LAST SUMMER, I had one of the most uplifting experiences I have had in the many years that I have been advancing libertarianism. My week at Francisco Marroquin University in Guatemala will always rank near the top in terms of events that have charged up my batteries big-time.
I had heard of FMU as far back as 1987, when I was working as program director at The Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York. And I have long known its founder, Manuel Ayau, who currently sits on FEE’s board of trustees. I also knew that the school had a reputation for teaching free-market principles.
But I was totally unprepared for what I encountered.
The college had invited me to deliver a series of lectures on libertarianism to students, professors, board members, and alumni of the college. The lectures would be given each evening and, together with discussion, would last 1 1/2 hours. Here were the topics:
Monday. The nature and meaning of liberty. An examination of what it means to be free, from a libertarian standpoint. Specific topics for discussion: the drug war, income taxation, and regulation.
Tuesday. The nature and purposes of government. Why do we need government? The legitimate powers of government. Does democracy guarantee liberty? What is the role of a constitution and an independent judiciary?
Wednesday. The nature and causes of the wealth of nations. An examination into the key role that free markets and capital accumulation play in rising standards of living. The right to accumulate unlimited wealth. Specific issues: savings, capital, free trade, and open immigration.
Thursday. The causes of poverty in a society. An examination of government’s war on poverty. Health care, welfare, public housing. Equalizing wealth. Looking at Cuba.
Friday. Separating school and state. An examination into the nature of government schooling. The power to indoctrinate. A critique of vouchers. Why not a totally free market in education?
Several weeks before the lectures, I provided an extensive reading list to people who were considering attending the lectures.
Guatemala has been ravaged by decades of civil war and a history of corrupt governments, and the Guatemalan people have suffered greatly from civil war, authoritarianism, socialism and fascism, and U.S. intervention.
Therefore, I expected the university facilities to be rather modest. Was I in for a shock! On Monday morning, I was given a tour of the campus, which turned out to be both attractive and modern. The buildings are set in a beautiful hilly area in the middle of Guatemala City and the school has maintained the natural, jungle-like habitat in which it was constructed. Everywhere I looked, I saw state-of-the-art computer systems.
My tour began at the Ludwig von Mises Library, which not only bears Mises’s name but also a great big picture of Mises on the outside of the building. I immediately felt right at home! The library is filled with thousands of books, including a very impressive rare-book collection that was donated to the school. (For example, one book had an inscription from Jeremy Bentham.) The university also was the recipient of the entire library of W.H. Hutt, the famous South African economist and author who was at the University of Dallas before his death.
A free-market university
My lectures were being held in the Friedrich Hayek Auditorium, which holds about 180 people. (There’s also a Henry Hazlitt Center.) The first night, so many people packed the auditorium that people were sitting in the aisles. What was most unmistakable was the high level of positive energy in that room.
FMU was founded 30 years ago by Manuel Ayau, a local businessman whose philosophy had been tremendously influenced by FEE. Ayau had first founded a foundation that promoted free-market ideas for many years — the Centro de Estudios Economico-Sociales (CEES). (See: www. cees.org.gt)
But he ultimately decided that what was needed was a university that would teach the principles of the free market in a systematic way to Guatemalan young people. During the past 30 years, the foundation and the university have had some of the greatest free-market minds share their perspectives with students, professors, and people in the community: Mises, Hayek, Milton Friedman, Ben Rogge, Leonard Liggio, Peter Bauer, Hans Sennholz, James Buchanan, Leonard Read, Israel Kizner, W.H. Hutt, Percy and Bettina Greaves, and many, many more.
You can imagine my excitement when I learned that my lectures were being presented as part of the 30th anniversary of the founding of Francisco Marroquin University. But what really raised my level of excitement was the attention and energy that came from the people in the audience and the high level of understanding that they have of the freedom philosophy and Austrian economics.
Every student in the school, including dental, architecture, and business majors, is required to take such courses as “The Philosophy of Mises” and “The Philosophy of Hayek.” I audited the Mises class, which was being given to the law students. Not only was the professor among the very best I have ever heard explaining the Austrian subjective-value theory, he had the great ability to infuse enthusiasm into the students, which was reflected by the many hands being raised during the class.
One day I had lunch with professors from the history department, where I was treated to a lively debate over classical liberalism in 19th-century Argentina, a subject that I had written about many years ago in the July 1994 Freedom Daily. The professor who organized the luncheon had distributed a copy of my article to the other professors as a lead-in to the discussion and debate.
Another day I had a luncheon meeting with the business and economics department, where I learned about the important role that FMU personnel played in the privatization of the telephone industry, including the initial proposal and the drafting of the legislation.
Privatization has brought four companies fiercely competing for everyone’s business, including Bell South. Not only has the quality of the telephone service soared, the cost of making long-distance calls has plummeted.
