The history of Nobel Prize winners across Latin America

. Oct 13, 2020
nobel prize laureates latin america Photo: Trabantos/Shutterstock

The 2020 Nobel Prize season came to a close on Monday, as the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced American economists Paul Milgrom and Robert Wilson as the laureats for Economic Science.

No Latin Americans made the cut this year — though only two had outside chances: Mexican poet Homero Aridjis (33-1 odds), for the Literature Prize, and indigenous leader Raoni, for the Peace Prize. They were pipped by American poet Louise Glück and the United Nations World Food Program, respectively.

To date, just 17 Latin Americans have won a Nobel Prize. Today, we look back on their achievements:

</p> <h2>Peace</h2> <ul><li><strong>Carlos Saavedra Lamas (Argentina, 1936).</strong> The former Foreign Minister was Latin America’s first laureate, being recognized for his work mediating peace negotiations between Paraguay and Bolivia after the so-called “<a href="">Chaco War</a>,” which killed at least 90,000 people between 1932 and 1935. Mr. Saavedra Lamas was also pivotal in Argentina’s admission to the League of Nations in 1932, the first worldwide intergovernmental body whose principal mission was to maintain world peace.</li><li><strong>Adolfo Pérez Esquivel (Argentina, 1980).</strong> Born in Buenos Aires in 1931, Mr. Esquivel was one of the leading human rights defenders in Latin America during the 1970s —&nbsp;a time in which nearly all of the region&#8217;s countries succumbed to far-right military dictatorships. He headed human rights organization SERPAJ and built pro-democracy networks across the region. In 1977, Mr. Esquivel was arrested and tortured by the Argentinian military regime — only to be released 14 months later.</li><li><strong>Alfonso García Robles (Mexico, 1982).</strong> Born in the city of Zamora in 1911, the lawyer and diplomat played a crucial role in making Latin America a nuclear-free zone, following the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. Mr. García Robles&#8217; efforts led to a 1967 treaty signed by 14 countries in Mexico City —&nbsp;an effort that earned him the nickname &#8220;Mr. Disarmament.&#8221;</li><li><strong>Óscar Arias Sánchez (Costa Rica, 1987).</strong> During his stint as president of Costa Rica, Mr. Sánchez championed a peace plan to end the devastating civil wars being fought in Central America. The plan was signed in August 1987 by Costa Rica and four neighboring countries (Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua), and aimed at free elections, human rights protections, and plans to diminish foreign interference in the region.</li><li><strong>Rigoberta Menchú (Guatemala, 1992).</strong> The first direct descendant of native Latin American groups to win a Nobel prize, Ms. Menchú was recognized for her work in social justice and ethno-cultural reconciliation based on respect for indigenous rights&nbsp;— amid a period of large-scale repression against native communities in Guatemala. Her work came at great personal cost, as Ms. Menchú&#8217;s father was murdered during a peaceful protest in Guatemala City, in 1980. Not long after, the Army tortured and killed her brother and mother, forcing her into exile.&nbsp;</li><li><strong>Juan Manuel Santos (Colombia, 2016).</strong> The former Colombian president is the last Latin American person to receive a Nobel Prize — and his win is surrounded by controversy. The Royal Swedish Academy bestowed the honor upon Mr. Santos for his work in negotiating peace with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), an armed guerilla group in Colombia known for deploying terrorist tactics. Though the deal officially ended more than half a century of civil conflict, it was more a comma than a full stop: violence continues in Colombia, and Mr. Santos&#8217; peace deal was voted down by Colombians in a referendum.</li></ul> <h2>Literature</h2> <p>Latin America&#8217;s political turmoil during the Cold War — which culminated in dozens of military dictatorships across the region&nbsp;— also fueled a literary boom. New, emerging voices redefined literature in the region, and became <a href="">powerful and influential authors</a> worldwide.</p> <ul><li><strong>Gabriela Mistral (Chile, 1945).</strong> Born Lucila Godoy Alcayaga in 1889 in Vicuña, the educator, poet, and diplomat made history as the first female South American laureate. Besides her poetry, Ms. Mistral is praised for her work regarding education and the improvement of literary knowledge. By the time she won the award, she was living in Brazil,&nbsp;in the city of Petrópolis, in Rio de Janeiro state.&nbsp;</li><li><strong>Miguel Ángel Asturias (Guatemala, 1967).