Ayn Rand vs Latin Populists

Latin America marks the 50th anniversary of Atlas Shrugged, the pro-capitalist novel by the late Ayn Rand as populism is growing.

In Venezuela, President Hugo Chavez claims that "Capitalism is the way of the devil and exploitation" and expropriates private property, uses state money to acquire successful private companies in telecommunications and energy and threatens to do the same with mining companies, private clinics and even schools. In Argentina, President Nestor Kirchner says foreign investors are welcome, but not to make money. The same principle applies to local beef producers, who should sell locally at lower prices rather than benefit from higher export earnings, he has argued. In Ecuador, President Rafael Correa is drastically reducing the profit margins for foreign oil companies, saying they "cheated" under the old system. Meanwhile, Nicaragua's President Daniel Ortega denounces that "a capitalist and imperialist minority is imposing global capitalism to impoverish the world [and] continue to enslave us all." And in Bolivia, President Evo Morales nationalized the country's gas sector, while expropriating a Swiss tin smelter. No, these are not scenes from Atlas Shrugged, the pro-Capitalist novel by Ayn Rand published 50 years ago, but the reality of Latin America today.


So what would Rand, who died 25 years ago, say if she were alive today? "I think she would say that, in different degrees, Chavez, Morales, Correa and Ortega, appeal to the anti-individual, to the lower instincts of the human race," says Alex Chafuen, a native of

Argentina who is president and CEO of Atlas Economic Research Foundation, a Washington, DC-based organization that invests in free-market think tanks around the world. "All those leaders, she would say, promote a group mentality which is more proper to animal herds than to human beings."

Giancarlo Ibargüen, president of the widely-respected Francisco Marroquin University (UFM) in Guatemala City agrees. "Maybe she would be thinking how close some regimes are to the collectivist society criticized in Atlas Shrugged," he says. "Maybe she wouldn't be surprised if [John] Galt's Gulch comes to life in Latin America!"  

Ibargüen is referring to the secret enclave of the world's movers and shakers opposing the growing socialism described in Atlas Shrugged. The novel depicts a society that gradually becomes less and less capitalist, resulting one day in the world's top capitalists going on strike rather than continue to finance their own destruction.

Atlas Shrugged happens to be Ibargüen's favorite Ayn Rand book as well. "Atlas Shrugged is a philosophical novel based on sound economics, and an attractive moral defense of capitalism," he says.

Rand's description of The New Left would fit perfectly on leaders like Chavez, Correa and other populists in Latin America, argues Juan Fernando Carpio, executive director of Instituto de la Libertad in Ecuador, a free-market think tank.


Rand's Latin American admirers also include José Piñera, who is credited with the successful privatization of

Chile's pension funds; Ricardo Rojas, a prominent Argentine judge who has been involved in several major anti-corruption cases; Eduardo Marty, who founded and heads up the Argentine chapter of Junior Achievement and Arturo Hidrobo, the founder of Corfinsa and Banco Capital in Ecuador. 

In addition, Judy Nagy, a US native, has been promoting Rand's ideas for several decades in Ecuador and Latin America, most recently through her foundation Fundacion El Manantial.
Rand's influence in Latin America has grown thanks to the growing dissemination of her ideas and work, Ibargüen and Carpio say. "If you look at the last 20 years, of 100 people [in Latin America] that knew of Ayn Rand, that figure has grown hundredfold today," Carpio says. "They are young people, entrepreneurs and intellectuals."

This month, in connection with the 50th anniversary of Atlas Shrugged, Ibargüen and UFM have been holding a series of events to mark the achievement. "The events have not been "on" Ayn Rand herself but on her novel which inspires thousands not to say hundreds of thousands to lead a productive life," Ibargüen says. 

In addition to conferences analyzing the book, the events included the dedication of Atlas Libertas, a sculpture nearly 15 feet by 15 feet created by artist Walter Peter, Jr., a former UFM student of Guatemalan and Swiss heritage. 

This month also coincides with the fourth anniversary of the new Spanish edition of Atlas Shrugged. The new edition was published as La Rebelion de Atlas by Argentina-based book publisher Grito Sagrado and has sold more than 16,000 copies worldwide. In addition to its natural markets of

Spain and Latin America, the Spanish edition has also been sold in markets like Austria, 
Germany, Japan and Switzerland, the publisher says.

Grito Sagrado is headed up by Rosa Pelz, who along with her son, Fredy Kofman, gained the rights to publish the new Spanish version of Atlas Shrugged and several other books of
Rand. Kofman is the co-founder and president of Axialent, a U.S.-based management consultancy. He was assistant professor of management accounting and control systems at MIT's Sloan School of Management, where in 1992 he received the double distinction of "Teacher of the Year" at MIT and its Sloan School and has published several management books. "I believe Grito Sagrado from Argentina, and my friend Fredy Kofman have done a great service to the Spanish speaking world publishing a new, and uncensored edition wonderfully edited," Ibargüen says. Grito Sagrado published a Spanish version of Ayn Rand's other blockbuster novel, The Fountainhead, in December 2004 as El Manantial.

Chafuen, while praising the new translations, also regrets that their publication coincides with the upswing in populism in Latin America. "It is rather unfortunate that these translations have come out when due to other circumstances, the enemies of freedom are on the upswing," he says.  "I think her impact is yet to be felt."


Although Atlas Shrugged is seen as Rand's master piece, many of her followers also point to her other work. Chafuen's favorites, for example, are The Fountainhead and We the Living. "Reading her books, especially We the Living, where she narrates the early stages of a society being enslaved by communists, convinced me that I should devote my life to promote freedom and combat its major enemies," he says. 

He recently gave Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead to one of his sons when he turned 21.

However, Chafuen acknowledges that he doesn't agree with everything  Rand wrote. "I often recall a key part of [The Fountainhead] when Howard Roark, the great architect star of the novel, disgusted with the demands to conform, defiantly tells his would-be client: “The market . . .who cares about the market?”," Chafuen says. "Roark did not get the contract. If he could not build his way, he would not build at all. I think often that some Randians get carried away with that statement and become less effective in the market for ideas. Rand’s life shows that she cared about the market, even by the surname she chose (she selected the name of her typewriter)."

Rand was born in Russia  under the name Alicia Rosenbaum in 1905, but changed her name after immigrating to the U.S. in 1926.

If Rand were alive today, she would not only rail against the populists in Latin America  , but also their many fellow travelers and those who have failed to stop them, Chafuen believes. "She would ...direct her writings against the many collaborators who have made the rise of these neo-fascists leaders possible," he says. "I assume Ayn Rand would also find weaknesses in the current enemies of these Latin American rulers. Few in Latin America havechampioned the philosophy that sees in the individual, rather than the state, the source for all that is great in civilization."

Originally published in Latin Business Chronicle,  October 23, 2007