The Other Guevara

Reason interviews Costa Rica's Libertarian revolutionary


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?

It helped that we got an incredible amount of press coverage. When we held our first press conference, before that election, almost nobody showed up. The moment of my election, we became a sort of obligatory font of information for journalists. We averaged about four mentions daily in the major papers. The ability to obstruct new legislation allowed me to permeate the public political debate. We have a constitutional provision that allows legislators to appeal to the constitutional court if they can muster ten of their colleagues for a petition. I've been to the court more times—and had them rule in my favor more times—than any other legislator.

I leveraged that media exposure in the 2002 election with my presidential candidacy. The main purpose of that run was to get a platform from which to encourage people to vote for our diputados. And that allowed us to garner about 10 percent of the vote that year.

How do you account for that level of exposure, that level of popularity, in a country where, by your own account, the political mainstream is so socialistic?

The first year was key. It was the year in which I had to win the respect of journalists and the general public. So I was studying like a madman, from 7:30 in the morning until 10 at night, 6 days a week. Since I was the only representative of my party, I really had to know about everything that was going on, every issue being debated, whereas in the other parties there was a certain amount of division of labor. This made things difficult for me, but it also made me a kind of one-stop-shop for people in media who wanted someone to quote on almost any issue.

Also, it's a norm in journalism that reporters are obligated to tell "both sides of the story." Well, in a country where the two major parties were typically in favor of more government control, one side was always mine. Finally, I generated a lot of polemic in a society accustomed to paternalism. The church has a large role in Latin American politics, and the message they were putting out is that rich people are all misers, that you have to be ashamed of making money. You know the famous line about the camel and the eye of the needle. Anyway, these polemics would get headlines, and so that was on the top of a lot of people's minds. When it came time to do the polls and they asked people to name their favorite diputado, the first name a lot of people thought of was "Otto Guevara." Even if they didn't agree with everything I said, they knew I was very active, that I was bringing refreshing ideas to the table.

The real benefit of having a political party is as a force for getting libertarian ideas into the public debate. It's a standard school assignment in Costa Rica for students to research and do reports on the parties and presidential candidates. So we have teachers all over the country sending their kids to study our platform, to research the ideas of people like Mises and Hayek. And the effect of that has been to confront a lot of political prejudices and assumptions, a lot of the complacency with the traditional way of doing things. People start to ask: "Why should the state alone sell insurance? Why should the state sell telecommunications services?"

One of the things that's impressive about the campaigns you've run is that you reject government funds for the party. Can you talk about what lies behind that decision?

When money is given to you as a gift, there's a tendency to dissipate it. We've seen enormous corruption in Costa Rica as a result. For instance, we could sign a contract whereby we have a consulting deal and put that down as a campaign expense. I claim to be paying you, in essence, for some conversations I say we've had. It's like a piñata, but it's very difficult to prove a candidate or a party has done anything wrong. Still, people know it happens, and they're sick of it.

You've had some problems on the way, including, I believe, the defection of one of the diputados you elected.

Yes, three weeks after the elections, one of them resigned. It was a blow to us, we took a fall, but we got up and brushed ourselves off. In that case, we were tricked by someone who passed himself off as a libertarian in every detail. But he had another agenda. I expect that next time we'll be a bit more careful about who runs under our banner. One thing we want to do is ask candidates to submit resignation letters in advance, as part of a contract that would allow the party to recall legislators who don't adhere to the principles they profess during the campaign. One year ago, I presented this idea to the courts as a hypothetical, and I'm still waiting for their reply.

Many people are convinced that, at present anyway, libertarians need to do outreach and education, to change the political culture, before they can expect real electoral success. How do you respond to that?

I'm convinced that political participation is a much more effective way of promoting freedom than any 10 books you could write, for some of the reasons I just mentioned. But we've begun to explore new ways of spreading our ideas. Few people read papers; fewer still read books. So since October, we've been airing a weekly prime time TV show, La Hora de la Libertad (The Hour of Liberty) from 8 to 9 on a channel with national coverage.

This is a pure program of political indoctrination. Like St. Thomas, I doubt the ratings I see, but I'm told we have 100 thousand people watching, and we get about 400 calls per hour from all corners of the country. We're preparing the mental terrain, fertilizing Costa Rican minds with libertarian ideas. The traditional policy maker in the legislature doesn't attempt to lead, to form public opinion. We do. Atlas, Cato, a huge number of thinkers and scholars of liberty are out there creating intellectual ammunitition. What we have is the powder to create an explosion.

Where have you found your constituency? Where do you get your support?

Well, one place is from industries where regulation and taxation were really hurting the workers. So, just as an example, we lowered taxes on sports betting. There are some 7,000 people working in that industry, and there were conservative forces who really wanted to wipe it out. A tax hike they'd proposed would have done just that. So there are lots of people now who realize that they essentially owe us their jobs, and that motivates people to get politically involved.

The young are another key constituency. For one, they often have access to the Internet, through school, and so they have a sharper sense that the traditional way of doing things in Costa Rica isn't the only way of doing things. They worry about whether the public pension system is going to be there when they're older. The young are basically experiencing the collapse of the old system. They've seen 18 or 24 percent inflation annually, and they realize that it doesn't have to be that way. They also see that it makes more sense, under the status quo, to just put money in a government CD than to work because of that uncontrolled inflation. The revolutionaries of the 60s and 70s were all socialists. Now the natural impulse of youth to rebel is being channeled against the socialist establishment.

One way we've really engaged the young is with the idea of self-ownership. Fashions like tattooing and piercing, these really indicate a tremendous degree of individualism. The core idea is that it's your body to do with as you wish, to use as a means of self-expression. Sexual liberty, the freedom to use drugs, these are all areas where our position is appealing to the young.

There's also a huge, subterranean informal economy that's opposed by the larger, established companies. So I became the defender of the informal sector, "el diputado pirata." Someone wants to import and sell a used car… we said, "what's the problem?" Used clothing, used shoes, these are big markets, and we thought it was absurd that there should be legal obstacles to people trading in these things. Libertarian ideas became associated, not with big capital, but with the right of poor people to work. That allowed us to do a kind of end-run around one sort of prejudice against our ideas.

How did you fall on the question of war in Iraq?

Well, the president of Costa Rica supported it, and so did the people. Movimiento Libertario was the first party to come out against the war, and others followed. The legislature ultimately passed a resolution supporting the war, but I think we also led many to question their support. And some of the further questions about the justification of the war that have been raised over the last months have undermined to some extent trust in government, when even a great government like that of the United States isn't above suspicion.

Does what ML does in Costa Rica have implications for libertarians in the United States?

Well, given the electoral system you have here, a different strategy might be needed. I don't see the major parties changing the winner-take-all, first-past-the-post voting system. So perhaps, as an America, I would explore something like Ron Paul's strategy instead. The key for us was exposure, and if you don't necessarily have your own candidates, then it's important to incorporate certain people with a national profile, who can give your positions credibility.

It's also possible that Costa Rica could be a sort of a "pilot project." It's a small county, with around 4 million inhabitants, and a fairly socialistic past. Our example could provide you with a very clear cut "before and after," in the same way people who support pension reform in the United States can point to some of the successes in the South. Then you can go to Congress and say "Listen, guys, this thing I'm proposing… they've done it there, so let's look at how it went."