Carlos Rangel: Venezuela’s Forgotten Liberal Prophet

Español“No man is a prophet in his own land.”

Carlos Rangel prophetically warned Latin America of the siren song of populism.
Rangel prophetically warned Latin America of the siren song of populism. (@CEDICE)

This Spanish aphorism is a very fitting summary of the life of the great Venezuelan classical-liberal intellectual Carlos Rangel. A rather obscure figure in the realm of liberalism, Rangel had very powerful insights regarding Latin American politics and the reasons for the region’s underdevelopment.

Carlos Enrique Rangel Guevara was born in Caracas on September 17, 1929. Rangel completed his entire primary and secondary education in Venezuela, but pursued higher education abroad in the United States and France.

He graduated with a bachelor of arts degree at Bard College and received the Certificat d’Etudes at the Sorbonne in Paris. He then completed a master’s degree at New York University.

After finishing his studies, Rangel embarked on a career as a diplomat in Brussels and the Dominican Republic. He then pursued journalistic endeavors as the director of Momento magazine and moderator of TV shows like Frente a la Prensa (Facing the Press).

Rangel spent nearly 20 years on television discussing his ideas on topics dealing with Venezuelan and international affairs with various figures, most notably Friedrich Hayek. Unfortunately, Rangel took his own life in 1988. The circumstances behind his suicide are still shrouded in mystery.

One of the more overlooked aspects of his career was his side venture as a writer. In 1977, he published The Latin Americans: Their Love-Hate Relationship with the United States, titled originally in Spanish as Del buen Salvaje al Buen Revolucionario – Mitos y Realidades De América Latina (1976).

This book was followed by Third World Ideology and Western Reality: Manufacturing Political Myth (1986), which was first published as El tercermundismo (1982).

Rangel was also a respected columnist at the national and international level. A compilation of his articles was published posthumously (1988) in a book titled Marx y los socialismos reales y otros ensayos (Marx and Real Socialism and Other Essays), which is only available in Spanish.

Without a doubt, Rangel’s magnum opus was The Latin Americans. Arguably one of classical liberalism’s best-kept secrets, this book gives an incisive analysis of why Latin America is underdeveloped when compared to other regions.

Rangel pulled no punches, effectively dispelling “the web of lies in which Latin America has found itself,” and refuting the conventional myth that the backwardness of Latin America is mostly due to US imperialism in the region.

Rangel’s greatest strength lied in his societal analysis of Latin America that went beyond fancy economic models and political electioneering. Rangel in The Latin Americans observed that despite throwing off Spanish rule in the 19th century, vestiges of the colonial political order seeped into the social fabric of Latin American society.

“The peasant still has the attitude of a slave; he still expects others to make his decisions for him, and prays only that these new masters will be less demanding and better-intentioned toward him,” Rangel keenly observed.

An otherwise prophetic analysis, given that Latin Americans still embrace collectivist authoritarians to this day.

Despite the criticism he levied at the status quo, Rangel was no reactionary. A critic of both the “left” and the “right,” Rangel envisioned a Venezuela, and a Latin America as a whole, that would follow basic principles of liberty, such as democracy, rule of law, and free trade.

Rangel’s love for democratic principles was unmatched in Latin America. He powerfully spells out the need for democracy as a way to peacefully transfer political power.

“Democracy is not so unsophisticated as to claim that there are no social antagonisms or tensions amounting to class struggle; but it holds that a workable compromise solution can always be found that will be acceptable to these contending interests — or at least preferable to the alternatives of civil war or tyranny,” he writes in The Latin Americans.

“Such truly democratic solutions may never be perfect or fully satisfy any of the parties, but they have the merit of reducing hatred and intolerance as prime determinants of social actions.”

Military coups, civil wars, and violent Marxist uprisings was the order of the day in Latin America during Rangel’s lifetime. A peaceful transition from one government to the next was a very rare occurrence in the region in those days.

At the same time, Rangel knew that the road to liberty was no easy task. He constantly warned about the siren song of populism and other forms of interventionist ideologies. At the time when Rangel published his works, Venezuela had a relatively stable economy by Latin American standards, despite the country’s shaky institutional foundations. Sadly, many Venezuelan citizens did not heed Rangel’s warnings.

As one author so succinctly put it, Carlos Rangel was effectively “the first anti-Chavista in the world,” given his ability to foretell the rise of a populist figure like Hugo Chávez in Venezuela’s near future. Sadly, history has shown on numerous occasions that many forward-looking thinkers’ warnings receive constant ridicule from their peers. This willful ignorance came at a steep price, as many Venezuelans have figured out since Hugo Chávez came to power in 1998.

In times where Venezuela is experiencing all sorts of economic turmoil and public-security issues due to socialist policies pursued by Hugo Chávez and his successor Nicolás Maduro, Rangel’s revolutionary ideas are as relevant today as ever. Thankfully organizations such as Cato Institute’s Hispanic branch El Cato and the Venezuelan free market think tank CEDICE have made valiant efforts to preserve the Rangel’s works. Such powerful ideas just can’t wither away in obscurity.

Rangel may have not been well known when he was alive, but his legacy still lives on through the spontaneous order of the internet, a platform that Rangel would be very much proud of if he were alive today. If classical liberalism were to have its own hall of fame, Carlos Rangel definitely deserves to be honored for his greatness.

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