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Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Road to Villa Nueva

Madre Inés Ayau has a ready smile. When recalling her first day in charge of a large orphanage in the old district of Guatemala City, this leader of a tiny band of libertarian Russian Orthodox nuns laughs out loud. As she arrived for a formal handover ceremony, the 16 teenaged residents hurled eggs and stones before running away, never to be seen again.

It was a new start for the orphanage, or hogar (which literally means “home”), and just one more meaty project for this dynamic nun in her early sixties. Hogar Rafael Ayau had been founded by her great-great-grandfather, a philanthropist, in 1856 and had done much good work before being nationalized in the mid-1950s. But by 1996 every window was broken and the orphaned teenagers were running wild, working as prostitutes while hooked on drink and drugs. They were nominally being looked after by 36 workers, and there was a padded payroll of 105 people in total. In spite of this, the vulnerable youngsters were receiving no real care or education.

When the then-president of Guatemala, Álvaro Arzú—who had previously been taught at university by both Madre Inés and her father—asked if she would run it, she gave him a very direct answer: “Yes, we will do it but only if we can take over the whole operation and privatize it with no government involvement at all.”

And so the president and his wife, Patricia de Arzú, who was in charge of social services, set about reprivatizing the hogar along with Madre Inés and her close colleagues Madre Ivonne and Madre María. The entire existing staff had to be let go before Hogar Rafael Ayau reopened in October 1997.

As a team led by a private company began to renovate the campus, Madre Inés (officially, her title is Igoumeni or Abbess but she prefers to be styled in the same way as her fellow nuns) headed north to the United States. There she solicited donations for the newly formed American Friends of the Hogar Rafael Ayau.

She quickly raised a million dollars, helped by her family—which was well-known and respected in political, business, and philanthropic circles—and by a local bank. Unknown to Inés, her great-uncle, whose wife had been instrumental in running the orphanage, had left a trust for the hogar, which paid out an annual sum. But once it was nationalized the bank was no longer willing to expedite such funds and quietly sat on the trust. Now that the institution had been returned to the private sector, Inés received a call from the manager. “We have a five-figure check waiting here for you,” he announced.

Madre Inés Ayau is the daughter of the late Manuel Ayau, a Guatemalan entrepreneur and politician who founded the Universidad Francisco Marroquín (UFM), one of Latin America’s leading universities, in 1971. (He was also a FEE trustee.) Inés, the third of six children, attended a school run by nuns and from a young age wanted to become one herself.

She joined a Roman Catholic convent at the age of 20 and ran slap bang into a total anathema named liberation theology, which, she says, “I always fought as hard as I could. Liberation theology is a rereading of the Bible with communist glasses, searching for words out of context to justify a communist political agenda.”

A New Old Faith

In the years that followed she traveled all over the world teaching religion in schools as she worked for a degree in theology. But everywhere she went she was dismayed to encounter teachers influenced by liberation theology.

“I was really fed up with it,” she confided, “so while I was in the Philippines for two years I started looking for something more traditional and discovered Russian Orthodoxy.”

She was immediately declared persona non grata by her former church when she left in 1986. “The move was very hard for both sides,” she said.

Inés returned to Guatemala in May 1987 to build a distance-learning program at UFM at her father’s request. The program succeeded and later became the private, technologically oriented Galileo University. Inés then moved on to another project: building Guatemala’s first Russian Orthodox monastery and church. A family friend had donated 30 acres of land in the town of Villa Nueva, just south of Guatemala City.

Yet when the president challenged her to turn around Hogar Rafael Ayau, Madre Inés found time to throw herself into the orphanage, and in the following decade it prospered. Some 240 children whose parents were unknown or dead were adopted locally or internationally, and some 900 graduated out of Madre’s high school program and into the local job market.

I have visited the hogar several times, and I always sense a caring atmosphere and a real commitment to education and good values. The children are voracious readers, and one corner of the reading room is a “Library of Liberty” devoted to classical-liberal texts.

Meanwhile, all the children capable of working in the orphanage’s micro-enterprises receive 50 percent of the profit on every item they make. The woodworking shop is a particular favorite with customers. “The older girls even have debit and credit cards,” Madre Ivonne told me. From time to time she drives the white orphanage minibus out to a safe mall and sends groups of girls out shopping for the afternoon with their own hard-earned money.


The hogar’s future was put in jeopardy in late 2007 when outgoing President Óscar Berger bowed to UNICEF pressure to renationalize the orphan business and make private adoptions illegal.

UFM Chair Carroll Rodríguez explained what this means in practice: “It is not illegal to adopt in Guatemala; now, however, you have to go through the State-run Consejo Nacional de Adopciones. It is also not illegal to run an hogar, but it is illegal to charge or receive any money for providing the services of caring for adoptable babies and other children. So many of the law-abiding hogares had to shut down, and that is why Mother Inés now only accepts children whose parents are known.”

As a result Madre’s numbers have fallen from a high of around 160 children down to a mere 60. As she herself now puts it, “I am running a boarding school for the poor.”The State alone cares for parentless kids. Any baby left at the gates of Hogar Rafael Ayau has to be turned in to the State first thing the next day.

