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Otto: Not Che Guevara

Costa Ricans are confused about whether a libertarian candidate for president is on the right or left.

SAN JOSE, Costa Rica — Would a libertarian nationalize key industries and govern like Hugo Chavez? Apparently some Costa Ricans think so — and they just might vote for him.

Libertarian candidate Otto Guevara has turned Costa Rica’s presidential election on its head, stunning opponents by surging into second place.

But as Guevara continues to rise in the polls, it's unclear whether his countrymen understand what libertarianism entails. Guevara, 49, wants to eliminate Costa Rica’s currency, slash income taxes and declare the country's crime problem a state of national emergency.

Yet many voters seem to believe his Libertarian party falls to the left of the incumbent center-right party. This perception isn't helped by the fact that his campaign manager used to be a communist.

His ascension comes at the expense of former Vice President Laura Chinchilla, 50, who had looked poised to become Costa Rica’s first female president.

Guevara has risen to 27 percent in polling by CID-Gallup, up from 8 percent in August. Meanwhile, Chinchilla is polling at 44 percent. If neither candidate exceeds 40 percent in the Feb. 7 election, it will go to a runoff.

This is Guevara’s third campaign for president, and the Libertarians clearly feel that they've finally gotten it right. In the last elections, they finished with less than 10 percent of the vote.

At a campaign rally this month at an amusement park in San Jose, Guevara seemed most confident. He stood before his faithful in party colors — a red jacket and white shirt beneath — with his shiny dark hair slicked back, almost like a Costa Rican Robert De Niro in “The Untouchables.”

Guevara made headlines that day by announcing a push to eliminate Costa Rica’s currency, the colon, in order to dollarize the economy, as Ecuador, El Salvador and Panama have done.

Costa Ricans currently use both the colon and the dollar, and Guevara argues that if the wealthy do their transactions in dollars, everyone else should be able to as well. “We want Costa Rican salaries to be paid in the same currency as the ones paid to high executives in private banks,” he said.

His list goes on with bold pledges to provide every student with a laptop, slash income taxes and burn bureaucratic red tape. The applause grows loud as he exclaims, “Making money is not a bad thing!”

Spending it apparently isn’t either. His campaign had spent more than $1 million on advertising by mid-December, according to a report in La Nacion, forcing Guevara to fend off speculation about the source of his finances. The rumors include an allegation that Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli, one of the region’s only libertarian leaders, donated to his campaign. Guevara has denied the charges.

One ad caused quite a stir for showing a man walking down the street in his boxers. When asked why he was walking “chingo” (Costa Rican for naked), the man replies “because that’s the only way they see that I’m not carrying anything, and they don’t rob me.” Then Guevara enters promising an iron fist on crime.

With the election only a few days away, the buzz around Guevara has pollsters somewhat perplexed.

Carlos Denton, co-founder and president of CID-Gallup, said a lot of people don't seem to understand what Guevara's program stands for. He said most Costa Ricans see Chinchilla's National Liberation Party (PLN) as the center-right party in the race, with many believing the Libertarians fall to the left. "They’re not comprehending that Libertarians are actually to the right of what the PLN is."