The Dreams of a Freedom Entrepreneur: Jesús Eduardo Rodríguez Armas (1940-2015)
Like Antony Fisher, the founder of Atlas, Jesús Eduardo Rodriguez Armas (1940-2015) had talent for business as well as for ideas. He applied his entrepreneurial and social skills in both worlds. After receiving an engineering degree from the Catholic University Andrés Bello, in Caracas, Venezuela, he continued his studies at the University of Michigan, and at Stanford University, in California. Soon after he arrived to Stanford he met Antony Fisher.
Atlas was founded in San Francisco, not far from Stanford, on July 14 1981. Fisher had been in contact with Ricardo Zuloaga (1919-2011), a close relative of Rodriguez. As Fisher, Zuloaga was a member of the Mont Pelerin Society (MPS) a prominent group of pro free-society intellectuals which served as inspiration for think tanks and academic efforts around the globe. When Jesús Eduardo learned about Fisher he sought out his help and advice to start a think tank in Venezuela. Antony immediately saw his entrepreneurial talent and introduced him to potential supporters in the United States. Some years later, in 1984, Rodríguez was one of the ringleaders among those who co-founded CEDICE, the think tank that has been fighting a heroic battle against totalitarianism in Venezuela. In 1987, he attended the first Atlas workshop for free-market allies in Latin America and the Caribbean. It took place in Jamaica and attracted over two dozen free society leaders who later helped create educational and policy research programs throughout the continent. In “Lo Grande es la Idea” (“Ideas are the Great Thing”) the short history of CEDICE, published on the occasion of the think tank’s 15th anniversary, Jesús Eduardo Rodríguez is interviewed at length and credits Fisher and Atlas for their guidance with the new think tank: “Economic thought had stagnated in Venezuela. Something had to be done, and we reached an agreement on the basis of the experience of one man known to many of us: Antony Fisher.”
Rodríguez was not only a businessman and a generous donor, but he was also involved in providing intellectual leadership. In 1992, he co-authored “Social Security in Venezuela” with Carlos Sabino. The book received a Fisher Award from Atlas. In it, Rodríguez and Sabino analyzed the failings of the state pension system as well as that of the “nutritional grants program,” a precursor of the now popular “conditional cash transfers.” It offered sound recommendations. John C. Goodman, the foremost US expert in the field, wrote that Rodríguez and Sabino argued “persuasively that Venezuela and other Latin American countries will be far better off if they reform their social security systems in a way that is consistent with individualism, personal liberty, and economic growth.”
Despite the good work of Rodríguez and his beloved CEDICE, later in that decade Venezuela succumbed to left-wing populism, which gradually turned into an oppressive totalitarianism. CEDICE continued its work but there was now a need to create additional programs to nurture a new generation of freedom workers and civil society leaders. Given the country’s lack of personal security, Rodríguez began to direct and support these efforts to liberate Venezuela in a quiet, tireless, and despite the challenge, always calm and respectful manner. Rene Scull, one of his closest friends, told me “he even resigned from his beloved Mont Pelerin Society to be less of an ideological target.” He was a man of deep faith, who carried his crosses with joy. I think it is fair to say that every single freedom fighter in his country benefited from his tireless efforts. Rocio Guijarro, the talented leader of CEDICE writes that “Rodriguez’s last educational dream was to create libraries in popular areas, he was convinced that a well prepared population, aware of its rights and duties, was essential to achieve a society of free and responsible citizens. I will work to fulfill his dream.”
Just a few weeks ago he called to tell me that there was a need to structure a new round of Venezuelan support. He will not be here to direct it, but many of us will follow his example and focus on continuing nurturing the civil society of the country he so loved with the ideas of liberty. Lo Grande es la Idea, “Ideas are the Great Thing” and Jesús Eduardo Rodríguez spent a fruitful life building and supporting the inspiring idea of a free society. We will miss him.