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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.

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.