Published by The Miami Herald on Dec 28th, 2004.


I shuddered as I watched on TV Costa Rican police officers handcuff Miguel Angel Rodríguez after he descended from the plane that took him to San José. Was it necessary to humiliate a man who voluntarily returned to his homeland to face the courts?

In a few days, Rodríguez had gone from being one of Latin America's most respected figures, a former president of Costa Rica and newly elected secretary general of the Organization of American States, to being a man sought by justice on charges of corruption.

It was alleged that he had received money from transnational companies that operated in his country, most notably a French firm that had been linked to similar scandals in Africa and other Latin American nations.

All this seemed incredible to me. I have known Rodríguez for many years and never perceived in him that interest for material things characteristic of people who allow themselves to be tempted by money.

I expect that the idea of owning yachts, private planes or luxury cars made him uncomfortable or made him laugh. He was interested in books, ideological debates and political battles. When he was president, I visited him thrice: to ask him to help Cuban dissidents in danger, to grant visas to former political prisoners and to express solidarity with the victims of repression in Cuba.

Concerned for others

Rodríguez always dealt with my requests generously and disinterestedly, but what impressed me most was his genuine concern about others. He felt other people's pain, and that's always a sign of someone noble.

In the summer of 2003, we ran into each other in Spain. He was an admired former president and was already being mentioned as César Gaviria's possible replacement at the helm of the OAS. A Madrid university had invited Rodríguez to teach a summer course on globalization and government, three hours a day, and he asked me to join him.

For two hours, he would talk about the technical aspects and the practical experience of conducting international economic relations; in the final hour, I would lighten up the classes with political anecdotes of lesser profundity.

Judging from students' comments, the experiment worked out very well. I remember thinking at the time that, because of his vocation as a teacher, Rodríguez would be an extraordinary former president and a great unofficial ambassador of Costa Rica. That is the case, for example, of former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo, who today teaches at Yale University.

I do not know whether Rodríguez did, in fact, accept commissions. I hope that the charges are untrue or inexact.

However, I do know that he did not enter politics to enrich himself, because during some family conversations I heard exactly the opposite: to practice politics, he spent almost all the family patrimony he had inherited. When he was very young and was bitten by the bug of public service, he had a lot more money than when he left the presidency.

In any case, I've lived long enough to know that some great and brilliant people sometimes err, sin stupidly, make mistakes or break the rules.

Some days ago, on the occasion of the fourth centennial of the publication of the first part of Don Quixote, I reread Miguel de Cervantes' biography and recalled that the most notable Spaniard of all times, the man who brought so much glory to his country, was involved in an obscure case of murder, condoned his sister's prostitution and probably mismanaged funds he collected in the name of the crown -- a nasty affair that landed him in a Seville jail.

Hits and misses

I am not making extravagant comparisons but stressing two essential observations.

• Legal judgment is limited to facts and precise codes, but human and historic judgments are much more complex and balanced; they are full of pluses and minuses, hits and misses, lights and shadows.

Beyond what the courts may say, I hope that the final balance will be kind to Rodríguez -- a person who was good and compassionate when he had to be, and who, to a greater or lesser degree, gave his entire life to the glory of trying to improve the lives of his compatriots.

• The inhospitable cell in which Rodríguez is spending the final days of this year is not the end of his useful life. He has books to write and lessons to give. He still has a lot to offer and a lot to serve.

It is said that Cervantes wrote the first draft of Don Quixote while in a Seville jail. Today nobody remembers the author's mistakes or flaws. All we remember is that inexhaustible lode of grace and talent that begins: ``In a village of La Mancha . . . ''

©2004 Firmas Press