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Xabier Gorostiaga, 66; Jesuit Priest, Economist Was an Advocate for Reforms in Latin America

September 21, 2003|Richard Boudreaux | Times Staff Writer

Xabier Gorostiaga, a Jesuit priest, economist and educator whose commitment to the poor made him a leading advocate for the tiny, struggling nations of the Caribbean and Central America, died of cancer Sept. 14 in his native Spain. He was 66.

Father Eduardo Valdes, a longtime Jesuit colleague, said Gorostiaga had unsuccessful surgery on a brain tumor in November and spent his final months at a Jesuit medical facility in Loyola, birthplace of the Roman Catholic religious order's founder, St. Ignatius. Gorostiaga was buried there Monday.

Arriving in Latin America as a Jesuit novice in 1958, Gorostiaga witnessed Fidel Castro's takeover of Cuba a few months later and went on to play a role in two landmark events of the region's turbulent history -- as an advisor to Panama in its negotiations to take control of the Panama Canal from the United States and as author of the first economic plan for Nicaragua under the Sandinista revolutionaries.

But his work transcended Cold War politics. In a string of impoverished countries where statistics were scarce, he created a network of think tanks that pioneered research on poverty and mobilized a generation of activists to lobby for radical reforms at home and in the world economy.

Gorostiaga moved easily from the milieu of subsistence farmers, blue-collar workers and Indian peasants, who were the subjects of his research, to the corridors of power. He was equally vociferous in lecturing Castro in Cuba and Vice President George H.W. Bush in Washington about policies that he said were miring people in poverty.

"He was a tireless humanist," said Sergio Ramirez, who was vice president in the leftist Sandinista government. "He was not one of those philosophers who thinks that love for humanity is enough. He was always in action, doing whatever he could to change the world around him."

Gorostiaga, an engaging man of broad intellect and quick wit, once described the world as "a champagne glass civilization," citing United Nations statistics of the mid-1990s that one-fifth of the population holds more than four-fifths of the income, while 60% survives on just 6% of the income. Resources for academic research were even more skewed, he said, with 90% concentrated in 10% of the world's universities.

As rector of the Jesuit-run Central America University in Nicaragua from 1991 to 1996, he won a long battle to secure 6% of the country's meager budget for higher education. More than half of his tuition-free university's 5,500 students were poor.

In the late 1980s, he set up the first Internet server in Nicaragua, a war-ravaged country that had just three elevators at the time. The innovation linked his band of regional activists to a broad but fragmented Third World movement -- one that grew stronger in the 1990s as it demanded more equitable trade terms and debt policies by the rich countries.

"He was a catalyst, a bridge-builder," said Father Peter Marchetti, an American Jesuit priest and longtime friend.

Jesuit intellectuals and educators have long been major players in Central America, a predominately Catholic region, and Gorostiaga was considered a heavyweight of his era. Like many of his Jesuit colleagues there, he was a native of Spain's Basque Country and carried with him the Basque nationalists' penchant for siding with the underdog.

The priest's father was a Basque nationalist city councilman in Bilbao when Spain's civil war broke out. He fled the Basque Country with his pregnant wife on a freight train in 1937 to escape Gen. Francisco Franco's advancing army. Xabier was born days later on an uncle's farm in Melide, in Galicia.

He joined the Jesuit order in 1954, at age 17, and was sent to Latin America four years later to continue his education in Cuba, Ecuador, Mexico and Panama. He returned home for theology studies and ordination as a priest in 1968. The following year he was assigned to study economics at Cambridge University in England, with a long-term mission to apply his knowledge in Central America.

But the young priest was troubled by what he called an unethical economic order run by the rich countries. "I was totally schizophrenic when studying for my PhD at Cambridge, thinking to myself, 'If I apply all of this, I will kill my people,' " he told the Jesuit magazine America in 1995. "We are destroying the quality of life and possibilities of sustainable development -- we economists."

Impressed by the fervor of anti-American demonstrations he had seen in Panama in 1964, he chose to research the economics of the Panama Canal and returned to that country in 1972. But rather than write his dissertation, he helped make history.

Juan Antonio Tack, who had been his teacher in the 1960s, was Panama's foreign minister in the 1970s and recruited the priest as his chief economic advisor in negotiations over the canal. Treaties signed with the Carter administration in 1978 led to a gradual takeover of the canal by Panama and a withdrawal of U.S. troops by the end of the century.

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