"Less Marx, More Mises" read signs held by some of the protesters who filled the streets of Brazil's cities on March 15, 2015. With a headcount estimated at more than a million, the demonstrators were calling for an end to Dilma Rousseff's disastrous populist presidency. An organization of libertarian millennials called Movimiento Brasil Libre, or the Free Brazil Movement, led the charge. With the country crippled by recession and a corruption scandal dominating the headlines, the demonstrators expressed their anger in explicitly libertarian terms.
The Free Brazil Movement is the activist wing of the country's surging libertarian movement. Founded in 2013, the group played a key role in ending 13 years of left-wing Workers' Party control.
Two months after the first massive protest, the Free Brazil Movement led a 33-day, 750-mile march from São Paulo to the federal capital of Brasilia while carrying an impeachment bill to deliver to Congress. Following another year of protests and behind-the-scenes maneuvering, lawmakers took action. On May 12, 2016, Rousseff was forced to step down on charges of secretly borrowing money from state-owned banks to paper over the government's fiscal problems.
The Free Brazil Movement's primary focus, however, is changing politics through culture. With a leadership composed mostly of filmmakers and musicians, the group operates on the theory that most people pick their political views based on a desire to fit in. Thus, the way to change the country's politics is to create a new libertarian cultural identity that allows young Brazilians to be cool without fashioning themselves lefty revolutionaries.
The group functions in part as a media outlet, feeding content to its 1.4 million Facebook followers. ("Without Facebook," says 32-year-old Co-Chief Strategist Renan Santos, "we would still have Dilma.") It regularly produces viral videos heavy on satire, scoring a major hit with a 2014 political advertisement featuring a candidate with "privatizing" laser beams shooting out of his eyes that instantaneously turned poorly run government services modern and efficient.
The Free Brazil Movement's chief spokesperson is 20-year-old Kim Kataguiri, a part-time law student who wears his hair long and clothes loose—a look that in no way resembles the "bow tie libertarians" who he says will "never convince anyone here in Brazil." Pedro Ferreira, 32, the group's other chief strategist, started his career working in marketing for the music industry. He believes the libertarian movement can learn a lot from Justin Bieber about expanding its fan base.
What follows are excerpts from interviews with Kataguiri, Santos, and Ferreira. Conducted in English, the interviews have been edited for clarity. Santos and Kataguiri were also featured in a Reason TV documentary, "How Brazil's Libertarian Movement Helped Bring Down a President," which can be found here.
KIM KATAGUIRI: When I was in high school, my history teacher started a debate about welfare in Brazil. He said that it was the reason behind the economic growth…and I said, "Wow, welfare really works!" And then I started searching the internet and I found the Brazilian Mises Institute [Instituto Ludwig von Mises Brasil] and the Brazilian Liberal Institute [Instituto Liberal], and I found it was not really like what my teacher was saying. So I made a YouTube video for my teacher and my classmates to show that it was not really welfare that brought prosperity to Brazil. But this video ended up spreading on the internet, and people started asking me to do more videos and [eventually I joined the] Free Brazil Movement.
PEDRO FERREIRA: My libertarianism comes from my family, actually….[My mom] had a video-making business. The labor laws are crazy. For instance: When you're going to fire someone, you have to pay a big fine. So basically, you reward bad behavior in a weird way….From the employer's perspective, it doesn't make any sense. I remember her having people that did not want to work and did not want to produce. She would complain and be really depressed. You want to fire that person because you feel like they are detrimental to the company, but you cannot afford to fire someone. In the '90s, things were looking weird for her and she wanted to fire people because she was having a hard time keeping up with their salaries, but at the same time, she would go broke if she fired them. Everything is very, very bureaucratic and complicated in Brazil….I remember when I tried to start my own company, it took me like, seriously, five months. In America, my accountant opened it for me in two days.
RENAN SANTOS: In Brazil, when you start to have your own business, you must become a libertarian….Most of the guys I met who were also trying to create jobs, [they] just got completely angry about how the state invades their lives, their companies, and their dreams. I got really, really angry with the state and one day I decided to quit what I was doing. I said, "No, no, no. This country is destroyed. I need to do something."
So I decided to open an office with other guys, who are musicians and also movie makers. And I said, "Let's think together and create some kind of aesthetic for this way of seeing the world."
Marketing Libertarian Ideas
PEDRO FERREIRA: The ways that these ideas that we hold dear are being sold to people are very boring—let's say it like that. They are trying to get people through reason, whereas liberals get people and they're very good at doing so because they work with emotions.I come in with marketing experience from the music industry. The idea behind a song is just as important—if not more important—than the song itself. People don't love Justin Bieber because of his songs; [they] love Justin Bieber because of the idea of Justin Bieber. The idea of what [Ludwig von] Mises said, of what [Murray] Rothbard said, has to be secondary. We're only going to get somewhere if people fall in love with libertarianism regardless of the song, you know? The idea of libertarianism has to be powerful and strong for people to fall in love with it. The only way you can do that is not by going balls deep in the technicalities of it, but by creating an idea that people can fall in love with.
PEDRO FERREIRA: We developed this theory of the aesthetic left. They are the majority of the cool kids. They haven't read any books of the left or anything. They don't really know why they are taking those positions, but they feel that taking those positions generates social currency for them, you know? [Opposition to the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985] was the first moment of cultural hegemony for the left. There was really good music…as there was in America in the 1960s. [Guys like] Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, [and] Chico Buarque. It's sort of [like] Bruce Springsteen protesting. You might not understand what he's standing for [but] you can go out and say, "Look, I'm just as cool as Bruce Springsteen because I am defending what he stands for."
