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For Alejandro Chafuen, the gathering this spring at the Brick Hotel in Buenos Aires was as much a homecoming as it was a victory lap. Chafuen, a lanky Argentine-American, had spent his adult life working to undermine left-wing social movements and governments in South and Central America, and boost a business-friendly version of libertarianism instead.
It was a lonely battle for decades, but not lately. Chafuen was among friends at the 2017 Latin America Liberty Forum. The international meeting of libertarian activists was sponsored by the Atlas Economic Research Foundation, a leadership-training nonprofit now known simply as the Atlas Network, which Chafuen has led since 1991. At the Brick Hotel, Chafuen was reveling in recent victories; his years of work were starting to pay off, thanks to political and economic circumstances — but also because of the network of activists Chafuen has been working for so long to cultivate.
Over the past 10 years, leftist governments have used “money to buy votes, to redistribute,” said Chafuen, seated comfortably in the lobby. But the recent drop in commodity prices, coupled with corruption scandals, has given an opportunity for Atlas Network groups to spring into action. “When there is an opening, you have a crisis, and there is some demand for change, you have people who are trained to push for certain policies,” Chafuen noted, paraphrasing the late Milton Friedman. “And in our case, we tend to favor to private solutions to public problems.”
Chafuen pointed to numerous Atlas-affiliated leaders now in the spotlight: ministers in the new conservative government in Argentina, senators in Bolivia, and the leaders of the Free Brazil Movement that took down Dilma Rousseff’s presidency, where Chafuen’s network sprang to life before his very eyes.
“In Brazil, I have been in the street demonstrations, and I’m like, ‘Hey, this guy I met when he was 17, 18 — he is up there on the bus leading this. This is crazy!’” Chafuen said, excitedly. Those in Atlas’s orbit were no less excited to run into Chafuen in Buenos Aires. Activists from various countries stopped Chafuen intermittently to sing his praises as he walked through the hotel. For many, Chafuen, from his perch at Atlas, has served as a mentor, fiscal sponsor, and guiding beacon for a new political paradigm in their country.
Ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya, left, looks down inside a car on the outskirts of San Jose on his way to the airport to board a flight to Nicaragua, June 28, 2009. Photo: Kent Gilbert/AP
A rightward shift is afoot in Latin American politics. Triumphant socialist governments had once swept the region for much of the 21st century – from Argentina’s Cristina Fernández de Kirchner to land reform populist Manuel Zelaya in Honduras – championing new programs for the poor, nationalizing businesses, and challenging U.S. dominance in hemispheric affairs.
In recent years, however, leftist leaders have fallen one after another, sometimes in spectacular fashion. Zelaya was led from the presidential palace in his pajamas in a military coup; in Argentina, a real-estate baron swept to the presidency and Kirchner was indicted for corruption; and in Brazil, the ruling Workers’ Party, facing a growing corruption scandal and a mass protest movement, was swept out of office via impeachment over charges of budget chicanery.
This shift might appear as part of a larger regional rebalancing, merely economic circumstances taking hold. And yet the Atlas Network seems ever-present, a common thread nudging political developments along.
The story of the Atlas Network and its profound impact on ideology and political power has never been fully told. But business filings and records from three continents, along with interviews with libertarian leaders across the hemisphere, reveal the scope of its influential history. The libertarian network, which has reshaped political power in country after country, has also operated as a quiet extension of U.S. foreign policy, with Atlas-associated think tanks receiving quiet funding from the State Department and the National Endowment for Democracy, a critical arm of American soft power.
Though recent investigations have shed light on the role of powerful conservative billionaires, such as the Koch brothers, in developing a business-friendly version of libertarian thought, the Atlas Network, which receives funding from Koch foundations, has recreated methods honed in the Western world for developing countries.
The network is expansive, currently boasting loose partnerships with 450 think tanks around the world. Atlas says it dispensed over $5 million to its partners in 2016 alone.
Over the years, Atlas and its affiliated charitable foundations have provided hundreds of grants to conservative and free-market think tanks in Latin America, including the libertarian network that supported the Free Brazil Movement and organizations behind a libertarian push in Argentina, including Fundación Pensar, the Atlas think tank that merged with the political party formed by Mauricio Macri, a businessman who now leads the country. The leaders of the Free Brazil Movement and the founder of Fundación Eléutera in Honduras, an influential post-coup neoliberal think tank, have received financial support from Atlas, and are among the next generation of political operatives that have gone through Atlas’s training seminars.
