MM: You will be the keynote speaker at The Atlas Society’s third annual gala October 10 in New York City. Let’s tell people who you are and something about your background. Where did you grow up?
GA: I was born in Guatemala. My dad is Cuban, and my mom is half Guatemalan and half Hungarian. We lived in Guatemala City until I was nine years old. Then we moved to Honduras because of my dad’s work. He worked for Johnson and Johnson in Central America. We moved to El Salvador again after that, so I was always used to being the new girl in school. I went back to Guatemala when I was 17 to graduate from high school.
I did my college years in Guatemala at Francisco Marroquin University, which promotes the ideas of classical liberalism and Objectivism and Austrian economics.
After graduation I moved to Washington, DC. I did an internship at the Cato Institute, took some courses at Georgetown University, and then I moved to Belgium to get a master’s degree at Leuven University, where I had a different experience with my education. Previously I had been exposed to liberalism and libertarianism and Objectivism, and I I studied some socialism and Marx but always in a negative way. In Europe socialist economics and Karl Marx, and also philosophers like Foucault, Kierkegaard, and Heidegger, were the mainstream.
After that I moved to Rome, Italy where I took a course in applied anthropology. I worked with Senegalese immigrants who had moved to Europe and studied the troubles that they had. This resonated with me, since they are similar to the Latin American immigrants who are looking for better opportunities in the United States.
I got back home to Guatemala and lived there for another seven years. Now I live in Mexico City. I'm very used to being all over the place.
MM: Why did you decide to attend Francisco Marroquin University? Were you already at that point interested in classical liberalism and Objectivism?
GA: Actually I didn't know that this university was an exception, not only in Guatemala but pretty much in Latin America, and I would say even the world. The engineer who founded it in the 1970s, Manuel Ayau, got in touch with the ideas of Leonard Read through reading the famous essay “I, Pencil,” then he went on to study Austrian economics. He even met Ludwig von Mises and Frederick Hayek, and then of course he was also exposed to the ideas of Ayn Rand. So if you go to my university you can find all the different branches that defend the free market and free individuals. It doesn't matter what you study; you're going to be exposed to those ideas.
But the reason why I chose that university had nothing to do with its ideas. I didn't even know that that's what they did. I chose it because it was the only university in Guatemala that offered a major in international affairs and political science. So that is why I ended up there.
MM: But obviously Francisco Marroquin University was a good fit for you. You also mentioned being introduced to Ayn Rand there. How has she influenced you?
GA: Well Ayn Rand was always a name that was around. There were extracurricular book clubs about her, but for my major there wasn’t a specific course on Ayn Rand. The focus was more on the economic side –von Mises and Hayek. But Rand was always a name around, and there's the Atlas Libertas, a beautiful sculpture based on Atlas Shrugged that Walter Peter Brenner, the Objectivist sculptor from Guatemala, did for the university.
So finally when I graduated in 2007, I decided that I wanted to read Atlas Shrugged. So I went to the library, and I borrowed the book. But I read the first page, and I didn't understand anything. My English was not very good at the time, so I was like, “no this is too much for me.”
Later on I got a paperback copy when I was living in Washington, DC. And finally when I was in Italy two years later, after speaking English all the time and doing more work in English, it was the book that I read during my four months in Italy. And I was completely fascinated by it. I thought that Rand captured all the passion, all the philosophy, all the explanations about psychology, love, sex, human relationships, self-esteem, and values that at the root explain why free market economics is so important.
I know that some people prefer The Fountainhead because it is more personal. But for me, when I finally read Atlas Shrugged, and because I had studied international affairs and political science, Atlas Shrugged was a masterpiece that really contained everything that I‘d been studying in international affairs. When I read that book I was absolutely fascinated by how she could go deep into subjects important for every human being’s life.
And Atlas Shrugged completely changed the way I communicate. I went back home to Guatemala. I was quite disappointed. I didn’t want to work in an NGO. I didn’t want to work in a political party. I was quite frustrated actually, because I thought that I had studied so much about this subject and now I didn't want to get engaged with any job that had to do with that.
