Leftist ideology may be gaining ground in Latin America. But it will never set foot on the manicured lawns of Francisco Marroquin University.
For nearly 40 years, this private college has been a citadel of laissez-faire economics. Here, banners quoting "The Wealth of Nations" author Adam Smith -- he of the powdered wig and invisible hand -- flutter over the campus food court.
Every undergraduate, regardless of major, must study market economics and the philosophy of individual rights embraced by the U.S. founding fathers, including "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
A sculpture commemorating Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged" is affixed to the school of business. Students celebrated the novel's 50th anniversary last year with an essay contest. The $200 cash prize reinforced the book's message that society should reward capitalist go-getters who create wealth and jobs, not punish them with taxes and regulations.
"The poor are not poor just because others are rich," said Manuel Francisco Ayau Cordon, a feisty octogenarian businessman, staunch anti-communist and founder of the school. "It's not a zero-sum game."
Welcome to Guatemala's Libertarian U. Ayau opened the college in 1972, fed up with what he viewed as the "socialist" instruction being imparted at San Carlos University of Guatemala, the nation's largest institution of higher learning. He named the new school for a colonial-era priest who worked to liberate native Guatemalans from exploitation by Spanish overlords.
Ayau believed universities should stay out of politics and "place themselves beyond the conflicts of their time." Easier said than done, considering that at the time, Guatemala was under military rule and in the midst of a civil war.
A CIA-backed coup in 1954 had toppled the country's democratically elected president, Jacobo Arbenz Guzman. His proposal to redistribute unoccupied land to peasants infuriated the nation's largest landowner, U.S.-based United Fruit Co., and stoked fears in Washington that Guatemala would become a Soviet satellite. Arbenz's ouster unleashed a bloody internal conflict that lasted nearly four decades.
Whereas San Carlos University actively aided leftist guerrillas, Francisco Marroquin preached the sanctity of private property rights and the rule of law. The cheeky Ayau chose red as the school's official color "on the theory that it had been expropriated by the communists and we shouldn't cede them exclusivity." He wore a bulletproof vest under his academic gown at the first graduation ceremony.
Tensions have mellowed since peace accords were signed in 1996. The same cannot be said of Ayau, whose nicknames include "the curmudgeon" and "Muso," short for the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. His once-ragtag school now ranks among the finest in Central America. And he continues to irritate diverse factions of this impoverished nation with his unshakable faith in free markets, personal liberty, small government and his insistence on "no privileges for anybody."
Some leftists deride him as a lackey of the ruling classes, dishing up neo-liberal dogma to rich kids in a nation where a few powerful families still call most of the shots. Conservative elites chafe at his op-ed harangues about their cozy oligopolies and government protections.
Ayau delights at the potshots coming his way from both ends of the political spectrum: They signal that someone is listening.
"Ideas are powerful," he crowed recently, showing a visitor an auditorium named for the late American free-market economist Milton Friedman. "We're making progress."
Ayau's unflagging passions have turned Guatemala into an unlikely whistle-stop for all manner of capitalist luminaries.
Friedman, the University of Chicago economist, was one of four Nobel laureates in economics to have lectured at Francisco Marroquin. The school has bestowed honorary doctorates on billionaire publisher Steve Forbes and T.J. Rogers, the swashbuckling chief executive of Cypress Semiconductor Corp.
John Stossel, co-anchor of ABC News' "20/20," was honored this year on campus, as much for his ideology as his Emmy awards. An avowed libertarian, Stossel got a warm reception for his discourse against government regulation.
"We celebrate the message that this university teaches because economic freedom makes everybody's life better," Stossel said to rousing applause.
No matter that Francisco Marroquin has made little headway in its own backyard.
Today, more than half of Guatemala's population of 13 million lives in poverty. Namibia and Botswana rank higher than Guatemala on the Heritage Foundation's Index of Economic Freedom. Guatemala is one of the most corrupt nations in the hemisphere, according to Transparency International, a nongovernmental organization. Land ownership is concentrated in few hands. Key industries such as sugar are controlled by powerful oligopolies that saddle poor consumers with high prices.
"They are insatiable," Ayau said.
Still, Ayau points to a few small victories. Francisco Marroquin graduates were among the key architects of the 1996 deregulation of Guatemala's telecommunications industry. The country now boasts a competitive sector with some of the lowest rates in Latin America. About three-quarters of the population have mobile phones.
