'A Transplant of the Heart': Miguel d'Escoto's vision for the United Nations

I want to represent the poor of the world, including the people of my own country, Nicaragua,” said Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann, M.M. We were sitting in the office of the president of the 63rd General Assembly of the United Nations. Elected to this one-year executive post in June 2008, he will take up the duties of his office in September.

Father d’Escoto’s fluent English reflects the fact that he was born in the United States and spent some of his childhood years with his parents on the Upper East Side of Manhattan (his father was a Nicaraguan diplomat). Currently a retired Maryknoll priest, under “limited suspension,” d’Escoto was Nicaragua’s foreign minister when the Sandinista National Liberation Front’s government held power from 1979 to 1990 under President Daniel Ortega. It was Ortega, re-elected to the presidency of Nicaragua in 2006, who put d’Escoto’s name forward as a candidate for the presidency of the U.N. assembly.


Reflecting on the global picture, d’Escoto deplores an increase in world poverty that has reached what he calls “totally unacceptable levels.” And because of nuclear arms, he said, there is also “the real threat of the extinguishing of the human species, as well as the life-sustaining capability of the earth.” D’Escoto’s firsthand acquaintance with global poverty came early; his first assignment after ordination took him to Chile, where he worked with a federation of slum dwellers. Later, through the experiences of Nicaragua during its eight-year war against the U.S.-backed Contras, and through the writings of liberation theologians like those of his friend Gustavo Gutiérrez, O.P., d’Escoto became convinced that “the most important thing from which to be liberated is violence.” In today’s world, war-related violence is a virtual addiction, he said. Even a small portion of the money nations spend on arms and warfare could help lift the dispossessed half of the world from the extremes of poverty that include inadequate access to food, clean water and basic sanitation.

The 1996 World Food Summit’s objective of halving malnutrition by 2015, d’Escoto observed, is unlikely to be met. He sees the Millennium Development Goals, the education, health and development initiatives begun by the United Nations in 2000, as “unambitious” and “just tokenism.” “This is an issue we will address in the General Assembly,” he said. The slow pace at which the goals are being met and the poverty of the world—much of it created by war—have led him to add, “What we need is a conversion, a transplant of the heart.” We must accept “that we are all brothers and sisters, or else we will drown in what Tolstoy called our ‘insane selfishness.’”

Espousing Nonviolence

Miguel d’Escoto’s greatest heroes are those who have pursued nonviolence—Tolstoy, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Dorothy Day. “These are the people who most influenced me,” said d’Escoto. Daniel Ortega once invited Archbishop Oscar Romero to come to Nicaragua to rest, said d’Escoto, who was looking forward to meeting him, “but then came the call about his murder while celebrating Mass.” D’Escoto made special reference to Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God Is Within You: “That was the book that Gandhi discovered as a young lawyer working in South Africa.”

The incoming president also mentioned two 19th-century social reformers: William Lloyd Garrison, a journalist who sought the abolition of slavery, capital punishment and all war; and Adin Ballou, a Protestant abolitionist, pacifist and socialist, who founded the Hopedale Community in Massachusetts. The group embraced a concept of Christian pacifism called “non-resistance.” As he came to know the writings of Garrison and Ballou, and others like them, d’Escoto explained, “I began to realize that the Gospel itself is radically nonviolent. Gandhi convinced me that the means countries use in dealing with one another are the seeds from which the future will sprout; if we use violent means, we are just planting the seeds for more violence. We who are supposed to be preaching Jesus’ message of nonviolence, ‘Thou shall not kill,’ have made too many concessions.” For d’Escoto, one such concession is the just war theory.

In his acceptance speech in June, d’Escoto noted “acts of aggression such as those occurring in Iraq and Afghanistan.” Though he did not mention the United States by name, few would have failed to see in the comment an allusion to the U.N.’s host country.

In 1985, while serving as Nicaragua’s foreign minister, d’Escoto embarked on a lengthy fast for peace. Referring to a 1985 interview with the Nicaraguan periodical Revista Envío, he said that the fast was prompted in part by “the U.S.-declared, armed, financed and directed Contra war against Nicaragua.” He said the fast was a religious act on his part, and many Nicaraguans joined him.

To be an honest disciple of Jesus, d’Escoto observed, “we must also be committed not only to the eradication of violence, but also to ensuring access to food at a time of escalating food prices, and to the sources of clean water lacking in many poor countries.” The lack of clean water is one of the issues he plans to focus on as president of the General Assembly. The situation is exacerbated because the water supply “is being increasingly privatized,” a matter that poses special dangers for developing countries. Yet the right to water is among the most basic of human rights, he said. D’Escoto played a leading role on the Nicaraguan government’s water commission, though his country is fortunate, he said, in being “rich in water through Lake Nicaragua, the most important resource in Mesoamerica” (Mexico and the countries of Central America).

