Nick Buxton

Father Miguel’s homily



Editor’s Note: Nick Buxton covered the June 24-26 United Nations Conference on the World Financial and Economic Crisis and Its Impact on Development for the Guardian.

Shuffling into the room, Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann, informally known as Father Miguel, is every bit the avuncular priest — squinting through his glasses, saying we all need to take Jesus’ message of love more seriously.

At 76, the U.S.-born naturualized Nicuarguan citizen doesn’t look like a major threat to the established economic order. But as the elected president of the United Nations General Assembly, d’Escoto has touched a raw nerve among the world’s most powerful nations.

Since late May, European Union and U.S. negotiators have accused him of putting the entire U.N.’s credibility at stake. In the May 24 New York Times article "At U.N., a Sandinista’s Plan for Recovery," reporter Neil MacFarquhar accused Father Miguel of "serious delusions of grandeur." At the end of June, the criticisms reached a loud crescendo as the whole United Nations met for a summit on the global economic crisis.

Last September, d’Escoto was unanimously elected to the one-year presidency. Typically seen as a low-profile convener, d’Escoto, a former foreign minister for Nicaragua under the left-wing Sandinista government, soon showed his colors when he openly condemned U.S. "acts of aggression" in Iraq. When the financial meltdown occurred in October 2008, d’Escoto convened a high-level commission chaired by Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz and started to organize a U.N. conference on the global economic crisis.

He also started to deliver presentations, more like priestly homilies, that challenged the "pandemic selfishness and egotism" that led to the economic crisis and warned of ecological collapse and the need for a renewed veneration for "Mother Earth."

Yet despite the rich nations’ best attempts to isolate him politically, many of d’Escoto’s reform proposals received support from the misnamed Group of 77 nations — which actually represents more than 130 developing nations. D’Escoto made clear his decision to side with the majority against a false unity with a powerful minority: "The U.N. is made up of 192 countries …. I criticize the rich countries, made up of about 25 countries, because they don’t represent the majority but pretend they do…. We must ensure those countries most affected by the crisis have a voice in resolving the crisis."

D’Escoto’s role reflects the emergence of a more confident and powerful southern hemisphere, with nations like India and China presenting an economic challenge to traditional powers in the northern hemisphere and with Latin America posing a vocal political challenge through the likes of presidents Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Rafael Correa of Ecuador.
Many point out that the United Nations charter (drawn up in San Francisco in 1945) gives the job of global economic coordination to the United Nations Economic and Social Council. Yet this job was usurped by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, which are largely controlled by the U.S. Treasury. The Obama administration’s U.N. representative John Sammis’ assertion at the recent U.N. Conference that it believes "any decisions on reform of the international financial institutions or the manner in which they conduct their business are the prerogative of their shareholders and their respective boards of governors" is clearly a blatant rear guard attack on d’Escoto’s efforts to bring democratization to the global economic system.
Beyond the geopolitics, d’Escoto’s probing challenge to the world’s economic powers also gives voice to a breakdown of faith in the credos of free markets, unlimited economic growth, and living to consume. His homilies may occasionally be esoteric, but when d’Escoto proposes the creation of a Global Economic Council or speaks to the importance of values such as solidarity, compassion, and cooperation, they seem much more lucid than the U.S. determination to continue with "business as usual."

Shielding Goni


Top Democratic Party pollster Stanley Greenberg rolled into San Francisco last month to promote his latest book, Dispatches from the War Room — In the trenches with five extraordinary leaders (2009, St. Martin’s Press). The slight, bespectacled man spoke at the Commonwealth Club, sharing what he hoped were "honest and frank" accounts of working with leaders such as Nelson Mandela and Bill Clinton.

While he happily pontificated on the lessons these experiences held for President Barack Obama, he was a bit more defensive on why he had proudly featured in the book Gonzalo "Goni" Sánchez de Lozada, former president of Bolivia who is currently wanted for his role in a massacre of 67 people in October 2003.