Francisco Marroquin "is like this little gem in the middle of this region," said Donald Boudreaux, a George Mason University economist who has lectured at the university. "It has a sterling reputation."
How a small Guatemalan college became the darling of free-market circles has everything to do with Ayau, a charmingly abrasive dynamo who looks nowhere near his 82 years of age.
Born into a middle-class family in Guatemala, Ayau spent much of his youth in the United States, where his mother moved for a time after his father's death. He attended Catholic high school in Belmont, Calif., then headed to the University of Toronto, where he studied chemical engineering.
He dropped out after reading Rand's "Fountainhead." The novel's protagonist, Howard Roark, is expelled from architecture school after refusing to conform to its tired standards.
"I realized when I read Rand . . . that I was starting out my life all wrong," Ayau said. He said he concluded that "I have to study something that I like, otherwise I'll never be any good."
Ayau eventually earned a mechanical engineering degree at Louisiana State University and returned to Guatemala to work in the family's industrial gas firm. He joined a business council that lobbied the government on various issues. But favors granted to specific people and industries didn't make Guatemala grow any faster. Ayau wondered what role the state should play to ensure that everyone had a crack at prosperity.
So he set out to teach himself economics. One of the first books on his list was "The Affluent Society," a 1958 bestseller by Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith. A longtime Democratic Party advisor, Galbraith believed that government spending on healthcare, education, infrastructure and anti-poverty programs was essential to society's well-being. Galbraith wrote that "wealth is the relentless enemy of understanding."
Ayau wasn't persuaded. "I read the first two pages and I said, 'This guy is nuts!' " he recalled.
He later picked up a pamphlet by Ludwig von Mises, a member of the so-called Austrian School of economics. Considered one of the fathers of modern libertarianism, Mises abhorred state intervention in the economy. He believed that open markets, individual choice, private property and the rule of law were the means to a prosperous society.
Something clicked. Ayau read everything he could find by Mises, Friedrich Hayek and other Austrian School economists. He started a small discussion group among some Guatemalan friends and eventually traveled to New York to attend lectures at the Foundation for Economic Education, a free-market think tank. Through contacts there he met Mises and others whose works he'd been reading. At Ayau's urging, several traveled to Guatemala to speak to his tiny band of free marketeers, who by now were calling themselves the Center for Economic and Social Studies.
The center published pamphlets, wrote newspaper op-ed pieces and held seminars. But the group concluded that young people were the key to change. They would start a private university teaching natural law and free-market economics.
They founded Francisco Marroquin in 1971 and began classes a year later with 40 students in a rented house.
Enrollment is now at 2,700, and the university offers 18 degree programs, including journalism, architecture and medicine, on a beautiful, modern campus.
All students speak English. Entrance requirements are stiff. So is tuition. At $8,000 a year for some programs (more than three times the annual gross national per capita income), it's the priciest university in Guatemala. University President Giancarlo Ibarguen said the sum was justified by the good job offers graduates receive.
There are no sports teams and no affirmative action in hiring or admissions. Instructors can forget about tenure; there is none. Ditto for the protests and sit-ins that are common in public universities in Latin America. If Francisco Marroquin students are unhappy with the product they're getting, they're free to take their business elsewhere.
"If you don't like Macy's, you go to Gimbels," Ayau said.
Critics scoff at the so-called House of Freedom, as Francisco Marroquin likes to refer to itself.
"What they sell is discipline . . . a uniformity of thought that easily translates into dogma so that students graduate from campus believing that they are unique possessors of truth," said Mario Roberto Morales, a respected Guatemalan writer and intellectual.
"The truth is that the university exists to indoctrinate the children of the oligarchs."
Andrea Gandara, a 24-year-old political science major, begs to differ. The daughter of middle-class parents, she said her instructors had been consistent in their criticism of both mercantilism and socialism.
Gandara said she wanted to take what she has learned at Francisco Marroquin and communicate it to a wider audience, particularly the millions of low-income Guatemalans that she said elites had written off as ignorant and easily manipulated by socialist rhetoric. Her career goal: president of Guatemala.
"People aren't dumb. They want to make more money. They want to have more opportunities," she said. "Here we criticize capitalism, but we don't even know what it is. . . . I want to be part of a movement to change their minds."
Times staff writer Alex Renderos contributed to this report.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times