San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Tico Libertarianism and the U.S. Tea Party

United under the Gadsden Flag – yellow with a coiled snake and the motto “Don’t Tread on Me” – the Tea Party, the United States’ latest political phenomenon, seems to be gaining clout and drawing attention through mass demonstrations and organizing to win seats in this year’s midterm U.S. congressional elections, to be held Nov. 2.

The movement is based on the precepts of libertarianism and fueled by a romantic “pick-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps,” American Dream mentality, a la Horatio Alger. Tea Party advocates revere the authority of the U.S. Constitution and tend to take a diehard conservative stance on issues like gun control and illegal immigration.

Party members insist that the movement has no central leadership. Instead, they say, it is made up of groups of concerned activists who claim no party affiliation and say that they are fed up with what they consider to be deteriorating political conditions encouraged by welfare programs and high taxes. Denouncing even the most subtle shade of socialism, they call for a smaller government, one that is less concerned with things like state-regulated healthcare and more concerned with protecting the rights of its citizens to own and control property.

The Libertarian Movement Party (ML), which is the closest thing to the Tea Party in Costa Rica, also is gaining political momentum rapidly. When Otto Guevara, the party’s founder and presidential candidate, initially ran for office in 2002, he won only 1.7 percent of the popular vote. In 2006, he ran for office again, receiving an improved 8.4 percent. In the presidential elections earlier this year, he earned a whopping 20 percent of the popular vote, making the ML one of the world’s strongest libertarian parties. 

Like the Tea Party, the ML claims that its constituency is made up of ordinary working citizens who are tired of traditional politicians and parties.

In an interview with The Tico Times, Luis Antonio Barrantes, an ex-legislator and party member, described the citizenry that his party claims to represent as a wide variety of ordinary folks who champion for individual liberty.

“They aren’t divided by color of skin, race, economic circumstance or religion, so (the ML) has the support of all the different sectors of the economy.”

While the U.S. Tea Party makes similar statements, polls continue to show that tea partiers are predominantly white, conservative, Christian males over the age of 55. A recent University of Washington poll showed that 88 percent of Tea Party members support the recently passed, controversial Arizona immigration law and only 35 percent believe that “blacks are hard working.”

The Tea Party and the ML share fiscally conservative ideals and a common approval of completely privatized economies, but the ML tends to be much more socially liberal than the Tea Party.

Christine O’Donnell, an ultra-conservative Republican Party nominee for a senate seat from Delaware – who has received financial backing from the Tea Party – recently upset nine-term congressman Mike Castle in Delaware’s Republican primary contest. In the 1990s, O’Donnell was the head of a Christian conservative lobby group called Savior’s Alliance for Lifting the Truth, and led an anti-masturbation campaign in which she called the practice “sinful” and equated it to adultery.

Guevara and the ML have different ideas. In an interview with Reason Magazine, a libertarian monthly published in Los Angeles, California, he explained how the party has engaged a younger constituency that is drawn to the idea of self-ownership.

Guevara said in the interview, “Fashions like tattooing and piercing, these really indicate a tremendous degree of individualism. The core idea is that it’s your body to do with as you wish; to use as a means of self-expression. Sexual liberty, the freedom to use drugs, these are all areas where our position is appealing to the young.”

So far the ML has failed to nail down a firm definition of “sexual liberty,” however, and the issue has been a flash point within the party

“There are some (party members) who are overly dogmatic,” said Barrantes. “Take, for example, the issue of a person deciding whether or not they will be in a same-sex partnership. Some of us sustain the idea that this is a freedom that every person chooses in their personal life. Some think that cohabitation rights should be given, but not the rights to legally marry.”

As the ML continues to influence politics in Costa Rica, the Tea Party does the same in the United States. Critics from the both the political right and left have said that Tea Party will only serve to weaken the conservative agenda by driving GOP establishment incumbents from office and ceding moderates’ votes to the Democratic Party.

David Ellis, president of Republicans Abroad in Costa Rica, an organization unaffiliated with the Tea Party, disagrees.

“I think it may cause a bit of heartburn to some for the republican establishment, but it’s a fresh voice. It’s good that people are taking an interest in the government. I think that’s a good thing for Republicans and Democrats both. So I welcome that.”

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