And it seemed to me that everyone in Guatemala City owns cell phones. In fact, there was one amusing aspect to the privatization. The country’s president proposed a tax on cell phones, claming that the rich could afford to pay such a tax.
Well, everybody reacted ferociously. One woman was interviewed on television about the tax as she was coming out of the grocery store. She said, “Tell the president I’m really happy to discover that I’m rich” (as she pulls out her cell phone) — “I never knew it until now.” As a result of the popular outcry, the tax proposal was withdrawn.
Just before my visit, the Wall Street Journal published an op ed that criticized and ridiculed a secret document that originated in the office of the U.S. ambassador to Guatemala.
The document, which had been secretly circulated to other embassies, had taken Ayau and FMU to task for their ardent devotion to free-market principles. The Journal article pointed out that thousands of Guatemalans had participated in a protest against the ambassador’s suggestion that the Guatemalan government needed to raise taxes.
In fact, while I was there, the protests were still taking place — about 3,000 people were spontaneously gathering every Friday afternoon with signs (and bumper stickers on cars) that said, “No Mas Impuestos!” (“No More Taxes!”)
The FMU students show their solidarity with the protests by wearing black every Friday.
An energizing experience
Although I am able to speak Spanish, I decided to deliver my talks in English, since I can express myself much better in my native language. The school had made arrangements for simultaneous translation but only about 5 or so people in the audience used it.
Quite honestly, I was unprepared for the high level of understanding of libertarianism and Austrian economics among the people in the audience. (For example, one 26-year-old woman had read Mises’s Human Action from cover to cover.)
And the appreciation that everyone had for my being there to share ideas on liberty with them was openly reflected in their faces.
There was absolutely no doubt that the people at Francisco Marroquin University with whom I was sharing ideas on liberty thirst for a better, freer way of life for their families and their country. And while they get depressed and pessimistic at times, they are very determined to achieve it.
On Tuesday night, the auditorium was again filled to capacity and the level of discussion was just as great as it was the night before.
Another big treat came on Wednesday, for that was the actual day of the 30th-annivesary festivities. The morning program took place in another, much larger auditorium and began with a beautiful violin performance by a native Guatemalan now working in Europe. It was followed by a group of hilarious skits that the students in the various departments had put together, which were interspersed with serious interviews of Manuel Ayau, other founders of the school, and early and recent graduates of the college.
The afternoon consisted of a great big outdoor bash with hot dogs, tacos, fried chicken, beer, bands, raffles, and dancing. And about 2,000 attendees!
And to show you how devoted everyone is, the attendance hardly dropped off for my Wednesday night lecture! By Thursday and Friday nights, people were once again sitting in the aisles.
In addition to my five lectures, my hosts also scheduled two radio interviews and one newspaper interview, all of which turned out to be a great deal of fun. One caller (I was speaking Spanish for this one) went on and on about all the damage that U.S. intervention had caused in Latin America and obviously thought that I was going to defend it. He must have been quite surprised when I said, “I agree with what you have said about the new Roman Empire. But let’s also not forget about the disastrous consequences of the drug war, especially for Latin America.”
The other radio show was in English and was hosted by two irreverent and popular Anglos from New York. The topic: open immigration. As you can imagine, the telephone lines lit up. I made the very important point that Texas should consider closing its borders — on its northern side, in order to keep out all those New Yorkers from immigrating south and polluting Texas’s culture.
Each evening I was treated to delightful (and delicious) dinners with university officials, professors, and students, often in one of their homes.
Ever since I began advancing libertarianism as a profession, I have had the good fortune of periodically encountering audiences that have a high understanding of libertarian principles and Austrian economics and a deep and passionate yearning for a free society. The people I encountered at Francisco Marroquin University rank right near the top.
And the opportunity to exchange ideas on liberty with the students, professors, and alumni at FMU will always rank among the highlights of my professional and personal life. Moreover, I shall always treasure the honorary visiting professorship that the school bestowed on me at the conclusion of my lectures.
One of the most enjoyable weeks of my life concluded on Saturday morning just before I boarded my plane to return home. The young ticket agent said to me, “I attended your Monday night lecture but night classes unfortunately prevented me from attending the rest of the week. Everyone is talking about your lectures — you have touched many students here with your talks. Thank you very much for coming.”
If you would like to learn more about Francisco Marroquin University, there’s an excellent article on the web originally published by FEE entitled “A Free-Market University,” by William W. Peterson.
If you would like to add Francisco Marroquin University to your list of organizations to support, donations that are made to Foundation Francisco Marroquin in Stuart, Florida, which is a U.S. nonprofit foundation, are used to provide financial assistance to Francisco Marroquin University in Guatemala. See: www.ffmnet.org.