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The Right's New Clothes: How Old Neoliberal Ideas Have Been Charming the Latinamerican Youth

Categories: Latin America, Brazil, Guatemala, Citizen Media, Governance, Politics, Youth
Glória Álvarez, a estrela da juventude latino-americana. Foto: Fernando Conrado/Divulgação

Glória Álvarez, a star of the Latin American youth. Photo: Fernando Conrado / Divulgação

This story was written by Marina Amaral and originally published by Agência Pública [1]. It will be republished by Global Voices in three parts via a content-sharing agreement.

“Our body is our first private property; only we may decide what to do with it”, says in Spanish the eloquent blonde, while moving gracefully on the Liberty Forum’s stage, draped with the brands of its official sponsors—Souza Cruz (cigarettes), Gerdau (steel), Ipiranga (oil), and RBS (a local TV station). The packed two-thousand-seat theatre of Pontifical Catholic University of Rio Grande do Sul (PUC-RS), in Porto Alegre, explodes with laughter and applause for Glória Álvarez, a 30-year-old Guatemalan child of a Cuban father and Hungarian-descended mother.

Gloria, or @crazyglorita (who boasts 55,000 followers on Twitter and 120,000 subscribers on Facebook), rose to stardom among the Latin American right-wing youth in late 2014, when a YouTube video in which she attacks “populism” in Latin America [2] during the Youth Iberoamerican Parliament in Zaragoza, Spain, went viral. In the Brazilian right’s main forum, Gloria and the ex-governor of South Carolina, Republican David Bensley, are the only ones among the 22 Brazilian and foreign panelists assigned to the keynotes—key panels that guide the debates in the three-day event, whose motto this year is “Paths of Liberty”.

A radio host with 10 years of experience, now presenting her own TV show, Gloria is a true show-woman. She resourcefully conducts her audience, made up mostly of students from PUC-RS—an elite school in Southern Brazil. “Who here declares themselves as liberals or libertarians raise their hands”, she asks the spectators, who reply with raised hands. “Ha, okay”, she relaxes. Her mission is to teach her ideological allies how to “charm and seduce the leftist crowd” and to beat “the bearded Che-Guevara-hatted troop”, explains the young leader of the National Civic Movement, a small organization created in Guatemala in 2009, in the wake of the movements that demanded—unsuccessfully—the impeachment of the Social-Democrat President Álvador Colom.

The first lesson is to make use on social media of a hashtag she created, “RepXPop [3]” (Republic vs. Populism), which she believes outweighs the “obsolete division between left and right”. “An intellectually honest leftist must recognize that employment is the only way to create wealth, and a right-winger of the 21st century must acknowledge that sexuality, morals, and drugs are individual problems—they are not the moral authority of the universe”, she goes on, followed by a round of applause. No to guilt, neither moral nor social, she says. The message is individual freedom, youth “empowerment”, low taxes, a minimal state—the agenda of the liberal right (in economical terms), across the whole world: “Wealth isn’t transferred, ladies and gentlemen, wealth is created, starting with each one of your heads”, she says. Gloria also rebuffs social welfare programs for the poor, as well as affirmative policies for women, blacks, disabled, and even the mere existence of the concept of ‘minorities’: “There are no minorities; the smallest minority is the individual and for them meritocracy is what works best”.

“There is a truth to which every human being must reach to find peace, if they don’t want to live like a hypocrite. All of us, seven-and-a-half billion human beings living on this planet, are selfish. This is the truth, my dear Brazilian friends. Is this bad? Is this good? No, it’s just the reality”, she says, categorically. “Some people don’t accept this truth and say ‘no! [Gloria shouts, impersonating a man's voice], I will make the first non-selfish society!’ Watch out, Brazilians! Watch out, Latin America! Those people are like Stalin, in the Soviet Union, or Kim Jong-il, in North Korea, Fidel Castro in Cuba, or Hugo Chávez in Venezuela. And why do we keep following those hypocrites like sheep? Because [she says, now impersonating an old woman] they teach us that it’s wrong to be selfish and to think about ourselves is a sin. How many of you haven’t heard someone say ‘we need a good man, who doesn’t only think about himself’”? she says, bending over and then standing up again to regain her previous proud attitude. “Mira, señores, unless it’s an alien, this man doesn’t exist, never existed and will never exist”. Hysterical applause.

But she explains that the champions of freedom also have some responsibility. They don’t know how to communicate their ideas, or how to use technology to empower citizens and to free Latin America. “If you keep discussing macro-economics, GDP, and so on, we will lose the battle. We need to learn with the populists and speak what people understand, to make them identify with our cause”, she says. “And here I’ll give you another piece of advice, since they say that us, the liberals, are damned exploiters”, she says sarcastically. “I found a very nice way to define the concept of private property. And with this concept the leftists go like ‘woooow’”, she says, bending backwards, and continues: “Private property is what we amass in our lifetime starting with our first properties: body and mind. The past isn’t the same for everybody, this amassing is personal”, she says. “This makes us a little more human, it gives a little heart to us, disgraced liberals”, she laughs. Applause.