The Atlas Network spans dozens of other think tanks across the region, including prominent groups supporting right-wing forces behind the unfolding anti-government movement in Venezuela and the campaign of Sebastián Piñera, the right-of-center candidate leading the polls for this year’s presidential election in Chile.
People demonstrate in favor of impeaching Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff in front of the National Congress in Brasilia, Brazil, Dec. 2, 2015. Photo: Eraldo Peres/AP
Nowhere has the Atlas method been better encapsulated than in a newly formed network of Brazilian free-market think tanks. Recently formed institutes worked together to foment anger at socialist policies, with some cultivating academic centers, while others work to train activists and maintain a constant war in the Brazilian media against leftist ideas.
The effort to focus anger solely at the left paid dividends last year for the Brazilian right. The millennial activists of the Free Brazil Movement, many of them trained in political organizing in the U.S., led a mass movement to channel public anger over a vast corruption scandal against Dilma, the left-of-center president popularly known by her first name. The scandal, nicknamed Operação Lava Jato, or Operation Car Wash, is a still-unfolding tale of bribery involving leading politicians from all of Brazil’s major political parties, including the right-wing and center-right parties. But the social media-savvy Free Brazil Movement, known by its Portuguese initials, MBL, managed to direct the bulk of outrage squarely at Dilma, demanding her ousting and an end to the welfare-centric policies of her Workers’ Party.
The uprising, which has drawn comparisons to the tea party movement, especially considering the quiet support from local industrial conglomerates and a new conspiracy-minded network of far-right media voices, ended 13 years of rule by the Workers’ Party by removing Dilma from office through impeachment in 2016.
The landscape that MBL sprang from is a new development in Brazil. There were perhaps three active libertarian think tanks 10 years ago, said Helio Beltrão, a former hedge fund executive who now leads Instituto Mises, a nonprofit named after the libertarian philosopher, Ludwig von Mises. Now, he said, with the support of Atlas, there are close to 30 such institutes active in Brazil, all working collaboratively, along with groups, such as Students for Liberty and MBL.
“It’s like a soccer team. Defense is the academia. The forward guys are the politicians. We’ve scored a few goals,” he said, referring to Dilma’s impeachment. The midfield, he said, are the “cultural guys” that shape public opinion.
Beltrão explained that the think tank network is hoping to privatize the national post office in Brazil, calling it “low-hanging fruit” that could lead to a larger wave of free-market reforms. Many of the conservative parties in Brazil embraced libertarian campaigners when they showed they could mobilize hundreds of thousands of people to protest against Dilma, but haven’t yet adopted the fundamentals of supply-side theory.
Fernando Schüler, an academic and columnist associated with Instituto Millenium, another Atlas think tank in Brazil, made the case another way.
“Brazil has 17,000 unions paid by public money, one day of salary per year goes to unions, completely controlled by the left,” said Schüler. The only way to reverse the socialist trend has been to out-maneuver them. “With technology, people could by themselves participate, organize at low cost — WhatsApp, Facebook, YouTube, using networks, a kind of public manifestation,” he continued, explaining the way libertarian organizers mobilized a protest movement against left-leaning politicians.
Organizers against Dilma had created a daily barrage of YouTube videos mocking the Worker’s Party government, along with an interactive scoreboard to encourage citizens to lobby their legislators to support impeachment.
Schüler noted that the Free Brazil Movement and his own think tank receive financial support from local industrial trade groups, but the movement had succeeded in part because it is not identified with the incumbent political parties, most of which the general public views with suspicion. He argued that the only way to radically reshape society and reverse popular sentiment in support of the welfare state was to wage a permanent cultural war to confront left intellectuals and the media.
Fernando Schüler. Photo: Screen shot from YouTube
One of the founders of Schüler’s Instituto Millenium think tank, Brazilian blogger Rodrigo Constantino, has polarized Brazilian politics with hyperpartisan rhetoric. Constantino, who has been called the “Breitbart of Brazil” for his conspiratorial views and acidic right-wing commentary, chairs yet another Atlas think tank, Instituto Liberal. He sees the Brazilian left’s every move as a veiled attempt at subverting democracy, from the use of the color red in the country’s World Cup logo to the Bolsa Família cash assistance program to poor families.