began to distribute both among his friends: a crime he committed along with others that ended up frustrating the gods of Olympus.

As punishment, Zeus decided that, as a traitor and thief, Tantalus would suffer eternal torment in the underworld. There, as a condemnation for his indefatigable ambition, he would have to go thirsty and hungry, having next to him a pool of water and fruit trees. As he approached to eat and drink, the water of the pond and the fruit trees would move away incessantly, which would lead Tantalus to live in a permanent torture as a result of his greed and treachery.

The Israeli historian, Yuval Noah Harari, affirms in his famous book Sapiens that our capacities as a species have allowed us to extrapolate the limits of our imagination and have made possible what in the times of Ovid or Sophocles would have been seen as a work of sorcery, magic or mythological miracle. In this sense, creating vaccines that allow us to armor ourselves against the threat of a global pandemic is a product of that divine wonder that could well be the nectar and ambrosia enjoyed by the gods.

Democratic punishment for betrayal of trust

In a representative democracy, if there is room for gods, they are personified in the citizen. The citizen delegates and removes power as they see fit. The fatality is that it is the politicians who, abusing the trust of their citizen gods, pretend to usurp that place and achieve immortality, or in this context, immunity from vaccination. In the Peruvian case, Martin Vizcarra not only got vaccinated behind the population’s back, but also sought to benefit those close to him and then make up for the miserable reality with smoke and mirrors.

As in the case of Vizcarra, we have witnessed the ethically condemnable behavior–and that could result in a crime in some cases–of different authorities at the international level. From presidents to members of the Argentine bureaucracy or the Spanish royalty, there are already several cases that highlight this weakness for falling into the vices of Tantalus.

The citizenry lives subjected to a permanent perfidy and deception of those who sit at their table, dressed in false kindness and spirit of service. In Peru, Vizcarra and his cronies, like Tantalus, deceived the citizenry and indulged themselves with the nectar of immortality through disloyalty and malice. The fortune and wonderful opportunity for amendment, however, lies in the fact that we know how to recognize Tantalus and punish him accordingly: first with the withdrawal of trust and then with the justice of men.

Ancient Greece leaves us a lesson that, in the collective imagination of that civilization, dishonesty and betrayal were paid for dearly. It is appropriate, then, that Peruvian citizens, following that lesson, should reward the good servant and drastically punish the felon. If the Greeks understood this three thousand years ago, today, it is also possible to make the effort.

Translated by Marika Olijar


Economista. Profesor adjunto en el Instituto de Empresa de Madrid. Fue consultor en Práctica Global de Educación del Banco Mundial. Máster en Administración Pública por la Universidad de Princeton.


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