The Spirit and Influence of Manuel Ayau (1925-2010)

Manuel Ayau, one of the people I most respected and admired, died today. Muso, as his friends called him, was a major figure in the international movement to promote liberty. He was a president of the Mont Pelerin Society and served on the board of directors of Liberty Fund and as a trustee of the Foundation for Economic Education. He will be most remembered, however, as the founder and president emeritus of the influential Francisco Marroquin University in his native Guatemala. He leaves an enormous legacy because he successfully combined clear thinking, entrepreneurship, intellectual curiosity, and a belief in the potential of free individuals to create what has become the center of classical liberal thinking in Latin America.

Well before he founded Francisco Marroquin University in 1971, Muso Ayau started a think tank (Centro de Estudios Economicos-Sociales) with a small group of Guatemalan friends in 1959. Thus began a lifelong project to discover and disseminate those ideas that best explain and provide solutions to underdevelopment. The process led him to the writings of the great market liberals—some of whom he invited to Guatemala for lectures or established friendships with, such as Ludwig von Mises or Milton Friedman—and culminated in the founding of FMU. Muso was not an academic (he had a degree in engineering), but he understood how the power of ideas can influence society, so he set about the long-term task of running an institution that would teach generations of Guatemalans about “the ethical, legal and economic principles of a society of free and responsible persons,” no matter what degree students pursued.

In his inaugural address in 1972, Muso stated:

We firmly believe in the capacity of imperfect human beings to be better able to realize their destiny when free and not when compelled by the collective entity personified by the state.

It took courage to found the University. When it began, the intellectual and political climate was not only hostile to libertarian ideas, it was violently opposed. Guatemala was in the midst of a civil war and neither side—with the military and business establishment on one side and leftist guerrillas on the other—particularly welcomed the message of limited government, free markets, and private property rights. In the early days, Muso gave graduation speeches wearing a bullet proof vest under his toga. In the 1980s, he would sometimes wear disguises when traveling in public and took extra security measures at home.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of Guatemala’s civil war in the 1990s, public opinion was of course much more open to market liberal ideas, but Guatemala’s mercantilist society still ensured that the battle against entrenched interests—business groups, unions, government bureaucracies—remained tough. By then, though, the prestige of Muso Ayau and of the university faculty and its well-trained graduates had grown as had the presence of their ideas. Anyone who has visited Guatemala during the past 20 years, as I have, can attest to the fact that market liberal ideas can be found every day in the op-ed pages and articles of the country’s leading newspapers and the electronic media as well. In some cases, this has translated into radical policy change—as in the case of Guatemala’s successful telecom reform or its law legalizing competing currencies.

Muso was proud of the progress classical liberal ideas had made despite the fact that statism still prevails in much of Guatemala. He was at once an optimist with an ambitious vision and a realist with a modest view of himself. He was not surprised that much of the left and right resented his call for an end to all government-established privileges. Though Muso could have been fabulously successful going along with the established framework of Guatemalan society, he chose not to. In this, he was a rare Latin American specimen, a champion of truly progressive ideas that peacefully challenged formidable political forces.

Yet not everybody cared to understand this. Lawrence Harrison famously and inexplicably described Muso as “an archtypical, far-right, Latin oligarch” who is also a libertarian. Harrison’s incoherent description came in the summer of 2001 when it was discovered that the U.S. embassy in Guatemala was secretly distributing a document to other embassies describing Muso and the university as enemies of democracy and progress.  The whole sorry episode, described by Mary O’Grady in the Wall Street Journal, hardly shocked Muso and his colleagues, who had long been denouncing Washington’s heavy-handedness in Guatemala and the region. (Muso later drew up business cards with his name, followed by “Archtypical far-right, Latin libertarian oligarch.” Even in the face of ridicule, Muso kept his famous, good sense of humor.)

The ideas that Muso Ayau began promoting in Spanish in Guatemala in the 1950s, soon drew in brilliant thinkers from other parts of Latin America and influenced the classical liberal movement throughout the region. FMU continues to draw the world’s leading thinkers in a range of disciplines including business, philosophy, law, economics, and literature to its state-of-the art campus and it has served as the model for other such universities in countries as diverse as Chile, Montenegro and Georgia. That so many students and professionals in Mexico, Central and South America and beyond understand and support the free society today is in no small part due to his efforts, whether they know it or not.

Muso always admired the Cato Institute and he was delighted, as were we, that Cato and FMU began a yearly, week-long seminar for Latin American students in classical liberal thought in Guatemala. I will never forget how, during the first such event in January 2009, Muso took a quick, round-trip flight from Houston, where he was receiving treatment for the cancer that he ultimately succumbed to, just to give his scheduled lecture to the students. His enthusiasm, wit and warm personality filled the lecture room.

Muso was a living embodiment of the classical liberal spirit. He was also a friend. He will be missed, but his spirit will continue to infuse the work of Francisco Marroquin University and many, many advocates of liberty around the world who knew him or were somehow influenced by him.