</strong> With his famous and unique work centered on the Central American imagination and cultural peculiarities, especially seen in his 1949 work “Men of Maize,” Mr. Asturias won the Nobel Prize in 1967 for his “vivid literary achievement,” in the words of the Academy, especially for bringing light to the indigenous roots and struggle in Central America. A year before his win, he had also received the Lenin Peace Prize from the Soviet Union.&nbsp;</li><li><strong>Pablo Neruda (Chile, 1971). </strong>One of the most famous writers in Latin America, Mr. Neruda was awarded &#8220;for poetry that with the action of an elemental force brings a continent&#8217;s destiny and dreams alive.&#8221; He died just 12 days after Augusto Pinochet deposed Chile&#8217;s democratically elected President Salvador Allende, in 1973. The official cause of death was prostate cancer, though a team of international scientists said in 2017 they were &#8220;<a href="">100-percent convinced</a>&#8221; that &#8220;a third party&#8221; was responsible for his death, following lab analysis of his remains.</li><li><strong>Gabriel García Márquez (Colombia, 1982).</strong> &#8220;Gabo&#8221; was one of the creators of magical realism, a literary style born in Latin America that intertwines realistic depictions of the world and elements of fantasy. Despite being a supporter of the Cuban regime —&nbsp;and a personal friend of the late dictator Fidel Castro — Mr. Márquez was able to forge a friendship with former U.S. President Bill Clinton, who regarded the Colombian as his <a href="">favorite fiction writer</a>.&nbsp;</li><li><strong>Octavio Paz (Mexico, 1990).</strong> A poet and a diplomat, the Mexico City-born Mr. Paz was awarded in 1990 &#8220;for impassioned writing with broad horizons, characterized by sensuous intelligence and humanistic integrity.&#8221;</li><li><strong>Mario Vargas Llosa (Peru, 2010).</strong> Through his books, which often contain biographical elements, Mr. Vargas Llosa offered a deep examination of how power and corruption play out in Latin America. The author&#8217;s political work, however, was not limited to his writing —&nbsp;he ran a failed, quixotic presidential campaign in 1990, eventually losing to <a href="">Alberto Fujimori</a>. He said the win was an important element in changing international perception around the region. “Latin America seemed to be a land where there were only dictators, revolutionaries, catastrophes. Now we know that Latin America can also produce artists, musicians, painters, thinkers and novelists,” he <a href="">said</a> in 2010.</li></ul> <h2>Physiology or Medicine</h2> <ul><li><strong>Bernardo Alberto Houssay (Argentina, 1947).</strong> During his life, Dr. Houssay worked in almost every field of physiology and published over 500 papers and several books. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for his discovery of the role of pituitary hormones in sugar metabolism. The achievement was, at the time, a source of embarrassment for the Argentinian government: then-President Juan Perón had dismissed Dr. Houssay from the University of Buenos Aires School of Medicine for opposition to his education policy.</li><li><strong>Baruj Benacerraf (Venezuela, 1980).</strong> The first and only Venezuelan to be awarded a Nobel Prize, Mr. Benacerraf was celebrated for discovering and improving studies in topics related to the immune system, especially in a research of the histocompatibility complex (MHC). He is often described as being Venezuelan-American, due to later obtaining U.S. citizenship.</li><li><strong>César Milstein (Argentina, 1980). </strong>Considered one of the fathers of modern immunology, he went to the United Kingdom to study antibodies and how they can be used for the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of several diseases. He shared the prize with Germany&#8217;s Georges J. F. Köhler.&nbsp;</li></ul> <h2>Chemistry</h2> <ul><li><strong>Luis Federico Leloir (Argentina, 1970).</strong> Born in Paris of Argentinian parents, he was raised in Buenos Aires from the age of two. Despite dealing with a lack of financial support and second-rate equipment throughout his career, Mr. Leloir developed a world-renowned study into sugar nucleotides, carbohydrate metabolism, and renal hypertension — which led to significant progress in understanding, diagnosing and treating congenital disease galactosemia.</li><li><strong>Mario J. Molina (Mexico, 1995).</strong> Mr. Molina&#8217;s work on climate change was crucial toward enacting the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer in 1987, and it made him one of the most important scientists of the past 50 years. He died just last week — and was hailed by <a href="">Science Magazine</a> as the &#8220;Nobel laureate who helped save the ozone layer.&#8221;

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Lucas Berti

Lucas Berti covers international affairs — specialized in Latin American politics and markets. He has been published by Opera Mundi, Revista VIP, and The Intercept Brasil, among others.

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