Manuel “Muso” Ayau RIP

Manuel Ayau, known by his many friends and admirers as “Muso,” passed away early this morning, in his native Guatemala — a country he loved and to which he dedicated his life to make a freer and more prosperous place. He faced quite a challenge. Guatemala, like most of Latin America, has a long history of economic interventionist policies and government-corporate cronyism. It has also endured violent Marxist insurgencies, which sought to replace that whole system with something far worse.

In that environment, Muso founded an institution that would promote not any political faction or public policy, but ideas — Universidad Francisco Marroquin (UFM).  A full-fledged university, since its founding in 1971, UFM sought not only to eschew the Marxist economic theories that were in fashion then (even more than today, and especially in Latin America), but to revive the study of the great classical liberal thinkers. As its mission statement says, UFM works “to teach and disseminate the ethical, legal and economic principles of a society of free and responsible persons.” UFM faced long odds. As Don Boudreaux of George Mason University noted on the occasion on Muso’s 8oth birthday:

With four other universities in Guatemala—most of which charged little or no tuition because they were funded generously by the government or the Catholic church—any new university would be at a real disadvantage.

One person’s disadvantage, however, is another person’s challenge. Muso was aware of the difficulties in starting a university from scratch, but he also realized that a key to its success lay in the very reason he sought to start it—namely, all the existing universities were dens of dogmatic statism, including the then – fashionable liberation theology, in which critical thinking had been supplanted by uncritical emoting.

So Muso came to see that his lack of experience in academia was no handicap. His inexperience in this area, in fact, was likely a plus. Because so many lifelong academics, then as now, seemed irresistibly drawn toward top-down coercive “solutions” to all problems, Muso’s nonacademic background might well insulate him and his fledgling university from the statist tendencies that are so prominent in the academy.

Still, by any objective reckoning, the odds were against the success of a new, private university in Guatemala. The odds were wrong.

Muso helped effect some direct policy changes as well. Boudreaux notes that in his first visit to Guatemala in 2000, he noticed that there were no customs agents going through people’s luggage. “I pushed for that. For years I pushed for that. Finally I won,” Muso told him. “When I first brought Mises to Guatemala back in the ’60s, I of course met his flight when it landed. I was standing next to him as a customs agent searched the contents of his luggage. Mises leaned over to me and remarked, ‘They’re making sure that I’m bringing no wealth into your country.’ I determined then and there that I would work to put an end to that nonsense.” Also, today, Guatemala has one of the world’s most liberal telecommunications regulations. (Apparently costs have come down so much that a hotel where I stayed gave cell phones to all its guests.)

I’m lucky to have been to UFM on several occasions, to participate in various conferences (including one co-sponsored by CEI and UFM), and to have had a chance to talk with Muso about UFM’s early days, many of which were difficult. He said that at the height of Guatemala’s civil war, he would need to have someone go look around the block before venturing out into the street. Having lived in Nicaragua as a kid during part of the civil war there, I understood the danger of the situation he described.

Things in Guatemala have gotten a lot better since then. The collapse of the Soviet Union brought an end to many of the “national liberation” movements it backed — and for which Latin America was a favorite target. But after that, it has been up to individual countries to make their way forward. For Guatemala, that way forward will surely owe much to Muso and to UFM.

UPDATE: For UFM President Giancarlo Ibarguen’s tribute to Manuel Ayau, see here.