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Thursday, June 4, 2015

Millions in Brazil Follow a Teen Leader to Freedom

Real Heroes: Kim Kataguiri

“I like a little rebellion now and then,” Thomas Jefferson famously wrote. The primary author of the Declaration of Independence and America’s third president regarded rebellion as “like a storm in the atmosphere.” It clears the air and settles matters.

A storm is brewing in the Brazilian political atmosphere at this very moment. Amazingly, the hero at the center of it is not a seasoned veteran of government, media, business, or labor. He is not a Marxist, a class warfare demagogue, or a bomb-thrower. He’d sooner spit on a Che Guevara T-shirt than wear one. He’s a 19-year-old college dropout with a very un-Brazilian last name, and he’s a libertarian — one that Jefferson himself likely would embrace with enthusiasm. Meet Kim Kataguiri, the cofounder and public face of the Free Brazil Movement.

Just two years ago, this grandson of Japanese immigrants was a high school student with no political profile, public or private. His story is a perfect example of something we at the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) frequently identify as essential to the future of liberty: packaging our ideas in ways young people find both accessible and exciting, and then putting them out there in venues that young people use.

When attractive ideas converge with catalyzing events and strong personalities, big and unpredictable things happen. In hindsight, we see clearly that the demise of communism in one country after another in 1989 resulted from such a perfect alignment. In Brazil, the rise of libertarian ideas is so palpable that the statist left is having fits trying to finger some evil puppet master behind it all. As in the United States, the statists can’t conceive of a decentralized, ideas-based, grassroots movement of people who actually believe passionately in freedom and free markets; to them, the opposition is always a nefarious conspiracy of a few. The catalyzing events behind Brazil’s freedom movement are high taxes, massive corruption and cronyism, rising price inflation amid a sluggish economy, and the widely perceived incompetence of President Dilma Rousseff and her socialist-leaning Workers’ Party.

“I learned about Milton Friedman and Ludwig von Mises through the Internet,” Kataguiri told me in a June 2 interview. He cited a think tank headquartered in Sao Paulo, Mises Institute-Brazil, as one source of those ideas. Another was Portal Libertarianismo. I take special pride in this revelation from him: “A lot of articles from the FEE website were translated by these Brazilian libertarians and have helped tens of thousands of people to know the ideas of liberty.”

In neighboring Argentina, people take to the streets for almost any cause. Brazilians are more laid back. So on March 15, 2015, when Kataguiri and his young associates turned out nearly two million Brazilians in 25 cities to protest corruption and socialism, a sensation was born. Helio Beltrao, founder and president of Mises Institute-Brazil, sees Kataguiri as “a natural, dynamic leader.” On April 12, Kataguiri’s Free Brazil Movement and associated groups fielded protests in 200 cities across Brazil, the largest country in Latin America and the fifth biggest in the world. Beltrao says, “The left is completely in awe over this. These were the largest demonstrations of any kind, for any reason, since at least 1992 in our country.”

A key ingredient in Kataguiri’s success so far is his mastery of video and social media. He’s prolific, eloquent — and some say delightfully “quirky” — on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. Reportedly, Rousseff and her minions are outraged and embarrassed at the effectiveness of his incisive barbs. He and his Free Brazil Movement have even engineered classes and rock concerts with free-market themes. Drawing comparisons to the early days of the Arab Spring, the left-leaning Brazilian press has found these ingenious efforts impossible to ignore.

What caused this teenager to morph so quickly from a studious high schooler to a nationally admired activist whose name is now known by a large portion of Brazil’s 200 million people?

“First of all,” Kataguiri told me, “Rousseff’s government increased the size of the state more than any other. The inflation and unemployment rates have reached historic levels. Her government is up to its neck in corruption scandals that not only steal the population’s money but use it to buy the Congress. Today, only 7 percent of the Brazilian people approve of the government. It’s very clear that the statist model of the Workers’ Party has failed the country. Every political party in Brazil steals our money, but only the Workers’ Party uses our money to steal our freedom.”

The precipitous decline in Rousseff’s popularity is especially remarkable given that she won reelection (though narrowly) just eight months ago. The burst of libertarian pressure may be partly responsible for her recent attempts to reverse course. In small ways, her administration has begun to cut government spending and call for reining in out-of-control entitlement programs. She vociferously denies any personal involvement in the burgeoning corruption at the state-owned oil company, Petrobras. But those efforts so far have earned mostly disdain from her base and cries of “too little, too late” from others, including Kataguiri. The air is thick with calls for her impeachment even though Brazilian law makes that prospect extremely problematic.

I asked Kataguiri if his notoriety has caused him any personal troubles. “I’ve been threatened several times by people and organizations paid by the government, but I’m not afraid,” he said. “I knew from the very beginning of our Free Brazil Movement that we would be fighting against criminals. Someone had to do that, and now that millions of people are putting their hopes on me, I can’t give up. What the people want now is less government and more money in their own pockets where it belongs.”

No matter where the impeachment effort may go, this new libertarianism in Brazil seems solidly ensconced and poised for growth. “I expect that in the next decade or two, most of our society will not only understand classical liberalism, but defend it too.”

Beltrao agrees. In only the last month, his organization has spearheaded the creation of the Liberty Network (Rede Liberdade), bringing together many liberty-leaning think tanks and organizations in Brazil to share ideas and strategies and to collaborate on public activities. It gained significant attention on June 1 when it organized a campaign against taxes that make up 60 percent of the price of beer. And though no political party in Brazil has been committed to liberty since the 19th century, one is now in the making. The Novo (“New”) Party has gathered the signatures necessary for the next step: certification by the government so it can field candidates in elections.

Kataguiri and his comrades are refreshingly principled. When they speak of free enterprise, they don’t mean crony capitalism. When they call for reductions in spending, they include social programs. They realize that social programs are little more than attempts by corrupt politicians to buy votes with the voters’ own money. They quote Bastiat, Mises, Friedman, and Hayek.

When you’re already a hero at 19, just imagine where you might be when you’re 30! William Pitt was prime minister of Great Britain at age 24. I predict that we will hear the name of Kim Kataguiri for a long time to come.

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  • Lawrence W. Reed is FEE's President Emeritus, having previously served for nearly 11 years as FEE’s president (2008-2019). He is also FEE's Humphreys Family Senior Fellow and Ron Manners Global Ambassador for Liberty. His Facebook page is here and his personal website is