Father d’Escoto’s United Nations

Father d’Escoto’s United Nations

The General Assembly’s new president is a champion for the world’s most dispossessed.


AP PHOTO/RICHARD DREWGordon Brown, Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann and Ban Ki-moon

The revolutionary priest now wears muted diplomatic pinstripes. But Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann, the Maryknoll father who defied the Vatican to serve the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua in the 1970s, has never lost his passion for righting wrongs or his unshakable Christian faith. He has brought both to an unexpected role this year: president of the United Nations General Assembly.

His hopes for the year ahead are large. He wants to democratize the Security Council to make it more reflective of the world, a goal that has eluded his predecessors. Handed the global financial crisis as the perfect prop, he also aims to keep a light shining on the most dispossessed nations and people through the General Assembly, including a special panel on October 30 to discuss fixing the world economy. “The future will be better,” he said, “because to a certain extent, this idolatry of the market was a false god.” His mantra: “The way to help each other is to move from the logic of I and mine to the logic of we and ours.”

D’Escoto, 75, is by no means a diplomatic novice or a newcomer to the UN or New York. From 1979 to ’90 he was the international face of the first Sandinista government, in which he served as foreign minister under President Daniel Ortega Saavedra after the overthrow of the Somoza dynasty. It was a tumultuous time of civil wars across Central America, and the Sandinistas were hounded relentlessly by a US-backed armed “counterrevolution”–the Contras. D’Escoto took the United States to the International Court of Justice–the World Court–charging Washington with aggression by land and with a sea blockade, and won. The Reagan administration did not participate in hearings, ignored the ruling and declared that the court had no jurisdiction. After Ortega was defeated in 1990 by a center-right party, d’Escoto remained loyal to the movement, and when the Sandinistas returned to power in 2006, he became President Ortega’s foreign policy adviser.

In an early October interview in his UN office, d’Escoto said he was more than surprised when he began hearing rumors this spring that his name was in play as the candidate of Latin America for the General Assembly presidency, a one-year appointment rotated around the regions of the world. “My candidature was launched without my knowing it,” he said. “I knew that President Ortega didn’t want to ask me, because he thought that I would say no, because I have said no to many things.” But when the offer was made, d’Escoto told the government to go ahead, “because I won’t be elected anyway.”

“I said, if it does happen, I do it for the more than half of the men and women of this world who are living in destitution, in hunger,” d’Escoto said. “I’ll go there to speak on their behalf–and to promote the cause of peace. And then I said, if I am elected, Lord, help me to be prepared.” A carved wooden bust of Jesus dominates his desk, a novel touch in this UN setting.

Perhaps as a sign of the changing times, the United States, which continues to abhor the Sandinistas, did not try to block his election. Zalmay Khalilzad, the US ambassador, said that choosing a president was a General Assembly matter. In reality, there was very little the United States could have done to counter the majority of nations supporting d’Escoto.

The highly visible job of General Assembly president is a physical challenge for d’Escoto. For more than forty years he has suffered from Ménière’s syndrome, a condition of the inner ear that upsets the body’s balance. He struggles at times with the din and rush of movement around him at the UN, an aide said. Receptions and cocktail parties can turn into nightmares, so he tries to limit social activity–not easy around the UN. “It was initially diagnosed forty-five years ago in New York,” d’Escoto said. “But I managed to live with it. It didn’t blossom until eight years ago–then very, very strongly. You know, 70 percent of these cases cure themselves. I belong to the 30 percent that don’t cure.” Bouts of severe vertigo as often as three times a week once left him confined to his home for three months. He rejected psychological counseling in favor of prayer. “I said, ‘Blessed Mother, please help me.'”

Miguel d’Escoto was born in Los Angeles in 1933, the son of a Nicaraguan diplomat. An uncle, Salomón de la Selva (1893-1959), was a famous Nicaraguan poet and novelist educated at Williams College and active in poetry circles as well as the labor movement in New York. He was the “life partner” of Edna St. Vincent Millay, d’Escoto said, adding that his uncle wrote fluently in English and Spanish until American interventions in Nicaragua before World War II led him to vow he would “never again write a word in the English language–not poetry.”

In 1928 de la Selva wrote for The Nation an admiring, romantic profile of Augusto César Sandino, who fought a guerrilla insurgency against US Marines then occupying the country and for whom the Sandinista movement was named. D’Escoto says it was his uncle who secured for The Nation‘s Carleton Beals his historic interview with Sandino, the first by a North American journalist, which led to a series of articles later that year. D’Escoto says he is a fan of the magazine. “I have always liked The Nation very much,” he added. He also reads The New York Review of Books and Sojourners, a magazine of faith, politics and culture. He wants to avoid the subject of US politics, he said, but he has read Barack Obama’s The Audacity of Hope. “I liked it,” he said. “It’s talking from the heart. God bless him.”

