The Liberty Forum: Fighting for Freedom in Brazil Since 1988

Brazilians have lived moments of uncertainty, but above all, moments of great expectations.

Introductory note from FEE president Lawrence Reed: Diego Jardim Carvalho is Director of Leadership Development at the Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies (IEE) in Porto Alegre, Brazil, and co-author Roberto Oliveira is an IEE member.

I first lectured at IEE’s spectacular, annual Fórum da Liberdade (Liberty Forum) in 1995 when the program was still in its infancy, but I was amazed that the audience numbered at least 1,000. In the two additional times I’ve lectured there—most recently two years ago—there were 6,000!

Brazil is an exciting cauldron of ideas these days, as I have noted (here, here, and here). It’s the top country in the world for translations and reposting of FEE materials, followed by Poland and Guatemala. We work with many partner organizations in Brazil to nurture free-market concepts at this critical time in the country’s history. The failure and corruption of the once-dominant, socialist-oriented Workers Party are now widely acknowledged, and Brazilians are looking for answers.

IEE is one of the excellent groups in Brazil offering ideas and solutions. Its Fórum da Liberdade in Porto Alegre each April is a don’t-miss event. Readers can learn about the next one here. If you can attend, you will not be disappointed! – LWR

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The next Fórum da Liberdade (Liberty Forum) will be held on April 8 and 9, 2019, at the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio Grande do Sul in Porto Alegre, Brazil. Described as “the Super Bowl of Libertarianism,” its 32nd edition will feature business leaders, politicians, and academics of national and international relevance who will discuss the free market reforms Brazil needs to implement in order to overcome its recent economic crisis and achieve long-term sustainable development. This year’s Forum’s title says it all: “Is Brazil open to reforms?”

The History of The Liberty Forum

The Liberty Forum has been held since 1988 by the Institute of Entrepreneurial Studies (IEE), a non-profit organization founded by a group of 20 young entrepreneurs in Porto Alegre, a southern Brazilian capital city, in 1984. At that time, Brazil was living under a military regime—and contending with price controls, subsidized credit, protectionism, high inflation rates, and a stagnant economy. Even some Brazilian businessmen (whom you might think would support free markets) endorsed all that, often because they had cronies in government who gave them something. That model, however, was becoming obsolete. The movement for political democratization was growing as support for military rule waned.

Meanwhile, the economies of the relatively free Asian “tigers” like Hong Kong, Singapore, and South Korea were rising. China began to open up to foreign investment. The United States was undergoing a sort of a renewed appreciation for liberty and free markets personified by Ronald Reagan. Britain’s Margaret Thatcher, inspired by Austrian school economists, was trying to rebuild England after years under the Socialist Labour Party’s interference. Milton Friedman's ideas were applied by the Chicago Boys in Chile. The world was moving in one direction, whereas Brazil was heading in another one with a succession of interventionist governments. Even after military rule, Brazil’s Workers Party took the country down a socialist path, not a free market one.

The first Liberty Forum was held in 1988 with the aim of proposing alternative paths toward a freer and more prosperous society.

Nevertheless, those 20 young entrepreneurs in Porto Alegre had insightful ideas and wanted to change the status quo. Even though they were living under a dictatorial regime and were barely prepared for the political debate, they strongly criticized oppression, censorship, and the state’s intervention into businesses and people’s lives while opposing the socialist ideas that had captivated Brazilian youth. However, how could politicians, journalists, unionists, and academics be persuaded if not even business leaders were convinced that the adoption of libertarian policies would be the right path to follow?

In this context, the first Liberty Forum, held in 1988, was conceived by IEE’s founders with the aim of discussing social, political, and economic issues through a broad debate of ideas, proposing alternative paths toward a freer and more prosperous society. The invitation to the first Liberty Forum displayed a microphone on its cover and the provocative title “Freedom, Speak Up!” At the end of the event, which brought together about 300 people, the “Letter of Porto Alegre” was presented. It stated in part:

What our country will be tomorrow depends on what we do today. There is no manifest destiny. We will be a great country only if all of us as a society have the greatness to challenge our historical moment, break the shackles that hold us back to a past of backwardness and privileges, and join the group of nations that, by allowing their citizens to freely use their capabilities, have managed to reach a level of development no one had ever imagined.

A Continuing Legacy of Freedom

Today, almost 35 years after its foundation, IEE continues to promote the original vision of its founders, that is, “to be the best institution dedicated to the development of business leaders in Brazil” based on the defense of individual liberties and democracy under the rule of law. IEE’s members work on a voluntary basis and, once a year, they open the Institute’s doors to the public by promoting the Liberty Forum, deemed the biggest event for debating ideas in Latin America.

Throughout its editions, the Liberty Forum has gathered more than 350 speakers, including five Nobel Prize winners (James Buchanan, Gary Becker, James Heckman, Douglass North, and Mario Vargas Llosa), nine heads of state (Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, Jorge Batlle, José María Aznar, Vicente Fox, Jorge Quiroga, Luis Alberto Lacalle, Carlos Mesa, and John Bruton), 53 national and international political leaders, and 16 ministers of state, as well as business leaders, academics, and scholars. FEE president Lawrence Reed has lectured at three of the events since his 1995 visit.

In 2007, the Atlas Network honored IEE with the Templeton Freedom Award grant, recognizing the Institute's defense of individual liberties.

