Conventional wisdom says that the Hispanic vote will be definitive in the 2020 general election. That, however, is old news. The media talked of Latinos as a “decisive bloc in several key battleground states” at this stage in 2008. What is new is the appearance of a slate of Hispanic candidates, officials, and activists in the Libertarian Party.
Young, determined, and committed to both individual and economic freedom, these Latinos are challenging the notion that, as one Salon writer put it in 2015, libertarianism is restricted to “white males who want to preserve their dominance in a society where they are quickly becoming minorities.”
Take the case of Alex Merced, who became the Libertarian Party’s highest-ranking Hispanic member to date when he was elected Vice-Chair of the National Committee in 2018. A financial education professional of Guatemalan and Puerto Rican descent, Merced, who has run for office as a libertarian several times in New York City and New York state, leaned “far to the left” until he discovered Ron Paul’s 2007 presidential campaign. He then started to learn about libertarian philosophy and Austrian School economics, tracking his progress on a YouTube channel before joining the Libertarian Party in 2013.
Merced’s trajectory refutes the notion of libertarianism as an exclusive domain of what GQ called “a bunch of white guys in a tiny island.” In fact, he believes that libertarianism has a particular appeal to the Hispanic community, whose members are often familiar with immigrant stories of personal success through hard work and entrepreneurship. Latinos can understand that, far from being about dominance, libertarianism is about aspiration.
Martha Bueno, a Libertarian Party councilwoman in West Kendall, Florida, agrees. Formerly a Republican voter, Bueno, whose uncle introduced her to the Libertarian Party due to her opposition to the second Iraq War, says that Hispanic immigrants tend to arrive in the U.S. without thinking that the government owes them anything.
“The Hispanic community is so aligned with libertarian values that it should be the easiest group to reach,” she states. The problem is that not many Hispanics are aware that the Libertarian Party exists.
Bueno is doing her best to change that. During this election cycle, she is running Libertarios Hispanos, a Facebook page where she dubs Libertarian Party presidential candidate Jo Jorgensen’s videos into Spanish. She believes that the idea of reinstating Ellis Island-type, no visa immigration policies and removing most obstacles to U.S. citizenship can strike a chord with Hispanic voters. Due to her Cuban background and her father’s political imprisonment for trying to escape Fidel Castro’s dictatorship, she fears a border wall not only as a means to stop immigration, but also because it raises the dystopian possibility of people being prevented from leaving.
Another Hispanic member of the Libertarian Party who believes in returning to the Ellis Island ideal is Oscar Herrera, who is running for the Ohio State Legislature. Herrera grew up in a Mexican-American household in northern San Diego that was staunchly Democratic. His parents were in favor of relaxing immigration laws, an issue which the left was supposed to espouse. The Obama administration’s consistent deportations and a leaked Democratic National Committee email in 2016 referring to Hispanic outreach as “taco bowl engagement” disenchanted Herrera. He turned to the Republicans and found not only arguments against illegal immigration, but also sentiments which he perceived as anti-Hispanic.
After Trump’s nomination in 2016, Herrera joined the Libertarian Party, where he has felt at home. However, he thinks a stronger marketing push is necessary to reach Hispanic voters.
“We offer solutions to their problems as a group but, more importantly, as individuals,” Herrera says.
Omar Recuero, who is a former Vice Chair of the Libertarian Party of Florida and an enthusiast of former presidential candidate Gary Johnson, considers that identity politics is not as important as the philosophy of individual liberty and free markets. According to his experience, “the message of freedom sells by itself” regardless of ethnicity. However, Recuero, whose ancestry is Panamanian, Ecuadorian, and Colombian, does think it is essential to be able to speak to people about libertarianism in their own language. He recommends translating the party’s literature not only into Spanish, but also into Creole so as to reach Florida’s large Haitian community.
Each of these Latino libertarians said that their Hispanic background was relevant to their conversion to libertarianism. Merced’s maternal grandfather was assassinated after being involved in the Washington-backed coup that toppled Jacobo Árbenz, a leftist president of Guatemala, in 1954. The family’s ensuing troubles made Merced skeptical of an interventionist U.S. foreign policy.
