When asked for the Spanish word for “freedom,” the inevitable answer is libertad. But libertad is the translation for “liberty.” In fact, there is no word for “freedom” in Spanish, and libertad is used for both liberty and freedom.
For most of us the terms are synonymous. However, political scientists and philosophers attach different connotations to the terms liberty and freedom. For me, this presented a challenge when writing studiously of freedom in Spanish without a word for freedom. In 2010, Dr. Eugenio Yañez, who was then translating my book “Mañana in Cuba,” ingeniously came up with the idea of distinguishing the terms by capitalizing Libertad when my intended meaning was freedom, and using lower case libertad for liberty.
Similarly, socio-cultural anthropologist Roland Alum, brought to my attention that, in Spanish we do not have a distinct word for toes, we have only the term “dedos.” This forces the cumbersome construction of “dedos de los pies” for toes, which translates literally to “fingers of the feet.”
Technically, freedom is a more general concept that may be defined as “the power or right to act, speak, or think, as one wants.” Freedom is a subjective and personal state of affairs. In contrast, liberty is more associated with an individual’s connection to the state. Liberty is a collective state of affairs rather than a personal one. Liberty may be defined as “the state of being free from oppressive restrictions imposed by authority on ones behavior or political views.” We demand liberty so that we can exercise our freedoms.
Then, to complicate or clarify things (depending on your disposition), social psychologist Erich Fromm, in The Fear of Freedom (1941), and political theorist Isaiah Berlin, in Two Concepts of Liberty (1958), introduced an important distinction between negative and positive freedom. Negative freedom is understood as freedom ‘from’ interference by other people. In a political context, negative freedom refers to freedom from institutional oppression.
Positive freedom is understood as freedom “to” and refers mostly to our being free to develop our potential. Once we are free from oppression, then we have the positive freedom to pursue our own dreams and goals.
By now my patient readers must be ready to give up on this pedantic academic discussion, so let me get to the point. In the Spanish speaking world, liberty is conceived mostly in the negative sense. Liberty is conceived as political freedoms such as freedom of assembly, the press, religion, speech, thought, etc. It is in this limited concept of free from oppression that libertad is normally used in political discourse.
And here is a bizarre psycholinguistic theory to the effect that maybe, the fact that there is no specific Spanish word for freedom contributes to a rather constrained understanding of individual freedoms in Spanish speaking nations.
This may be because, the idea of “freedom to” can be overreached and interpreted to mean that freedom requires enabling a person. In this case, “freedom to” becomes not just removing constraints, but enabling. This overextended “freedom to” embodies the socialist welfare view, where the state seeks to enable individuals. In practice, when government coercion is used to expand “freedom to,” it necessarily undermines “freedom from.’”
In the context of sociopolitical values, the Spanish word libertad is not really representative of self-confidence, self-reliance, courage to fight for one’s rights, entrepreneurship, greater social tolerance and social equality, respect for the rule of law, and aspiration for higher accomplishments. In the Latin American tradition libertad does not explicitly capture these values. Libertad is understood mostly, as the negative freedom of being free from oppression.
Liberty, as the absence of coercion, depicts just one piece of the intellectual puzzle that is freedom. In the Spanish speaking world, without a term for freedom, libertad needs to stand for much more than the absence of coercion. Libertad must embody the liberal tradition where freedom is the power of individuals to assert personal initiatives. There is no word for it, but freedom, not just liberty, is needed to free the imagination and talents of Latin America.
Dr. Azel‘s latest book is “Reflections on Freedom.”