Published by The Jerusalem Post
By Allison Hoffman
D’Escoto, a Catholic priest, sounded every bit the genial parish father as he appealed repeatedly to his “brothers and sisters” to join in righteous combat against poverty and despair by democratizing the UN: “It is incumbent on this General Assembly to garner the strong sense of solidarity that will awaken the necessary political will to turn this crisis into an opportunity to transform a world system that denies the poor as basic a right as food.”
In February, Ahmadinejad described Iran and Nicaragua as revolutionary “twins,” referring to the watershed year of 1979.
Pressed this month to condemn Iran, d’Escoto repeatedly acknowledged that Ahmadinejad’s comments about Israel were bad – “Verbally, there’s hardly anything that could be worse,” he said at a recent press conference – but left the clear implication that he considered actions to be worse.
D’Escoto told the Post that the US had proved itself willing to go “bomb, blast a country out of existence, to blast it to death for not fulfilling the resolutions of the Security Council” with regard to Iraq, and accused the US of resorting to propaganda against countries like Iran.
Yet he appeared uninformed on the specifics of Iranian policies, asking this reporter: “I don’t pretend to be infallible, but I don’t perceive that, for example, from Iran, that they would be anti-Jew. I understand there is quite a big, sizable Jewish population in Iran, and that there’s no problem with them. Is that true?”
Experts said the problem was not anti-Semitism, but ambivalence specifically about Israel.
The Second Vatican Council produced a sea change toward philo-Semitism in the Church, and Reform Jews, in particular, were avid supporters of leftist causes during the 1970s. At the same time, Israel was supplying arms to the same governments the leftists were trying to overthrow, and more recently has been characterized as a neocolonial power, like those they worked so hard to overthrow.
“They have a conflict between what they see of Israel and what they want Jews to be,” said Marc Ellis, director of the Center for Jewish Studies at Baylor University and a leading expert on Jewish liberation theology, who worked at Maryknoll shortly after d’Escoto assumed his government post in Managua.
Yet Ellis and others said d’Escoto likely doesn’t consider Israel first, when he formulates his policy or makes political overtures.
Analysts pointed out there are material reasons for d’Escoto – whose position at the UN is sponsored by Managua – to be warmly inclined toward Iran: The country has promised significant investments in Nicaraguan infrastructure, from a deep-water port to a hydroelectric project.
“He thinks Iran and its leaders identify with them as leaders who are trying to change the status quo, who superficially have a lot of common ideals, interests and practices – he’s fooled by that,” said Victor Comras, a retired US diplomat who worked as an antiterrorism monitor under former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan. “Whether he will educate himself along the way, I don’t know. That’s the measure of the man.”
He may have aimed his commentary on multinational food corporations and unilateral warfare at American ears, but they prompted indignation from Israeli Ambassador Gabriela Shalev, who told The Jerusalem Post that it was “a declaration of war on the West, on the United States – it’s tainted the rest of the speeches.”
His subsequent embrace of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – after his speech comparing Israel to a “cesspool,” and his later, equivocal comments on the Iranian leader’s often-repeated threat to wipe Israel off the map – endeared him even less to the Israeli delegation, with Shalev branding him an “Israel-hater.”
D’Escoto told the Post in a recent interview that he loved Israel and Jews, though he freely acknowledged his distaste for Israeli policy, particularly with regard to the Palestinians.
Yet people who knew him decades ago as a priest in the progressive Maryknoll order, and then as a novice foreign minister under Sandanista leader Daniel Ortega, say his idealistic fervor for helping the poor and dispossessed, and his belief that revolutionary movements could serve those principles, sometimes led him to overlook moral compromises made by Ortega after he came to power in the 1980s.
“He came from God’s army to the Sandanista one,” said Larry Birns, director of the Washington think tank, the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, who first met d’Escoto in the 1970s, when he ran Maryknoll’s publishing arm, Orbis Books. “As a result, he did not see moral issues as sharply as he should have – he was blinded by loyalty.”
AT 75, d’Escoto carries himself with a kindly, grandfatherly air, but he appears to have lost little of the intellectual fervor for the revolutionary principles that drew him as a young man to the Maryknolls – a missionary order that has espoused liberation theology – and then into the Sandinista movement.
Born in Los Angeles, raised in Nicaragua and educated at Maryknoll seminaries and at Columbia University’s journalism school – where the populist American commentator Pat Buchanan “always sat to my right,” d’Escoto joked – he was part of a generation that came of age after the Second Vatican Council determined to press the Church into the cause of championing the oppressed, politically as well as spiritually.
He made his first foray into politics in Chile, where he worked to organize people living in the slums around Santiago, and returned to New York in 1970, where he took over as director of communications for Maryknoll, and turned Orbis into the leading publisher of liberation theology texts. At the same time, he remained deeply invested in Nicaraguan affairs, joining the so-called Group of Twelve establishment figures who supported Ortega’s revolution.
When the Sandinistas succeeded in toppling the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza in 1979, d’Escoto was named foreign minister, because he was one of few in the movement who had the necessary experience abroad to serve as a diplomat.
“He’s great on the coffee circuit,” Birns said.
Yet d’Escoto – a US citizen – found himself repeatedly rebuffed when he tried to make peace overtures to the Reagan administration during the Contra years. This prompted an antipathy toward the US government, rooted as much in personal frustration as in his increasing identification of US hegemony with the dictatorial governments he had witnessed in Central America, according to Thomas Walker, director emeritus of Latin American Studies at Ohio University, who worked with d’Escoto on translations at Orbis.
Walker told the Post that in one instance, d’Escoto traveled to Washington to request a meeting with Ronald Reagan’s secretary of state, George Shultz, only to be told after several days of waiting that Shultz couldn’t see him because he was too busy – with a golf appointment.
“A few years ago, Miguel said, ‘Reagan is the butcher of my people,'” Walker said. “And he had every justification in saying that.”
The return of Reagan-era officials to power under President George W. Bush – principally Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who as a CIA official in the 1980s advocated air strikes against the Sandinistas – at the same time that Ortega was returned to power in Nicaragua’s 2006 election may only have heightened the sense of historical purpose, and justice, for d’Escoto in trying to corral anti-American spirit in the UN chamber with his populist message.
IN AN interview with the Post last week, d’Escoto was unsparing in his assessment of US foreign policy, particularly with regard to governments it doesn’t like – whether Nicaragua’s in the 1980s, or Iran’s today.
“If there is anything absolutely certain, it’s that the United States has never wanted democracy – it’s a different lexicon,” he said. “When they talk democracy, they mean a country that has submitted to them and that would comply with whatever they say. When they apply the name democracy to another country, they mean it is an obedient country.”
The sentiment echoes comments d’Escoto made in a 1985 interview with America, a Catholic weekly, when he said: “I wonder what would happen if there were a country a hundred times larger in territorial size (which is the least important thing), and thousands of times more powerful economically and politically, and if that country were to be clearly committed to the overthrow and the destruction of American society! What would be the reaction?”