Up until prohibition, Guatemala, China, and Russia were the last three remaining countries with a well-developed legal market in international adoptions. All other nations that had once allowed children to be sent to new families abroad had already succumbed to UNICEF pressure to put an end to the practice.

But UNICEF had in effect restricted supply without doing anything about demand. Its campaign caused a worldwide shortage of babies for inter-country adoption and made it an expensive business in Guatemala, where at least 3,000 infants a year were adopted. On average, fees and expenses alone came to $25,000.

I had seen Guatemala’s booming adoption scene firsthand on earlier visits. I had been struck by the large numbers of American women and couples at western hotels with Guatemalan toddlers and a local nanny. The adoption paperwork took a year—evidence, Rodríguez pointed out, “that the process was both regulated and exhaustive.” In the meantime a local nanny looked after the baby and the prospective parents had to make regular weeklong visits to prove their seriousness and bond with the child.

Black Markets, Abandoned Children

There was a darker side too, with unscrupulous baby traffickers profiting from the dearth of infants. But the result of outright prohibition was predictable and downright disastrous. The cost of adopting soared to a black-market price of $60,000, according to Guatemala’s leading family law attorney Dina Castro, and Madre told me of baby kidnappings, of pregnant women being held hostage until they gave birth, and of a cross-border baby trade with El Salvador, in which newborn babies were brought in and passed off as Guatemalan.

At the same time, Madre Inés told me, some 100 reputable agencies had closed immediately, derailing already approved adoptions. The government ended up with what was effectively a stockpile of thousands of babies and children.

“The government now has about 30,000 children in its care, and it is all static—there is no movement at all,” Madre told me. “The government claims to be starting a major new move for local adoptions into private loving families but it is all a smokescreen.”

In fact, the red tape surrounding domestic adoption means that would-be adopters are finding it harder to be accepted as suitable parents, compounding the problem. Foster parents are now prohibited from adopting, and since the new law came in, attorney Castro had “personally not seen one resolution granting an adoption.”

“Many children are abandoned,” fumed Armando de la Torre, a former Jesuit priest in his 80s and now director of the School of Social Sciences at UFM. “Their avenue to escape has been closed, and this has been decided by people who hate private initiative and thirst for big government.”

The tens of thousands in State custody—exact figures are hard to come by—are a great source of sorrow to him. “It is wicked,” he told me. “These children now face a bleak future in crime, as beggars and as prostitutes—all of them illiterate.”

After only four years it was clear to the most casual observer that many more children were living on the streets. On the road to Villa Nueva to visit Madre’s building project, which now included a brand new home, I spotted a young girl of eight or nine who should clearly have been at school. She jumped out into the street, juggled three balls, and then begged. As the traffic lights changed she wandered off in the direction of a nearby bar.

But Hogar Rafael Ayau is still serving an important need. Just days before my visit last March, a single mom who lives and works as a scavenger in the city dump had turned up at Madre’s door with her three young children aged one, two, and six, asking her to care for them. She reported sexual attacks on them and feared for their future. I lunched on bread and vegetables with these newly scrubbed children in the hogar’s canteen. In common with every child in the room, all three were polite and respectful, and cleaned their plates even after second helpings. Their mom would visit monthly, and if she ever got back on her feet, the kids would be returned.

Undaunted Ambition

Despite all the obstacles, Madre Inés’s ambition continues unabated. Twenty years after beginning work at Villa Nueva, construction has nearly finished. The development is on a cliff overlooking Lake Amatitlán, where Madre has built a Russian Orthodox church of such beauty and brilliance I had to sit down for a good half-hour just to take it in. Every square inch, including the ceiling, is painted with exquisitely colored and lettered iconography. Madre has also created a productive farm producing fish, rabbit meat, fruit, and vegetables. She is a real entrepreneur.

It is on the highest point of this incredible site that Madre is close to finishing the new $2-million home, including a school. The children will then leave their increasingly unsuitable downtown site, where by day old buses poison the air with their exhaust and by night prostitutes, dog fights, and shootings rule the street.

As I gazed up the steep hill toward the home, I thought I could see a four-level building, but in fact I was looking at two buildings of two stories each. One had dormitories and single rooms above, with eating and socializing areas below. A bridge connected them with the school areas lower down in the building next door.

Madre Inés is raising funds from Guatemalan private donors and American Orthodox Christians to get the job done properly. And she has been fortunate to have had family support from the outset. For example, her family’s tile factory has for many years shipped “seconds” to a retail site adjoining the Guatemala City property. One hundred percent of revenues are devoted to Madre’s efforts. Rental of the Guatemala City campus will also help once the residents have moved to Villa Nueva.

Madre Inés has designed all the buildings at Villa Nueva herself. Fredy Chutan, the engineer in charge of construction, has only one worry: “When fundraising goes well she thinks of new things to add.” He regaled me with details of the four major additions made to the plans since the day they broke ground, and he is resigned to more.

“Madre has a very strong character,” he told me. “She is so determined that she achieves big projects not even governments can do.”

(Madre Inés Ayau can be contacted at [email protected] and more information can be found at

  • John Blundell (9 October 1952 – 22 July 2014) was a British economist who served as Director General and the Ralph Harris Fellow at the Institute of Economic Affairs.