At the U.N., a Firebrand Increasingly in the Mainstream; His Tirades Against U.S.-Led Economic Order Are Resonating

By Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 30, 2008

UNITED NATIONS -- The Rev. Miguel d'Escoto Brockmann, a revolutionary Nicaraguan priest, sounded like the old-school, 1980s-style Latin American leftist he is when he began his presidency of the 192-member U.N. General Assembly in September.

But as the world's financial turmoil deepens and the pillars of modern capitalism appear increasingly shaky, his tirades against what he considers the evils of an American-led economic order are gaining a more sympathetic audience here with each passing day.

A crushing global economic crisis has provided the Maryknoll priest with a pulpit to preach his sermon of class warfare between the world's rich and poor to an increasingly receptive audience, with more moderate figures such as Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and French leader Nicolas Sarkozy echoing his criticism of the U.S. free-market system.

"Some of this stuff he was saying in September sounded wacky, but now it's sort of in the mainstream" said Colin Keating, a former New Zealand diplomat who runs the Security Council Report, a policy group focusing on the United Nations. "It does partly account for slightly changed levels of respect."

A Sandinista foreign minister from 1979 to 1990 who once referred to President Ronald Reagan as the "butcher of my people," d'Escoto has emerged as an unlikely standard-bearer of the U.N. membership that had in many ways been moving beyond the Cold War battles that long defined him.

Equipped with a hearing aid and suffering from vertigo, the 75-year-old sermonizes about the cruelty of a political order that has done too little to improve the lives of the poorest. His self-effacing and sometimes humorous style has more in common with a small-town pastor than that of the stern Marxist ideologue -- Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega -- who championed his candidacy to the U.N. post.

D'Escoto decries the contamination of the world's economic order by a "spirit of selfishness and individualism" that views "justice, mercy and compassion" as incompatible with economic activity, as he said at a recent U.N. interfaith conference. "The world has become a moral basket case," he said at a news conference last week.

In taking on the new job, d'Escoto vowed to tone down his attacks on the United States. But it is a hard promise to keep for a man who claims the CIA once plotted to kill him. D'Escoto often digresses from U.N. business to decry what he sees as acts of U.S. arrogance -- such as support of Israel and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Last week, d'Escoto took issue with President Bush, whom he called a liar in a June 2004 radio interview, for slighting the U.N. General Assembly. In his final address to the assembly in September, Bush dispensed with the customary practice of mentioning the body's president. "He could not even find the minimum politeness to acknowledge me," d'Escoto said at a Nov. 25 news conference. "Two times he's spoken before the General Assembly, and he ignored me. He's the only person in the world to do that, and I still love him."

On the eve of a development conference in Doha, Qatar, d'Escoto took aim at World Bank President Robert Zoellick and International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Khan for failing to attend. D'Escoto belittled them as agents of a U.S.-led order that does not care about the United Nations or the world's poor. "The IMF and the World Bank are controlled by a member of the United Nations who is anti-United Nations, who wants to do it alone," he said. "It's a shame . . . but we pray that it can change."

D'Escoto maintains that he has great affection for the United States. The son of a Nicaraguan diplomat, d'Escoto was born in Hollywood in 1933 and studied at Maryknoll seminaries in Illinois and New York. But the ordained priest would later defy the Vatican to represent the Sandinista movement and was barred from celebrating Mass. Ortega named d'Escoto foreign minister after seizing power in 1979. For the next decade, d'Escoto was the movement's public face as it battled a challenge by U.S.-backed contra rebels.

D'Escoto said that the prospect for better ties with the United States has improved with the election of Barack Obama and that he has extended Obama an invitation to address the General Assembly.


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