Free Societies

Is freedom brewing in Latin America? Many signs point to 'yes'

Freedom Stirring header
Photo by Luis Robayo/AFP via Getty Images
Brad Lips

Brad Lips | CEO, Atlas Network

This op-ed first appeared on Fox News.

When we read about Latin America, the news is often focused on dysfunction at the U.S.-Mexico border and the waves of immigrants crossing it. The "border crisis" tends to grab the most headlines.

While immigration is a policy challenge that deserves attention, it is actually downstream from a separate question: Why can’t Latin American countries offer enough economic opportunity to keep their citizens thriving at home?

This question defies an easy explanation, but one contributing factor is the "pink tide" ideological revolution that began a quarter-century ago with Hugo Chavez’s ascent to power in Venezuela. Chavez contended that this movement, also called "21st-century socialism," would sweep across the Western Hemisphere and usher in a new era of equality and shared prosperity. Yet, in a matter of years, it brought only disaster to Venezuela and the countries that emulated his example, particularly Argentina, Bolivia, and Nicaragua.

Rather than continuing to make gains, as many Latin American countries did following their free-market reforms of the 1990s, the pink tide washed away economic opportunity and made refugees of people who saw no other way to get ahead. Millions of these people are now knocking on America’s door for help.

Today, however, there are glimmers of hope within Latin America. President Javier Milei of Argentina garners the most headlines. At Davos, Milei explained that his country was among the world’s richest until it "embraced collectivism over the course of the last 100 years" and Argentines "started to become systematically impoverished." There are major challenges ahead for Milei and others to restore Argentina’s disintegrating economy, but January saw the government achieve its first monthly budget surplus since 2012. Baby steps perhaps, but certainly in the right direction.

Could a positive example in Argentina presage larger changes in Latin America? The American media largely ignored massive protests against left-wing presidents in Mexico and Brazil last month, but ignorance does not mean unimportance. In other countries that had swung leftward, such as Chile, Colombia, and Peru, the pendulum appears to be returning back toward pragmatism. One doesn’t need to be an Ayn Rand devotee to appreciate that private investors are scared off by excessive corporate tax rates, or that small businesses—which fuel most employment in Latin America—are being crushed by red tape that diverts hundreds of hours to regulatory compliance annually, rather than empowering workers or serving customers.

To keep the momentum for free-market reforms that fuel economic opportunity, many civil society organizations are not waiting for the political class to lead. Think tanks and "do tanks" are taking matters into their own hands, as they should. After all, lasting change happens at the grassroots.

Before Milei ever came to power, the organization Asociación Argentina de Contribuyentes (AAC) united a multi-partisan coalition to eliminate a monthly tax on credit card holders in Buenos Aires. Prior to AAC’s involvement, the city was charging local residents an additional 1.2 percent on their credit card statements, but the organization successfully worked with politicians on both sides of the aisle to return the tax’s proceeds to taxpayers—an unprecedented victory. The tax repeal amounts to $300 million in annual savings for three million people.

In Peru, Centro de Investigación Looking offers students and working professionals across Latin America free, on-demand courses on free-market environmentalism, reaching hundreds of regional leaders. In Brazil, Instituto de Estudos Empresariais has hosted its Fórum da Liberdade ("Liberty Forum") every year since 1988, attracting over 80,000 attendees and more than 400 speakers, including heads of state and Nobel laureates. And the list goes on.

Such work will inevitably come under fire from the regressive Left. Freedom champions are thorns in the side of left-wing authoritarians who advocate for government control and collectivist economics. Those who oppose individual liberty and free enterprise may even resort to unfounded, reductive attacks, as we recently saw in Mexico, where certain politicians falsely accused government agents and corporate puppeteers of collaborating with the nonprofit sector to spread freedom. For leftist demagogues, the truth is inconvenient, and the truth is that local Argentines, Brazilians, and Peruvians are the ones championing freedom on the ground.

For Latin America to meet its full economic potential, its countries need a genuinely homegrown freedom movement. Fortunately for the region, and contrary to the conspiracy theories spun by populists clinging to power, Latin America's nonpartisan, independent-minded civil society organizations are making the case for common-sense reforms to unleash the economic talents of their people. They’re giving talented Latin Americans the green pastures they need to succeed at home, before ever looking abroad.