Miguel Angel Rodriguez Echeverria, the former president of Costa Rica, sat up straight at his spotless desk, ready for prime time. His choice of clothing, a navy blue blazer, a blue-and-white striped starched shirt and gold cuff links, suggested a penchant for perfection, discipline and diligence.
Unanimously elected secretary general of the 34-member Organization of American States on June 7, Rodriguez, 64, takes over this key leadership post in September. Until then, he and a handful of aides are ensconced in his transitional offices on F Street.
He said he had no illusions about the bumpy road ahead and the vast task of reducing poverty, and promoting the rule of law and human rights in a region where natural disasters, disenchantment with government and disappointment with democracy and free trade are endemic.
"Every country is faced with the same kind of problem, how to organize power, how to lead its institutions and allow society to grow, to feel included and to have equity so all can share in fair human rights standards and growth," he said. "Of course each nation has its peculiarities and specificities, but inter-American goals are the same."
In 1968, at the age of 28, Rodriguez became one of Costa Rica's youngest government ministers. He was elected to the legislative assembly as a representative of the Social Christian Unity Party in 1990 and as house speaker the following year. In 1998, he won the presidency. He went on to become a visiting professor at the George Washington University Elliott School of International Affairs.
Rodriguez, who received his master's and doctorate degrees in economics at the University of California at Berkeley, emphasized that he hopes to draw on his experience as a statesman, his training as a lawyer and an economist and his extensive reading of political philosophy to carry out his new job.
John F. Maisto, U.S. ambassador to the OAS, said: "When I was ambassador to Nicaragua, he was very active in Central American conflict resolution processes as president of his party. He used to work quietly, helping Nicaraguans resolve crises."
"He is not only a statesman, he comes from a stellar democracy which is Costa Rica and which has a solid reputation in human rights and education. He is an excellent choice because he combines experience as a former president, legislator, party head and in both the private and public sector."
Rodriguez also has spiritual side, steeped in Catholicism and an abiding love for his pious grandmother, who doted on him and made him believe at the age of 3 that he could become president and that he had the obligation to improve conditions around him, he recalled.
Her name was Lupita Velasques de Echeverria, and she was the granddaughter of Jose Maria Castro Madriz, who became Costa Rica's first president in 1848 when it declared itself a republic. Although her family later fell on hard times, she never lost her bearings. A proverb she often repeated was "Pray to God and hit the hammer," Rodriguez said, to emphasize the value of faith as well as hard work. She wore hats, a veil and gloves when she went out on her long walks and badgered her grandchildren about table manners and social graces.
"She had such a great influence on me. When I was barely 5, I mistakenly thought I could become the president of America as well," he chuckled. When he was young, he sat at her feet and she taught him English and the importance of developing a sense of equality and of caring.
"My only idol is Jesus," Rodriguez said. "He was a carpenter until he was 30, he worked with ordinary people. He prayed and worked and performed miracles. . . . working hard, making marginal progress, the activity of creating and improving things slowly . . . all that is a miracle."
Rodriguez said the happiest day of his life was the birth of his son Miguel Alberto, and the saddest day was in 1979 when his son died in an accident while on a mountain climbing expedition.
At home, where his success has been widely celebrated, opposition party members had raised questions about his slow response to an inquiry into campaign finances involving his party.
Last week he appeared before a commission probing a loan his wife's company made to the party in 1994 that was repaid by a group of individuals after he left office, he said.
In vying for the OAS post, Rodriguez left no stone unturned. He lobbied feverishly for support, and in the past two years jetted to 31 countries to discuss his vision with their presidents, prime ministers and foreign ministers and to listen to their views and concerns about their place in the inter-American system.
"I suppose I carried out a good campaign," he said.