In its 2018 edition, an audience of over 6,500 people attended the event, and the online live broadcast surpassed 635,000 views. On social networks, more than 813,000 minutes of videos of the Forum were watched. It hit its new record with nine newspaper covers and nationwide coverage on two large TV channels.

Students from about 30 schools in Porto Alegre’s metropolitan area and 48 higher education institutions in Brazil attended, helping to spread the ideas of liberty among the youth. Beforehand, nine liberty workshops were held with selected speakers analyzing topics such as objectivism, cryptocurrency, and the Brazilian economy. During the Forum, IEE annually publishes the Libertarian Thoughts series, a book containing articles written by IEE’s members and invited writers to propose libertarian solutions. In 2018, 4,000 copies were freely distributed at the event. Moreover, several Brazilian and international libertarian organizations like FEE regularly participate in the Forum, which is also a space for networking and exchanging experiences among institutes from various countries, thus strengthening the global free market/liberty movement.

Given their importance to the debate of ideas in Latin America, both the Liberty Forum and IEE have received numerous recognitions. In 2007, the Atlas Network honored IEE with the Templeton Freedom Award grant, recognizing the Institute as one of the most promising global institutions in the defense of individual liberties. In 2013, it was recognized by Forbes magazine as the think tank that holds the largest discussion forum in Latin America.

IEE Contributes To and Influences Society 

In addition, it was ranked as one of the 150 most influential organizations that promote political, social, and economic transformations in the world in the 2013 Global Go To Think Tanks ranking, organized by the University of Pennsylvania. In 2014, IEE was awarded the Francisco Marroquín Award, granted by the Atlas Network, in recognition of its “Student Outreach.” In 2017, it was granted the Juan Carlos Cachanosky Award for the Dissemination of the Principles of a Free Society, an award given by the Atlas Network. In the same year, it was named a Templeton Freedom Award finalist for the Liberty Forum project.

Besides discussing ideas and proposing new solutions, the Forum also holds a workshop for entrepreneurs, the StartHub. Its goal consists of boosting projects of great economic and social impact. The selected entrepreneurs present their projects during the Forum and receive advice and guidance from mentors, who collect information, establish connections, and get feedback from the public with the aim of finding ways that might enable or leverage the projects presented. At the 2018 Forum, 15 projects with great potential for implementation or expansion were selected and presented.

The Liberty Forum and the IEE’s impact go beyond promoting ideas. Similar institutes have been set up in other Brazilian regions following IEE’s initiative. These institutes have helped to strengthen the libertarian movement in the country today, including the IFLs (Institutos de Formação de Líderes) and the Líderes do Amanhã, which have replicated the IEE model in other Brazilian states. They also hold their own forums annually, inspired by the huge success of the Liberty Forum.

Brazilians have lived moments of uncertainty, but above all, moments of great expectations.

In addition, IEE’s members, in parallel with the Institute, also continue to contribute to society, as is the case with the Instituto Cultural Floresta (ICF), a non-profit organization created by IEE’s members for, among other things, improving the police infrastructure and helping to reduce crime rates in Rio Grande do Sul state. For achieving that, ICF managed to bring together businessmen who raised funds in the private sector to fund brand new equipment for Rio Grande do Sul’s police, showing in practice what libertarians advocate—that is, the private sector’s responsiveness to society’s demands is more efficient than the government’s.

Within politics, the Liberty Forum and IEE’s members are also playing important roles to support Brazil. Before the 2018 elections, Winston Ling, IEE’s member and founder, introduced the current minister of economy, Paulo Guedes (a University of Chicago economist and great advocate of free markets), to President Jair Bolsonaro, who now promises to implement a libertarian economic agenda, unprecedented in the history of the country (it is noteworthy that Paulo Guedes’ first participation at the Liberty Forum was in 1990, when Brazil was still facing hyperinflation). Paulo Uebel, IEE’s former president, and Wagner Lenhart, IEE’s former director, are part of President Bolsonaro’s economic team, helping to implement a pro-liberty agenda along with Guedes. Fábio Ostermann, IEE’s former director, was elected as state deputy in the state of Rio Grande do Sul, and Ricardo Gomes, IEE’s former president, was elected as a city councilman in Porto Alegre. Furthermore, many politicians admit they were strongly influenced by the ideas discussed at the Liberty Forum.

The population seems to be awakening while demanding more knowledge. That is why the Liberty Forum sets a record every year. Coincidently, on the same date of the upcoming Forum, the new Brazilian government will be completing its first 100 days. It is still unknown whether Bolsonaro’s team will be able to get the much-needed libertarian reforms approved. Should they succeed, the government will be overcoming the organized pressure of many special interest groups, the corporatism, and the cronyism, which are Brazil’s historical characteristics resulting from a succession of interventionist and statist governments—both left-wing and right-wing.

Brazilians have lived moments of uncertainty, but above all, moments of great expectations. The country still seems to be experiencing the same problems that afflicted it at the time of the first Liberty Forum: statism, corporatism, cronyism, and protectionism in various areas. The new government, however, intends to send significant structural reforms for congressional approval this year. Will Brazil be ready for the reforms that will put it on the path of freedom and progress? We will be seeking the answers during the 2019 Liberty Forum! We thank FEE for being a great and enthusiastic partner.