Greenberg was drafted in 2002 to help Goni, a wealthy University of Chicago-educated businessman, get elected president during a time of social upheaval created largely by U.S.-backed neoliberal economic policies. Branding Goni as the only man who could "resolve the crisis," Greenberg and other U.S. political consultants helped their client scrape an electoral victory with just 23 percent of the popular vote.

The deaths took place less than a year later when Goni announced deeply unpopular plans to privatize the country’s natural gas reserves and give foreign corporations more control over Bolivia’s resources. Road blockades erected by protesters in the poorest outlying neighborhoods of the high altitude city of La Paz effectively cut off supplies. Goni signed a decree that instructed the army to clear the roads and promised "indemnification for any damage to property and persons which might occur." That effective carte blanche resulted in the army shooting live ammunition indiscriminately at men, women, and children.

Military repression brought to a head one of the country’s bloodiest years, in which more than 150 people died in social protests. Rising popular anger led Goni to flee the country to exile in the United States. He has since lived comfortably in Chevy Chase, Md., protected by Republicans and Democrats alike.

Greenberg admits in the book that the violence caused him "to take stock," yet he ends up saying he is now "more certain of my course and his [Goni’s]." He concludes: "I am proud of what we did to help Goni become President." From the podium at the Commonwealth Club, he blamed the atrocities on the supposed "parallel violence" by the protestors.

It seems a surprising conclusion for a man who is supposedly in touch with the electorate. Goni is universally reviled in Bolivia as a corrupt and arrogant politician who devalued Bolivian lives. Even Goni’s Vice President Carlos Mesa denounced him and swore that he would never use violence to enforce policies. Two-thirds of Bolivia’s Congress — including many who had formed part of Goni’s coalition — approved a trial seeking responsibility for the massacres. Disgust at Goni’s "free market" (or neoliberal) economic and social policies, which increased poverty and inequality, was partly behind the landslide 2005 electoral victory of one of the leaders of the protest movements, Evo Morales.

Yet sadly, Greenberg’s positive spin of Goni seems to be a view that is widely shared with the Democratic Party. At a Washington launch event for Greenberg’s book, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi also appeared to hold Goni in high esteem, warmly welcoming him to the event and calling him a "very special man." Goni’s former defense lawyer, Gregory Craig, is now Obama’s White House counsel. The Democrats’ historic loyalty to one of their favored pro-American friends seems to outweigh their commitment to human rights and fair legal process.

Rogelio Mayta, the resolute lawyer representing the families whose loved ones were killed in October 2003, tries to give Pelosi the benefit of the doubt. "We want to believe in the good faith of … Pelosi and believe that these praises are due to misinformation rather than a concrete line of action and thinking by the U.S. government," he said.

Yet the anger of Eloy Rojas, who lost his eight-year-old daughter when troops entered his village and started shooting indiscriminately, is harder to hide. "Every effort that allies of Sánchez de Lozada make to present the ex-president as a victim and an honest man is for us an offense. It is an offense against the pain and suffering that his terrible actions had for our lives. His determination to defend his and other people’s economic interests meant that he stopped valuing peoples’ lives … That is why we continue to seek justice."

In March, Bolivian families who lost loved ones marked a significant milestone in their struggle to end the legacy of impunity for political elites like Goni. After five years of navigating political games and legal loopholes, a date was set for the trial of responsibility for Goni and seven of his ministers. Yet the main defendant, Goni, will be missing because the U.S. government has ignored requests for extradition for several years.

Many in the U.S. and worldwide continue to hope that Obama’s inauguration will mark a new chapter in relations worldwide, especially in Latin America, where there has been a new wave of resistance against U.S. attempts to impose its economic interests. Obama has made some important first steps in ordering closure of the Guantánamo Bay detention facility and reinvigorating the use of diplomacy in regions such as the Middle East. But if he really wants to start a new chapter of international relations rooted in human rights, he doesn’t need to travel abroad. He just needs to respond to Bolivia’s lawful request for extradition and send home the man who lives just seven miles from the White House. 2

Nick Buxton is a British journalist who was based in Bolivia for many years before moving to San Francisco last year. His blog, Open Veins, is at