Those who love freedom were saddened to learn this morning of the passing of one of the most significant contributors to the cause of liberty and individual responsibility in Latin America, Manuel F. Ayau, affectionately known as “Muso” to his many friends and acquaintances, after a long and brave struggle with cancer.
A humble, self-effacing but determined man, Ayau is a classic example of someone who made a difference. Whereas others confined themselves to talking about the free society, Ayau decided from an early age that he would do whatever he could to create the conditions that promote liberty and therefore the opportunity for authentic human flourishing.
Born in Guatemala City 85 years ago, Ayau undertook his university studies in the United States. An engineer by training, Ayau had one of those intellectually curious minds that are forever seeking to know the truth of things. Hence, alongside a successful career as an entrepreneur, businessman, company director, commercial banker, and member of the Central Bank of Guatemala, Ayau never ceased to be a pioneer in promoting the life of the mind.
In the late 1950s, Ayau founded the Center for Economic and Social Studies (CEES) in Guatemala. Its purpose was simple: to study and develop wider understanding of the preconditions of societies that were both free and prosperous. In the conditions of 1950s Guatemala, most would have viewed such an enterprise as worthy of Don Quixote himself. But to Ayau’s mind, ideas mattered, and unless people were willing to invest in good ideas, then bad ideas would surely prevail.
Eventually his determination to spread the ideas of liberty in his own impoverished, fractured country led Ayau to found what will surely be his most lasting legacy, the Universidad Francisco Marroquín in Guatemala, which today is widely recognized as one of the best universities in Latin America. Named after an early bishop of Guatemala, Francisco Marroquín, this university and its exceptionally talented faculty has educated thousands of young Latin Americans in the foundations of freedom and responsibility, and alerted them to the importance and virtue of always seeking after the truth.
But apart from his institutional achievements, I have often thought that what most characterized Ayau’s work and life was his courage. Not many people would take the risk of creating a private university in a Central American country noted for its instability and poverty. Nor was Ayau afraid to take his ideas directly into the public square. He served, for instance, as a member of Guatemala’s Congress and even stood for president in 1990. Ayau was no stranger to threats, including against his own life, yet he was never intimidated by those who prefer violence to reason. In the face of political pressures that most would find unbearable, Ayau never lost hope in the cause of freedom and its capacity to contribute to the common good of his country.
Ayau’s contributions to the growth of the habits and institutions of liberty in Guatemala are, like most substantive achievements, immeasurable. He did not, however, limit his activities to his own nation. He worked tirelessly for liberty at the international level for decades. As a reflection of the esteem in which others held him, Ayau served a term as President of the Mont Pèlerin Society and was a long time member of the board of directors of the Liberty Fund as well as a trustee of the Foundation for Economic Education—organizations that have all worked tirelessly over many decades in often difficult circumstances to explain and develop the ideas of freedom and the virtues needed to sustain them to several generations of students and scholars.
Much time will pass before Ayau’s full legacy bears all of its fruit, especially in the persons of the many young minds that have passed through Universidad Francisco Marroquín. But in all my conversations with Ayau, I always marveled at his quiet confidence that, no matter how difficult the odds, truth would prevail over error, not least because he believed that human beings were made for freedom—in the fullest and richest sense of that word—rather than slavery and ignorance.
Whenever I think about Ayau, however, I can’t help but recall the first time I read his Inaugural Address presented at the inauguration of the Universidad Francisco Marroquín on January 15, 1972. The 1970s were not a happy decade for freedom. The West was undergoing one of its worst crises of self-confidence, thousands of Latin American intellectuals were becoming convinced that the materialist and collectivist principles of Marxism-Leninism was the future, and universities around the world were increasingly descending into a morass of relativism and a preference for propagating ideology over the pursuit of truth.
Throughout Ayau’s remarks, however, breathes a spirit of optimism, a belief in humanity’s capacity for self-improvement, and an assurance that the light of liberty and truth could never be extinguished. “May God help us and show us the way to the truth”, were the words with which Ayau ended his address. His faith in the workings of Providence never dimmed.
In this moment of sadness, we remember Ayau’s family. They shared his dreams and in their own ways helped him to turn them into reality. But we also honor a man who never hesitated to put his talents and mind at the service of others, many of whom will never know just how much they owe him.
Manuel F. Ayau, requiescat in pace.