“Some people want the right to healthcare, to education, to employment, to a place to live. The UN now wants to provide universal right to the Internet”, she says scornfully, even though she had just said that technology is key to changing the world. “Imagine that, in this theatre right here, some of you want the right to education, others to healthcare, and others to a place to live. So, to give healthcare to some of you, I will make all of you here to pay taxes to fund it. But then they will be VIP citizens, no? And the others will be second-class citizens. If I give education to some of you, with everybody also paying for it, some will be VIPs and others also second-class. This isn’t social justice, this is inequality in face of the law”, she concludes, again through a round of applause.

“If each and every person in Latin America has the right to life, freedom, and private property, each and every person will go after the education, healthcare, and the house they want, with no need of super-Chávez, super-Morales, and super-Correa”. Ovation and whistles. Before she finishes her 40-minute presentation, Gloria invites the public to challenge the world view that sees Latin Americans as victims, the approach of “blame the Yankees”, which destroys self-esteem and the courage to take risks that the entrepreneur spirit demands. The audience applauses standing.

Neoliberals and libertarians

Gloria Alvarez doesn’t really embody anything new. Her main difference is the language she uses. The MCN movement (to which she belongs) receives “funds from some of the biggest companies in the traditional business elite”, according to journalist Martín Rodríguez Pellecer, director of the Guatemalan website Nómada, who’s a partner of Agência Pública. “Through close sources, I came to know that one of the companies that support their mass campaigns and lobbying activities in the Congress is Azúcar de Guatemala, a powerful cartel of 14 companies (Guatemala is the biggest sugar exporter in the world). The Guatemalan companies, by the way, have investments in Brazil”, he said.

The same could be said about her ideas. Despite the seductive title, the libertarians are “a minority segment among the strain of thoughts that gained influence in the post-War era, in opposition to the interventionist policies of Keynesian inspiration”, explains economist Luiz Carlos Prado, from Rio de Janeiro University.

After the 1970s oil crisis, pro-market economists such as Friedrich Hayek (Nobel Prize, 1974), monetarists from the Milton Friedman’s (Nobel Prize 1976) School of Chicago, and the new classics associated with Robert Lucas (Nobel Prize, 1995) began to dominate economical global thinking and became known to the public as “neoliberals”. Their concepts were brought to Latin America by the most conservative sectors of US society, represented mainly by think tanks connected to Ronald Reagan, who after losing the Republican primaries in 1968 and 1976, was elected president in 1980 with Friedman as a main adviser. They also dominated in the government of Margaret Thatcher (1979-1991) in the United Kingdom. “The defenders of classical liberalism were also defenders of political freedom, but this strain called ‘neoliberalism’ defended essentially the non-intervention of the state in the economy, without a particular preoccupation with political freedom and came shamelessly to support dictatorial governments like Pinochet’s in Chile”, says Prado.

Gloria Alvarez’ Guatemala is a good example of how libertarian ideas came into being in Latin America. In 1971, “a very representative part of the economical elite of Guatemala chose right-wing liberalism as its political project. That was when they founded University Francisco Marroquín (UFM)”, says Pellecer. “The University’s founder, Manuel Ayau, known as El Muso, in allusion to Mussolini, united himself with the fascist, anti-communism project of MLN [Movimiento de Liberación Nacional, or National Liberation Movement]. Since then, UFM has been forming political and academic cadres to discredit the state and social justice politics and to convert Guatemala into the country that collects less taxes in the whole Latin America (11 percent, in relation to GDP), and the one that least redistributes it”, he says. It was in this university that Gloria studied and “became a libertarian a little less conservative than her professors, who are a mix of neoliberals and Opus Dei. Álvarez declares herself to be an atheist and supporter of abortion rights. Although she’s a star of the Latin American right, she’s a minor reference in Guatemala. She doesn’t have a solid political base, and won't be a candidate. I see her more as a kind of libertarian enfant terrible”, he says.

Libertarians resurfaced with full force in the United States after the 2008 financial crisis—and the subsequent clamor for market regulation—and the election of Barack Obama. They preach the supremacy of the individual over the State, absolute market freedom, and the fierce defense of private property. They believe that the cause of the economic crisis that left 50 million people in poverty was not lack of regulations in the financial market, but rather the protection of specific sectors of the economy by the government. And they emphatically reject the social policies of the Obama Administration. However, a significant part of libertarians have started to distance themselves of the traditionalism associated with the right wing in personal conduct and to defend positions normally associated with the left, such as the legalization of drugs and tolerance of homosexuals, in the name of individual freedom. American senator Rand Paul, a hopeful presidential candidate, is one of this movement's best known representatives.

“The libertarians who are with Tea Party conservatives (the radical right wing strain of the Republican party in the United States) are also in think tanks such as the Cato Institute, and they make up the post-modern right, represented, for example, by Cameron in the UK, who modernized the welfare state agenda”, says Prado. He chuckles when I ask him about the Brazilian libertarians, followers of the Austrian school of Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek. “The Austrian school is a very minority strain even in academia”, he says. “Who are those libertarians? What we have in Brazil are sophisticated economists that follow currents like the new classics of Nobel Prize winner Robert Lucas, meek right wing politicians like Ronaldo Caiado (a senator for the state of Goiânia), and this conservative middle-class that reads Rodrigo Constantino [a liberal columnist] in Veja magazine”, he claims.

Both Caiado and Constatino are veteran participants in the Liberty Forum in Porto Alegre. What is new is that how the Tea Party’s libertarians have been capable of presenting themselves to Brazil's youth as the inviting new face of the right.