Latin America

Students Are Bringing Capitalism to Latin America

Q&A with economist Gabriel Calzada Alvarez on trade barriers, higher education, and bringing free markets to the region.


President Trump's move to raise "barriers to people, to goods, to services," says Gabriel Calzada Alvarez, executive president of Guatemala's Universidad Francisco Marroquín (UFM), "is a danger not just for Central America [but] for the U.S. and for the world." The great irony, Calzada says, is that the U.S. has benefited immensely from free trade and immigration and "now wants to raise barriers."

Calzada sat down with Reason's Nick Gillespie at Freedom Fest 2017 to talk about the impact of trade restrictions on Latin America, the changing role of higher education, and how students are bringing capitalism to the region. UFM, a private, secular university in Guatemala City, teaches free market economics and emphasizes the importance of intellectual debate on campus.

"Being uncomfortable because of the ideas of others is one of the experiences you have to have," says Calzada.

Edited by Paul Detrick. Shot by Justin Monticello and Meredith Bragg.

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This is a rush transcript. Check all quotes against the audio for accuracy.

Nick Gillespie: You run a university in Guatemala that was established in 1971, and it's rare there because it's a private university. What is the essential mission of higher education in the 21st century?

Gabriel Calzada: Well, I think in the 21st century, since you have basically all the content in your mobile device, universities have to move the focus from giving content–they have been doing this for many years–to creating experiences, interactions. We will see a shift from grades, from having focus in the grades, to have a focus in a portfolio of experiences that you can show. The universities that will survive are universities that will create safe space, but not safe space in the sense that we usually hear, that are places where you have the right not to be offended or bothered, but the safe places in the sense that you create a space where students can commit errors and can learn from those errors without the problems of these errors in real life.

Gillespie: In the United States, a lot of the discussion and discourse about higher education has to do with this encroachment of safe spaces, of political correctness, of speech codes, and the inability of faculty and students and outside speakers who come to enrich the environment are not allowed to speak freely. Is that also a problem in Guatemala, or does it take a different form there?

Calzada: Not at all. In Guatemala, students speak freely. We try to foster debate. We think that being uncomfortable because of the ideas of others is one of the experiences you have to have at the university.

Gillespie: You're opening a campus in Spain. How will that help fulfill the vision that you were talking about, about having a portfolio of experiences? What will be going on there?

Calzada: Going to a different culture is already a great experience, but fundamentally, going to a place where regulation has been going so far, so that the students can learn what are the results of big government. Then, of course, we want to offer the European public an opportunity to have a classical liberal, libertarian education that is currently very difficult in the European space. I think with the UFM experience, we can offer new programs that will be very original, very different from the type of programs that Spaniards and Europeans are used to.

Gillespie: Does it make sense to talk about a direction for Latin America, and is that direction going in the right way or the wrong way? I mean, there seem to be so many different things. There's your experiences in Guatemala. There are certain countries that are liberalizing. Then there are countries like Venezuela, which seems to really be in very-

Calzada: Collapsing.

Gillespie: … deep threat. Yeah. Then also in Brazil, as well as elsewhere, you see both good things and bad things happening at the same time. What is your sense? Is Latin America, which has gone through various phases of liberalization and then kind of retrenchment, how are things looking right now?

Calzada: I think right now things are looking pretty good. We are moving in the good direction. You can see this in Argentina. You can see this even in Ecuador. Things so far in the last few months seems to be better than they were a year ago, even if probably what we would have liked, this more radical change, didn't happen. I'm relatively optimistic because you see that in the civil society, more than in the governments, civil society is much more conscious of the need of creating associations to mobilize, in a way similar to what Tocqueville was talking about that was necessary to sustain our liberties. You see this in Ecuador. You see this in Chile. You see this in Argentina, in Bolivia. You see this everywhere. You see associations, organizations, many of them related to students.

You see movements in Guatemala, for example, last year. The new government decided to raise taxes. They were new in the government. They said, well, the solution, like always, is to raise taxes for the rich so we can solve the problems of the country, and suddenly you saw many students going into the streets, first, students, then professionals going to the streets, saying no, this cannot be the solution. Politicians always want to raise taxes. The solution is to look at the expenses of the government and make them more rational, reduce them, so balance the budget in that way.

Gillespie: What's the sense towards America under Donald Trump? He's been explicitly xenophobic towards Mexicans, for sure, but he seems to have a limited understanding or interest or engagement with most of Central America and South America, Latin America more generally. Is he seen as a good person, a bad person, a good president, a good friend, or is there a clear sense of how people think about him in Guatemala?

Calzada: To see a president that thinks that the U.S. has to raise their barriers, all kind of barriers, to people, to goods, to services, it's a danger not just for Central America; it's a danger for the U.S. and for the world. The country that grew for years and for centuries because of free trade and from receiving immigrants now wants to raise barriers to trade and to people.

Gillespie: Well, we will leave it there, and hopefully … I think we agree… hopefully, those barriers will only get to a couple inches high and-

Calzada: Hopefully.

Gillespie: … be easy to walk over. Thanks again.

Calzada: Thank you.

Gillespie: For Reason, I'm Nick Gillespie.