You'd expect that if a libertarian political party could expect success anywhere, it would be in a country founded on a respect for individual rights of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." But between candidates who look like Smurfs, "guns for tots" programs that distribute toy guns at inner city schools, and allegations of misuse of party funds, even the most strident free-marketeers often have trouble working up much enthusiasm for the prospects of the US Libertarian Party. Even without those stumbling blocks, an electoral system rigged to generate two major parties concentrated around the median voter's preferences and a welter of restrictive ballot access laws make it unlikely that an American third party will manage to be anything more than a spoiler.
Perhaps surprisingly, the most successful libertarian party in recent years has arisen in Latin America, where left and right wing variants of statism have been the norm for much of the 20th century. In Costa Rica, the ten-year-old Movimiento Libertario has managed to elect six diputados to the country's 57-seat congress. The chief architect of that success was Otto Guevara, who served as the party's first elected diputado, from 1998 to 2002. In late July, he spoke with Reason during a visit to Washington, D.C.'s Cato Institute.
What inspired you to launch a Costa Rican libertarian party?
To understand the birth of Movimiento Libertario, you need to put yourself in the context of the Costa Rica of that time. Costa Rica is a substantially socialist country, with a state monopoly on alcohol, a state monopoly on insurance. There's a state monopoly in telecommunications, in agriculture, in fuel refinement and distribution. Education is constitutionally free, mandatory, and run by the state. Ninety-three percent of the population, girls and boys, attends public, state schools.
Costa Rica, like a majority of the Latin American states, experimented with a development scheme based on import substitution. It closed its borders, turned inwards. The state began to make inroads in many other industries—production of fertilizers, of cement, of cotton, of tuna. They had state tuna catching boats! Bankrupt industries were bought by the state with the idea of saving jobs. That's how the state ended up running industries that make chocolates or catch shrimp. It led to $7 billion in losses for Costa Ricans.
In the 1980s, a new form of politics emerged. In the '70s, they had put people on the public payroll. That was no longer sustainable. So they began a practice of instead granting privileges to unions and forced firms to buy licenses for, say, running cabs. These privileges were politically assigned, and as there were three principal banks, heavily controlled by the state, until recently loans, too, were politically assigned.
There were a range of giveaways to the poor as well, like the bono alimenticio to pay for food. A lot of people stopped working because food was guaranteed. Then came the bono de la vivienda or the bono de vivienda popular: $10,000 as a gift of the state for housing. To free education, they added a new benefit called the beca, or bono escolar to pay for schoolbooks.
This is the origin of our movement. Nobody was defending liberty. And it was being lost at an accelerated rate.
Tell us a bit about the founding of ML.
In the early '90s, I was involved with a think tank, the National Association for Economic Development (ANFE), which drew attention to political blunders, but had no political power because policy makers respond to public and special interest pressure. Well, in August of '93, there was a bill up for vote in the legislature to ratify the state monopoly on fuel. The two main parties, the Social Democrats and the Christian Democrats, were in practice substantially similar; there's very little to really distinguish them. So both were behind it. And my small group of classical liberal friends and I even saw some friends and other think tank members supporting that law. Miguel Ángel Rodríguez, who was president from 1998 through 2002, was a kind of icon for classical liberals. But since becoming a diputado, and then president, he had been unwilling to pick a fight over state monopolies. The means, for him, became an end in itself.
It was around that time that someone asked me if I'd ever heard of Ayn Rand. Who? Did I know about philosophical libertarianism, the American Libertarian Party? I had no idea. But I got ahold of a pamphlet that started me reading, and before very long, I was sold. On May 25, I sat down with my friend Rigoberto Stewart and planned the formation of a libertarian political party. We resolved to proudly and straightforwardly begin a process to influence public political discourse in a libertarian direction. So I came to Washington, D.C., and I met with people in the Libertarian Party, and went to the Cato Institute, and read Rand and David Bergland.
Having done that, we decided to write Pensamiento y Propuestas del Movimiento Libertario (Thought and Proposals of the Libertarian Movement), to set down in black and white our plan for Costa Rica.
Your first real electoral success came when you were elected to the legislature in 1998.
Well, in Costa Rica, we have a system of proportional representation, where, unlike the winner-take-all system in the United States, legislative seats are assigned commensurate with the number of votes a party gets. That was very important, because it let us get a foot in the door, it allowed us to get a representative with just a few percent of the vote. That first campaign was very door-to-door, very leaflet based.
From there, though, you proved quite popular. You were voted the most popular diputado in four consecutive years in the major newspaper polls. How did that come about?