The Return of Carlos Rangel

From time to time, looking at the depressing panorama of Latin America, I think of Carlos Rangel, one of the region’s most admirable classical liberals of the second part of the 20th century. His books, more relevant than ever despite having been published nearly half a century ago, implicitly tell us two things. First, that it makes no sense to demand from the immediate present results that contravene a very old illiberal heritage, so it is up to each generation of classical liberals to gradually build on what the previous one has done. 

His books also tell us that the cause of freedom is a commitment that never achieves definitive results. Carlos Rangel was ahead of many other Latin Americans in his defense of the rule of law, liberal democracy, property rights and the market economy, notions that in the 1970s and 1980s merited the deep contempt of politicians, intellectuals, business people and students in those countries. In later years, partly because his ideas made headway, some countries experimented with economic freedom, albeit in distorted form, and managed to raise living standards, triggering the growth of the middle class in the 2000 decade.

However, complacency set in, the reforms stalled, in some countries they were reversed, and populism came back on the scene; today, except for a few oases of hope, such as Uruguay, the Dominican Republic and Ecuador, Latin America is once again in the hands, or on the verge of falling into the hands, of what Rangel called “Third World ideology.” This means it is up to the new generations to teach what Rangel taught his contemporaries.

It is, therefore, great news that Cedice, the Venezuelan “think tank” that has heroically stood up for freedom in that wretched country for decades, has just published a digital edition of his three books.” The main two, incidentally, are available in English under the titles “The Latin Americans: Their Love-hate Relationship with the United States” and “Third World Ideology.” The English-language title of the first book renders no justice to the Spanish-language title, translated literally, is “From the Good Savage to the Good Revolutionary.” 

The two principal theses the Venezuelan journalist and writer put forward in his books remain very valid. The first was that Latin America imported from the Western world that conquered it half a millennium ago a vision of itself made up of myths that have served to justify values and institutions inimical to political and socioeconomic development—hence the phrase “from the good savage to the good revolutionary.” The idea being that according to these myths Latin America’s pure civilization owes its failure to its exploitation by the rapacious developed world. 

The second thesis is that after World War II, when the process of decolonization took place in Africa and Asia, what we now call the “emerging” world, which includes Latin America, adopted a “Third World ideology” inspired by the ideological obscurantism of Marx´s admirers and followers in Europe.

At the beginning of the 20th century, when they realized that capitalism was not in ruins in the most advanced countries and would not give way to socialism, as Marx had predicted, the socialists argued that imperialism had given new life to this perverse system by transferring the class struggle from the national to the international scene, where the rich countries exploited the poor in the way the bourgeoisie exploited the proletariat at home. It was therefore up to the “proletarian” countries to fight against Western values—liberal democracy, the rule of law, and free trade. Various theories, such as the “dependency theory,” emerged in Latin America on the basis of this ideological falsehood in order to blame other countries for Latin America’s failure.

According to Rangel, exposing Latin America’s political myths and restoring a sense of reality to politics, on the one hand, and replacing “Third World ideology” with liberal values, on the other, were the prerequisites for achieving development.

These two crucial teachings of Rangel’s (he offered many others) are still very topical. Myths and “Third World ideology” are at the heart of governments like that of Mexico´s López Obrador, at one end of the region, and at the other end, of the millions of Chileans who rejected their successful model in recent years, as well as a long list of demagogues in between. Hopefully, when the new populist experiments fail, Carlos Rangel’s books will serve as a fresh start.

Alvaro Vargas Llosa is a Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute. His Independent books include Global Crossings, Liberty for Latin America, and The Che Guevara Myth.
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