RENAN SANTOS: If you were not part of this left, you automatically defended…dictatorship. But we created the kind of civil opposition that defends libertarian ideas, republican ideas, our system, our democracy, our values, [while] at the same time you are not a military guy who wants to do a coup. You are not a guy who hates gays.
KIM KATAGUIRI: You'll never make 205 million [Brazilians] understand any idea in a profound way. I mean, you have to make people like these ideas…I think that's the great secret….When you see someone suited with a bow tie defending lower taxes, defending less bureaucracy, you just think, "Well, this is a banker defending his own interests."…Just dress like a normal guy. You don't need to use suits or look like a banker. I mean, you…just have to look like a normal guy.
Learning From Leftist Tactics
KIM KATAGUIRI: The [libertarian] and conservative books are mostly about how to organize the economy [and] the leftist books are about how to look cool and get in power. We always treated power as if we already had it and we were losing it all over the world. So I think now we need to learn a little bit [from] the leftists. How did they sell their ideas? How did they succeed even with the wrong ideas?
PEDRO FERREIRA: We read way more of the left-wing authors because we feel like they have a better product, you know? They know how to spread the ideas better than we do, so it's our mission to do reverse engineering on everything that they have done.
KIM KATAGUIRI: A good example is a speech we [did] for millions of people here in the demonstrations in São Paulo….We ask them if they trust politicians. Everyone says, "No! We don't trust politicians." Then we ask, "Do you want more money or less money in the hands of politicians?' And they go, "I want less money in the hands of politicians!" Well, that's privatization. "OK! Let's privatize all the state-owned companies!" So, it's easy. You don't have to talk about numbers or talk about economics. You just have to make people like the idea of privatizing.
RENAN SANTOS: You organize the way people are thinking….If you say, "OK, we agree that the government is corrupt, but [the reason] the government is corrupt and robs you a lot is because the government is way too big." And when you start to explain those things people say, "Oh, yeah! The government's way too big. Yeah, yeah! This is the real problem."
KIM KATAGUIRI: [Take] education, for example. I mean, we don't explain how the voucher system is more efficient, has worked in other countries, and the private companies can take better care of the schools. We just ask at the demonstrations: "Do you want the poor people to study in the same school as the rich people?" It really looks like a leftist speech, but we are defending the voucher system. [It's] selling ideals—not only of liberty—but also of equality. Equality is a value of the leftists, but we can also do it.
The Socialist Threat
PEDRO FERREIRA: We always used to see as the three steps of damnation: You had Brazil, and then if things got a little bit worse we had Argentina. And then if the shit hit the fan, we had Venezuela, basically. So that menace—it's like the wolf sniffing at the back of your neck, you know? We publicize [what's happening in Venezuela] on Facebook all the time. That's part of the terror that people had with putting the Workers' Party in power….That kept fear alive.
RENAN SANTOS: We were becoming a Venezuela. We were becoming an Argentina….It was a process. We were…part of a populist dictatorship movement that was…happening across South America….It was like your body's bleeding. Dilma was the bleeding. We should stop the bleeding.
RENAN SANTOS: We were like the jihad of the impeachment….We walked more than 1,000 kilometers from São Paulo to Brasilia to file the impeachment bill….We never let people doubt that the impeachment would happen. We always said it would happen, it's just a matter of time….We were like fanatics for our cause.
RENAN SANTOS: We knew the only way we could win was by convincing politicians—even though we had to convince bad politicians as well. We decided we are not going to do a coup in Brazil. We were not going to use violence. We were going to defeat the socialists in Brazil the way that they hate most—through democracy.
RENAN SANTOS: We created a system of communication between the people and the congressmen that made it impossible for any [politician] to be free of the pressure….When [congressmen] would go back to their states, people [would come up to them] in restaurants and say, "What's your position on the impeachment?" So the congressmen would say, "If I don't make this impeachment happen, I will suffer impeachment from my followers."
RENAN SANTOS: People outside of Brazil don't even know that we exist….They don't even know the revolution that happened in Brazil was grassroots. And it's all because the media in Brazil is also leftist. The media in Brazil receives lots of money from the government. We had to create a sort of parallel media explaining the political facts of the country under our interpretation….On Facebook we are stronger than any politician in Brazil. And on Facebook we have more views, more reach, than any media group….Without Facebook, nothing would happen in Brazil. We would still have Dilma.
What's Next for Brazil's Libertarian Movement?
RENAN SANTOS: We didn't imagine [that we would] make Brazil a perfect libertarian paradise just by defeating Dilma. It's a process, and the process continues by pressuring [Rousseff's vice president and successor, Michel] Temer to do what we want in terms of public policy….The impeachment is just the start of the game.
KIM KATAGUIRI: This year [is] a local election year, so we'll have something like 160 candidates all over the country in all Brazilian states, so I'm traveling a lot….My role is pretty much to help the candidates [we] have this year—to train and to organize demonstrations.
PEDRO FERREIRA: The next movement we're planning now is pension reform. Brazil's pension system is a nightmare. It's bankrupting the country. It's a Ponzi scheme, a generational pyramid. The whole thing is meant to collapse.
PEDRO FERREIRA: [As the Marxist theorist Antonio] Gramsci put it, wherever there is a scar you have to put your finger down and open the wound….We are going to try to promote this generational battle of young vs. old, you know? And then create this perception of a system [of] institutional slavery where you have old people enslaving young people for their pensions. We're going to try and organize the young into protests and smaller guerrilla actions, which is sort of the way the left works here….It's going to be a hard battle, man. I think it'd be easier to impeach Dilma again, really.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Free Brazil!".