D’Escoto’s religious education began at a seminary of the Maryknoll missionary order in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, in 1947 and continued at the Maryknoll center in Ossining, New York. While in New York, he also picked up a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University. He was ordained a Maryknoll priest in 1961 and served the missionary order in the slums of Chile before returning to New York, where he founded Orbis Books, a Maryknoll publishing house. At about the same time, d’Escoto helped organize support among intellectuals for the Sandinista National Liberation Front, which had just been formed.

Back in New York again, d’Escoto carries some baggage of recent Sandinista excesses that have cost Ortega the loss of friends in the United States. For years, Ortega has been alienating Nicaraguan colleagues within the movement, who see him as increasingly dictatorial. And wider international criticism of his authoritarian style has been growing. Ortega’s Nicaragua, pandering to conservative Catholics to get the Sandinistas re-elected in 2006, now has one of the hemisphere’s harshest antiabortion laws. Its judicial system has been distorted to be used against critics. The offices of women’s organizations angry over lingering charges that the president raped his stepdaughter have been raided, along with those of other independent nongovernmental organizations. Nicaragua is the only country apart from Russia to have recognized South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent nations.

In late August more than sixty Latin American artistic and cultural leaders called publicly for an end to what they deemed Ortega’s vendetta against Ernesto Cardenal, a renowned poet-priest in the tradition of liberation theology who was the Sandinistas’ minister of culture from 1979 to ’88. Iberian intellectuals also weighed in. Portuguese writer José Saramago, a Nobel Prize winner, said that “once more a revolution has been betrayed from within.”

At the August inauguration of Paraguay’s leftist president, Fernando Lugo, Cardenal had publicly called Ortega a “thief” and implied he had become an echo of the Somozas; later an old court case against the 83-year-old poet involving a murky property dispute, dismissed earlier, was revived. Cardenal said he would go to jail rather than pay a fine of about $1,000. D’Escoto, who remains close to the president, said enemies of the government have politicized the dispute, describing Cardenal’s predicament as a “sad spectacle.” D’Escoto does not criticize Ortega or defend Cardenal’s outspokenness, though in discussing the case he admitted, “To me it is something painful.”

When the sixty-third session of the UN General Assembly opened in September, it was inevitable that its president would come face to face with another president, George W. Bush. D’Escoto adopts an overtly philosophical strategy in dealing with the United States these days. “Self-criticism and criticism is vital for progress,” he said. “But I have always said criticism is a prerogative of those who love.” He took that tack when he met Bush for the first time at an American reception at the Waldorf-Astoria. “They were announcing people as they approached the president,” he recalled. “They said, ‘Father Miguel d’Escoto, president of the General Assembly.’ I went right over and I said, ‘Mr. President, first thing I want to tell you is that I love you, and I love your country.'”

That said, d’Escoto turns to a sharp analysis of what has gone wrong with the United States and what Washington has done to bring down the reputation of the UN. He starts with American strengths. “I have on the walls here the four people who have inspired me the most,” he said, pointing to portraits he has hung in his UN office. “I’m not talking, of course, about our Lord Jesus, but kind of contemporaries: Gandhi, he’s from India, and two Americans: Dorothy Day of New York–she used to work near here, on the Lower East Side–and Martin Luther King. And on this side, Tolstoy.

“So you see, of the people who influenced me the most, if I select four, two happen to be Americans,” he said. “What I mean to say is that this country has produced great people. This country must not be made synonymous with selfishness and rampant individualism. It’s not that way. There are great waves of spiritual strength in this country. Of late, there has been an effort to identify the country with the total idolatry of the market. They say, In God we trust. No. In the market we trust. And in guns.”

D’Escoto sees the US invasion of Iraq without Security Council backing as an attack on the UN. “The prestige of the United States is internationally very low. Now it just happens that the prestige of the United Nations is also very low. But this is not a coincidence. The one has dragged the other down. Why? Because people say the Security Council isn’t even able to call its own members to order.” That brings him back to the vexed issue of reforming the Council. With considerable credibility among developing nations, d’Escoto seems to have a chance of making progress. But his problem isn’t only with the “permanent five” nations unwilling to dilute their Council privileges. Developing nations show no signs of agreeing on who should represent them if new permanent seats are added.

“I’m quite aware of the fact that in every region, aspirants have antibodies,” he said. “I also think that this presidency, unfortunately, will be judged on whether or not it was able to resolve that problem. So we mean to do our best. But having said that, I’m aware that even if it were to be resolved, it doesn’t help with what is the fundamental problem, which is, How do we get the Security Council not necessarily to resolve every problem on the entire planet but at least to control its own members from being the instigators? You even lose the interest in preventing violence when it’s beginning right from within.”

The interview over, d’Escoto doesn’t say goodbye. “God bless,” he says. “Say a prayer for peace.”

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