Guatemala City

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.