So I went back to doing radio, which I've been doing part-time since I was 19 years old and in my second year in college. So when I returned to radio this time my boss suggested that since I had lived all over the place and studied so much that I should be very outspoken on the air. And I remember telling him, “Okay. I can do that, but the thing is I have a very complicated political ideology. I’m a libertarian and that is something that both the right wing and the left wing don't like.” But my boss said, “I don't care. Do your thing.” So what I started doing was applying a lot of the communication methods that Ayn Rand used to persuade people. In Latin America these ideas are almost unknown unless you studied in a libertarian university like mine or you did your own research. Otherwise you are only going to be exposed to the socialist mentality or the conservative mentality.
MM: So you've been a leading critic of Latin American socialism. Do you see changes taking place now in Latin America?
GA: Well for sure there have been hundreds of people who have reached out to me all over Latin America to say “Thanks to you, because of some video you recommended I watch or some book you recommended I read, I got interested in Ayn Rand and learned about the option of Austrian economics.” And individually I know that I have introduced those ideas to hundreds of individuals in different sectors – entrepreneurs, teachers, students, families in general. And that is very satisfactory. If we have more individuals that have the right set of values, and they defend the right ideas, this will be so important for Latin America.
In Latin America our bad ideas are responsible for our bad reality, and we have to fight a complex system. In Latin America we always blame someone else for our failures. We have a victim complex. And the sad thing is that when socialism fails, it is never the fault of socialism. It is always the fault of something else, which is what I explain in the videos that I made with John Stossel about socialism in Latin America and also in the United States.
But if I had to point to a political gain, something bigger, I mean, people in Latin America still think that changing the president will change the system, and that’s not a reality. The fact is that socialism of the 21st century, which has ruled in Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador, Uruguay, and El Salvador, I mean more than half of the countries of Latin America have fallen for this socialism club. This is because in the 1990s, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the opening of the market in Latin America, unfortunately there was a lot of cronyism. There was a lot of growth but there was a lot of corruption and cronyism involved. You had to be close to the political parties in order to get economic privileges.
This is why during the 1990s the big masses of the population were really angry at the so-called “capitalism” that was implemented in Latin America, which in fact was not capitalism. It was a lot of cronyism and mercantilism. In response to that, they voted for socialism. And then the pendulum swung the other way. But now there are these socialist presidents who also don’t deliver. The promise of the socialist presidents was that under their rule inequality would end, corruption would end, and of course those things haven’t ended. They have multiplied.
MM: What do you think about the growth of socialism or at least the popularity of socialist politicians in the United States?
GA: The sad thing that I'm seeing is that instead of we in Latin America being inspired by the limited government that was implemented in the United States – and that you were just recently celebrating on the Fourth of July – I think that if the founding fathers of the United States were to come back now and see what has been done with the country, they would be super disappointed. The federal government has grown massively and there's a lot of protectionism and cronyism and lobbyists. But of course the United States is still more free than Latin America. Unfortunately what I see is that Latin America, instead of being inspired by those principles the founders put in place for the United States, we are infecting you and contaminating you with the bad ideas that have governed us for decades.
MM: What encouragement can you offer to all of us in the liberty movement about the future of freedom?
GA: Well I think that the battle that we have to win is not a political battle. I always tell young people not to get involved in politics. I warn them that the people trying to change the system inside the system, either they get frustrated and they quit, or they get absorbed by the system.
For me, this is a cultural battle. It is a battle of changing mindsets, of inspiring people by the power of liberty. That includes not only selling the idea of economic freedom. It has to go deeper. We have to go more philosophically, because we have encountered generations of people who have been educated to think that they are victims of the system. They don't have high self-esteem. They are encouraged to be envious and have envy for those who can actually make it with hard work. So we have to change those mindsets, we have to start spreading ideas about self-worth and emotional intelligence, and the power of the individual and how you can be rational and responsible for your own destiny.
And also be very honest. Freedom doesn’t mean that you will always make the perfect choices or that you will have a perfect, happy life. It just means that no one else will make the choices for you. And that's already a pretty good guarantee, considering the alternative. When you give power over yourself to others, then you have submitted to their control. So I encourage young people to get involved in whatever realm they find suitable because ideas can be spread through music, through sports, through art, theater, literature, movies. We need every possible discipline – even psychology and neuroscience. The more people we have with this mindset in different disciplines, I think that the world will not only advance technologically, it will also advance morally.
MM: That's wonderful. Thanks for your time. I can't wait to meet you at The Atlas Society gala in October.
GA: Thank you, Marilyn. See you in October.