His Views and Vision

As General Assembly president d’Escoto hopes to work toward greater democratization of the United Nations. “The founders of the United Nations believed that all the member countries were equal, but some see themselves as more equal than others,” he said, making an oblique reference to the major industrialized nations. He described them as creating a centralization of power that strikes at the root of a democratic spirit. He spoke of “the problem of the abuse of the veto privilege” of the Security Council’s five permanent members (the United States, Great Britain, France, Russia and China), who have the power to block any of the council’s decisions.

Miguel d’Escoto traces some of the United Nations’ problems back to the institutions that grew from the 1946 Bretton Woods agreements on international monetary systems, such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. He referred to “their lethal prescriptions,” which are intended to improve the economies of countries struggling with poverty but in many cases have led to greater suffering. The major problem in the United Nations, d’Escoto said, is that “the opinion of the majority is not heard.” He cited as one example the embargo on Cuba. “Every year, the issue of the 45-year trade embargo comes up, and every year the General Assembly speaks of lifting it. But despite only four votes against removing it,” he said, “the Cuban embargo remains in place because of a few countries.”

Father d’Escoto expressed admiration for Cuba’s excellent medical initiatives. These include, he said, not only the government’s export of well-trained physicians to serve poor people in Latin America, but special undertakings like operación milagro (operation miracle). The project flies blind people from over 20 Latin American and Caribbean nations to Cuba for surgery to restore their eyesight. “People who have never even been in a car are flown to Havana for the kind of surgery that otherwise would have been impossible.” He said, “It’s a joy for me to see Cuba’s generosity, even though there are some who denigrate it.”

During the 63rd General Assembly, d’Escoto hopes to begin a dialogue on the democratization of the United Nations. He envisions three sessions: the first would focus on the Bretton Woods institutions; the second would transfer to the General Assembly some of the powers currently held by the Security Council; the third would devise checks on the Security Council and the members’ veto power, which currently, he said, virtually guarantees their ability to act with impunity. He also hopes to address climate change and deforestation; nuclear disarmament, which needs a level of consideration it has not so far received; and terrorism, particularly insofar as the war against it is used, he said, as a pretext to “commit wars of aggression.”

Prohibitions and Prayer

Since he was admonished in the 1980s by Pope John Paul II for his involvement in politics through his work as Nicaragua’s foreign minister, d’Escoto has been unable to celebrate Mass. “I asked the Vatican if I could at least say Mass by myself, but they said no to that too,” he said. “Nevertheless,” he added, “the prohibition does not prevent me from living what I consider to be a eucharistic life, that is, a life of risk for the brotherhood and sisterhood.” He said that about half of the people he encounters at the United Nations address him as “Father.” The title is appropriate, for while d’Escoto is under suspension by the Holy See, from public priestly ministry, he is still a priest, according to Canonists.

When asked how he approaches the limits on the exercise of his priestly ministry, he replied, “I deal with it through prayer.” He said he rises daily at 5 a.m. and spends two hours in prayer before addressing the day’s tasks. Even before beginning his work as Nicaragua’s foreign minister in 1979, he said he “had already formed a habit of prayer through ‘practicing the presence of God’—there is no time for me that is not a time for prayer.” He went on to say, “I never pray for something to happen, only to do God’s will.”

After his acceptance speech at the United Nations, d’Escoto said, “Some people told me it sounded like a sermon; I replied, ‘the only thing I’ve ever wanted to be is a priest, a disciple of Jesus of Nazareth.’” Despite the prohibition on his presiding at Mass, d’Escoto spoke of receiving strong support from the Maryknoll community. Shortly before our interview, in fact, he traveled to its headquarters in Ossining, north of New York City, to attend a Mass for jubilarians.

Father d’Escoto’s support of liberation theology led to the founding of Maryknoll’s Orbis Press in 1970. “I wanted to make the writings of my friends, Gustavo Gutiérrez and Juan Luis Segundo and those of others like them, widely known.” When Orbis published Gutiérrez’s Theology of Liberation in English, the cover image of the crucified Christ, by an indigenous Indian artist, was one d’Escoto himself had chosen.

The United Nations has designated the year 2009 as the World Year of Reconciliation. For Miguel d’Escoto, the year ought to involve moving toward “forgiveness, reconciliation and fraternity.” He said: “We have to move together from the logic of ‘I and mine’ to the logic of ‘we and ours.’ The whole of life is about this transition from selfishness to love.” It was a statement that summarized much of our conversation that morning in his office. In closing, the priest expressed his belief that “God will not abandon us in the struggle for a better world.”

From the archives, an interview with Miguel dEscoto from 1985.

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10 years 2 months ago
Thank you Fr. Anderson, for bringing this story to light. I have never understood, so that I could be proud of, the Church's opposition to Liberation theology. What a better world we would have if all decision makers would adopt Jesus's preferential option for the poor. Let us pray that Fr. d"Escoto will be successful in his goal to move the world away from violence. I am proud of what he is trying to do.


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