Otto: Not Che Guevara

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."

The United States has a longer standing libertarian tradition than Costa Rica, boasting such high-profile followers as magazine publisher Steve Forbes and former Federal Reserve chief Alan Greenspan. But until now, Costa Rica’s libertarians had been a comparatively fledgling group.

The Libertarian Movement party (ML) formed in 1994 and four years later, got one of its founders, a 37-year-old Harvard educated attorney, elected to the Legislative Assembly. The attorney was Otto Guevara.

After battling his way as the party’s only congressman, Guevara went on to run for president, making considerable gains with each campaign, from 1.7 percent of the vote in 2002 to 8.4 percent in 2006. The growing support earned the party six out of 57 seats in the assembly.

Part of the confusion about ML's ideological stance comes from the fact that Guevara’s campaign manager was a member of the communist party Vanguardia Popular in the 1970s. Roger Retana said he believes that libertarianism today possesses what he was seeking in those days in Marxism: utter freedom of the individual. This belief, he said, has been misconstrued by local media.

“The central ideological beliefs of the Libertarian Movement is liberal thought,” Retana said. “Our central focus is through liberty to empower the entire creativity of the individual. This of course doesn’t mean renouncing the state and the social responsibility it should have.”

In Costa Rica, which prides itself on socialized health care and public education and has been one of the slowest Latin American countries to give up its state-run telephone monopoly, Retana’s last comment is vital to any campaigner, no matter the political stripe.

Despite Guevara’s campaigning efforts, his iron-fist, smaller government messages have gotten lost on some Ticos.

“That guy in power would be like having Hugo Chavez!” said a Guevara opponent, Edwin Cardenas, comparing a Guevara presidency to the left-wing president of Venezuela, famous for swelling the size of government and nationalizing key industries. That’s not likely from a libertarian.

Meanwhile, if the election were today, 30 percent of decided voters might cast their ballots to see Guevara in power.

“I will vote for Otto, because I think he has the best government plan to push Costa Rica forward, to stop crime and corruption, and we want change now in all this bureaucracy,” said Verny Quesada, a graphic designer.

It remains to be seen if enough undecided voters tip the balance to force a runoff — not to mention whether those voters understand what it means to cast a ballot for a libertarian.