“Regime change tends to fail,” he affirms.
For her part, Bueno recalls that, while growing up in South Florida, she never met several of her family members, including her grandmother, who were trapped in Cuba under the Castro regime. Despite being only 90 miles away, communism left them a world apart. Emigrating from countries destroyed by statism to the United States only to embrace big government —even the Republican variety— is “mind-boggling,” Bueno says.
If libertarian values are so aligned with Hispanic culture, why is today’s most prominent Hispanic politician, Democratic Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC), an avowed socialist?
Merced says that AOC’s diagnosis of injustice as America’s chief problem is correct, but he thinks that her remedy of more government intervention and wealth redistribution is mistaken. While it is easy to point to villains such as bailed-out bankers and other corporate influence-peddlers, Merced prefers to emphasize the role of heroes such as his Guatemalan mother, who pulled herself up in the U.S. through individual initiative, not government support.
Herrera also disagrees with AOC’s policies but admires her work to reach voters and the clarity of her vision.
“Libertarians need to do the same thing,” he says. “We have to knock on doors to offer a vision of a freer America, where we are free to be Hispanic without looking over our shoulders for the police or for ICE.”
Bueno considers that AOC is well-intentioned and comes across as genuine, which is rare in politics. However, one of her weaknesses is that, despite her own struggles, she has little experience of life outside the U.S. Bueno lived in Venezuela, where her father ran a cattle breeding concern when it was Latin America’s most prosperous country. Even in the days before Hugo Chávez took power, seeing Latin American levels of poverty first-hand was eye-opening.
“It changes you,” Bueno says. “Poverty in the U.S. is just not comparable.”
Also, AOC overlooks the fact that America is “the most charitable country in the world.” While this strong culture of voluntarism consistently helps the least well-off, AOC’s brand of socialism —even in its “democratic” guise— is akin to that which made Venezuela poorer than Haiti in only two decades.
Another trait these libertarian up-and-comers share is experience running small businesses. Merced set up a successful comic book gaming store while in college. Bueno ran a company that sold vitamins and supplements online, finding that she had to spend more time and money every year just to file her taxes. Herrera, who has worked in retail, concluded that taking the government off working people’s backs will help them tremendously.
Entrepreneurial and marketing skills —which, paradoxically, socialists like AOC have used much more effectively than pro-free market politicians— are certainly necessary if libertarians are to expand their appeal among U.S. Hispanics; in 2014, a much cited Pew Research Center poll found that 11% of Latinos self-identified as libertarians. As members of an ethnic minority within a political minority, Bueno and the others recognize that their task is an uphill struggle.
Some might say it’s quixotic. After all, immigrants from Latin America bring not only socialist baggage of the Castro-Chávez type, but also a long tradition of corporatism. As Edmund S. Phelps and Juan Vicente Solá explain, this culture contains “powerful values inimical to individual success and innovative pursuits.” The result is “a system that prevents political and economic competition in the name of social harmony and national unity.” Which is why, across Latin America, “the business sector is enmeshed with the public sector and tied down by state restrictions.”
Perhaps the solution is to revisit an older, mostly forgotten Hispanic tradition of individual rights and economic freedom. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the Spanish scholars of the School of Salamanca —men like Francisco Suárez and Juan de Mariana— laid the groundwork for essential concepts now associated with later Austrian School economists or classical liberal philosophers. Eric Graf, a professor at Guatemala’s Universidad Francisco Marroqín, points out that Salamancan ideas included the subjective nature of prices, the causes and dangers of inflation, and the notion of popular sovereignty as opposed to divine kingship.
Today’s rising Hispanic libertarians can find this ideal of freedom in their own cultural heritage. As Don Quijote tells his sidekick: “Liberty, Sancho, is one of the most precious gifts that the heavens gave to men.”
Daniel Raisbeck is a Senior Fellow at the Reason Foundation and writes for Reason, the magazine of “free minds and free markets.” He founded the Libertarian Movement of Colombia and ran for mayor of Bogotá in 2015. He tweets from @DanielRaisbeck.