Nicaraguan priest taking a top U.N. post

Nicaraguan priest taking a top U.N. post

Father Miguel d’Escoto, fiery foreign minister when Nicaragua’s Sandinista guerrillas held power, is assuming a more diplomatic role as head of the General Assembly.

By Richard Boudreaux
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

September 16, 2008

UNITED NATIONS — Father Miguel d’Escoto stopped saying Mass 23 years ago when the Vatican suspended his priestly functions for refusing to quit Nicaragua’s revolutionary government. But he never stopped preaching.

From university lecterns, slum soup kitchens and diplomatic forums, he has voiced moral wrath over the plight of the poor and the might of wealthy nations, particularly the United States.

Today he is being promoted to a far bigger pulpit: the presidency of the United Nations General Assembly.

Thanks to quirky election rules that gave U.S. diplomats limited means to block him, the man guiding the 192-nation assembly’s debates and resolutions for the coming year will be a sharp-tongued cleric who once called Ronald Reagan a “butcher,” President Bush a liar and both men threats to international security.

But his sermons these days convey a mixed message. After decades of rhetorical combat, the 75-year-old priest is trying to adjust to a more diplomatic role.

Since his election in June, he has taken oblique swipes at American policy while promising not to use his new position to bash it head-on.

Without naming culprits, he railed in his acceptance speech against “acts of aggression, such as those occurring in Iraq and Afghanistan.” But the same speech warned U.N. member states against “futile recriminations.”

“Look, the world is in a very lamentable state,” D’Escoto said in an interview last week. He cited global food shortages, climate change, human rights abuses, and weapons purchases that drain resources from efforts to fight poverty.

“Things have to change,” he said. “If we are going to move in a different direction, it’s absolutely important that we not go with an attitude that others are to blame. We must work together.”

Asked how that squared with his recent jabs at Washington, he replied: “Reconciliation is not compatible with killing my brother. It means forget past misgivings, but from now on it stops, that behavior. Aggression is the worst imaginable act of terrorism. Do you know how many people have died in Iraq because of the aggression and occupation since 9/11?”

D’Escoto is a short, rotund man with a cherubic face, a hearing aid and a benevolent, self-deprecating demeanor that belies his harshest words and puts listeners at ease. “You’d say you are in the presence of a spiritual leader,” said a Latin American envoy who has met with him several times.

The Roman Catholic priest espouses liberation theology and the nonviolent teachings of Mahatma Gandhi. He plans to keep a bust of the Indian independence leader on the podium of the General Assembly hall.

But his beliefs, which embrace the right to armed self-defense, were also shaped by Cold War polarization and bloodshed in his Central American country.

Born in Hollywood, he went with his parents to their native Nicaragua at age 3 and returned to the United States as a teenager for Maryknoll Brothers seminary training and higher education. In 1975 he joined a U.S.-based committee of solidarity with Nicaragua’s Sandinista National Liberation Front and later became an advisor to the armed revolutionary group, which had close ties to Fidel Castro’s Cuba.

After taking power in a 1979 uprising, the Sandinistas made D’Escoto foreign minister, a job he held until they lost the 1990 elections. For most of those years, as U.S.-backed Contra rebels tried to topple President Daniel Ortega’s regime, D’Escoto was its globe-trotting defender.

He remains a partisan figure today, critical of the United States as it spars with Russia and the leftist rulers of Bolivia and Venezuela in a revival of Cold War-style tensions. Since Ortega returned to the presidency in 2007 and made D’Escoto an advisor, Nicaragua has aligned itself with all three foes of the Bush administration.

Despite that, D’Escoto’s ride to the General Assembly post was smooth.

The job rotates by region. By tradition, U.N. delegates from the year’s designated region nominate a single candidate from a country that has never held the post. Their choice invariably wins the General Assembly’s approval.

U.N. diplomats from Latin America and the Caribbean said D’Escoto’s candidacy aroused concern in the region but no serious opposition. Nicaragua lobbied early to get eligible Caribbean rivals behind him. Among the few others that had not held the post, Bolivia backed Nicaragua, and Paraguay stayed out of the race.

Diplomats from several countries said the U.S. delegation spoke to them about running against Nicaragua. But they said no one wanted a repetition of the drawn-out ideological battle of 2006, when Washington’s lobbying split the region and blocked Venezuela’s bid to join the 15-member Security Council.

In the end, the United States joined this time in the General Assembly’s unanimous vote to elect the Nicaraguan. U.S. officials said they would judge him by his actions.

D’Escoto, who suffers from an inner ear abnormality that causes dizzy spells, quipped in the interview that he was allowed to win because no one thought an elderly priest could do much harm.

“Maybe it helped that I’m so decrepit,” he said.

But he brings an energetic anti-poverty agenda, led by a proposal for a greater U.N. voice in the policy conditions now set by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund for development aid to poor countries.

The General Assembly has limited power; its resolutions, unlike the Security Council’s, are nonbinding. But it offers a platform to shape global debate around its president’s priorities.

“D’Escoto has to be careful,” said Costa Rican Ambassador Jorge Urbina. “If he’s combative, he’ll learn the hard way how the big powers command the U.N., and he’ll find his initiatives blocked. He can’t force things. His role is to build consensus.”

boudreaux@latimes.com

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