It might be possible. After all, populism has recently been defeated elsewhere in the region. And it appears as if the dictatorship in Venezuela, the bastion of the latest wave of Latin American socialism, could have only stayed in power by committing fraud on December 6.
Progressive governments of all kinds have arisen in the region during the last decade. These include the most radical, such as the Venezuelan, Bolivian, Ecuadorian, and Argentinean regimes. Others have been milder, such as Bachelet’s first government in Chile. Some leaders have been progressive mostly in rhetoric, such as José “Pepe” Mujica in Uruguay. But they have all failed to fulfill their promises.
Nonetheless, the prospects for change in countries like Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua are small. Similarly, despite Dilma Rousseff’s low standing in the polls, we can’t be certain that the socialists are headed for the exit in Brazil. And even if it seems that Nicolás Maduro’s government in Venezuela can only be sustained by fraud, no one knows whether the regime will actually end soon, as some have anticipated.
Hopefully, this change will occur. Hopefully, progressive governments will pay for their failures, their excesses, and their arrogance. But even if these governments are voted out of office, that doesn’t mean that things in the region will improve.
We cannot be too optimistic. Libertarians can afford false hopes even less than others. Those who are now coming to power might be against populist progressive governments, but that doesn’t mean they’re libertarians.
In Colombia, libertarians know what we’re talking about. Many foreigners consider President Álvaro Uribe Vélez an advocate of liberty, because he spoke in favor of free trade and strengthened our internal security strategy. However, they forget Uribe’s statist ideas, his paternalistic treatment of citizens, and his support for crony capitalism.
As Lord Acton wrote in The History of Freedom, liberty advocates, a permanent minority, often have to make political alliances with their opponents in order to secure some marginal gains in freedom. Even if winning that way is justifiable, we must not mistake our allies for actual libertarians.
Some might be true liberals, but we cannot celebrate prematurely. Nor can we lower our guard as the new governments present excuses for the mistakes or abuses they commit.
To speak hypothetically, let’s assume that recent election winners were real libertarians, not just our ad hoc allies. Even if that were the case, they would face two problems common to Latin American politics which no one should underestimate.
On the one hand, we have ingrained political practices. The head of state’s name might change, even his ideology. But this won’t alter the institutionalized patronage and corruption. Bureaucrats who increase their power while fixed to their sinecures will remain in place. Congressmen will still be eager to control government resources and regulate all human action. There will still be special interest groups groups and cronies with economic power obtained through political relations. Their sole purpose will be to secure rents or privileges.
On the other hand, we have citizens’ expectations and their ideas about the state. They might be tired of incompetence, deceit, and corruption, the staples of the populist progressives. But that doesn’t mean that they have finally understood that it’s not the state’s role to teach them how to behave, or to regulate all their decisions.
Nor is it certain that a majority believes at last that the state can’t do everything, or that it can hardly do anything well. People still expect the state to create wealth, to eliminate poverty, or to improve the quality of people’s lives.
It certainly was time for the region’s populist governments and their welfare-distributing, paternalistic, interventionist, protectionist, and freedom-eroding model to begin to crumble. It’s also time to stop blaming the United States, our colonial past, or “capitalism” for our inability to overcome poverty.
It’s clear that we have to dismantle the “Big Brother” state that towers over the individual without any restrictions.
It’s possible that new governments can overcome these defects, which have only generated conflict and poverty. But that is only one possibility among many. It’s not automatic. We have to wait.
Excessive optimism can lead to complacency, carelessness, and frustration. Let’s hope that, this time, things are really different.