Mercurial UN mediator hits gold

UNITED NATIONS troubleshooter Diego Cordovez, whose dogged confidence in an eventual Afghan truce agreement made him the butt of irreverent in-house humor, has had the last laugh. With the signing of the Geneva accord, the Ecuadorean undersecretary-general has reached a peak of accomplishment in his long diplomatic career. Because more UN mediators have failed than succeeded, Mr. Cordovez is acknowledged as something of a hero by his colleagues - though grudgingly by some.

Throughout much of the six-year span of his Afghan assignment, Cordovez had been the victim of skepticism stemming from the glacial pace of the complex multilateral negotiations over the four-part truce package. His intermittent assurances that there was ``movement'' or that ``there is only one blank to fill'' or that the packet was ``95 percent complete'' wore thin as years passed with no agreement.

So inevitably, Cordovez became the target of corridor sniping by some of his colleagues and the press. In 1985, he was singled out at a UN Correspondents Association ``roast'' for the Light at the End of the Tunnel Award. One wag snickered: ``It's probably a locomotive coming at him.''

Cordovez himself was frequently frustrated by the intransigence of Afghanistan or Pakistan or both.

Once, after five years of shuttle diplomacy and indirect Geneva talks, he exploded in a burst of impatience: ``I don't want any more meetings. If I went at the pace they want, I would go to Geneva by canoe instead of by airplane.''

Mercurial by disposition, which an associate described as ``bittersweet,'' Cordovez is intolerant of criticism - a characteristic that frequently put him at odds with the UN press corps. He once publicly snubbed an editor of a major international daily, because he took offense at a passage in a published report about his Afghan mission.

But to friendly correspondents and when he is off duty, he is accessible and a social mixer with a sophisticated, and often clownish, sense of humor.

Colleagues attribute his success as UN Secretary-General Javier P'erez de Cu'ellar's go-between on the Afghan conflict to a combination of social connections, personal characteristics, and diplomatic skill.

Cordovez was born in Quito on Nov. 3, 1935, into a family with roots deep in the Ecuadorean social and political elite. He is a cousin of Rodrigo Borja, a favored presidential candidate in Ecuador's forthcoming elections.

A year after he was admitted to the bar in 1962, Cordovez joined the UN as a member of the team that organized the first UN Conference on Trade And Development, an agency now headquartered in Geneva.

He has served under three secretaries-general - U Thant of Burma, Kurt Waldheim of Austria, and Mr. P'erez de Cu'ellar of Peru. Under all three, he was assigned to hot-spot missions, including to the Dominican Republic, Bangladesh, and Grenada.

In 1980, he helped steer a potentially explosive continental-shelf dispute between Malta and Libya to the World Court for adjudication. Earlier the same year, he was the senior UN official with an inquiry commission on the United States Embassy hostage crisis in Tehran. More recently, he has flown on missions to Tehran and Baghdad in an unsuccessful effort to end the Iran-Iraq war.

Cordovez inherited the Afghan assignment from P'erez de Cu'ellar in 1982, after the latter had succeeded Dr. Waldheim as Secretary-General. P'erez de Cu'ellar, then an undersecretary-general, had been Waldheim's representative on Afghanistan since February 1981, shortly after the massive Soviet buildup there.

Continuity in the post was further fortified by the professional and personal link that already existed between the two. What colleagues call ``the Latin connection'' was bonded by the fact that they came from contiguous countries, spoke the same language, and shared the Hispanic culture. This, despite the sharp contrasts between P'erez de Cu'ellar's almost shy personality and Cordovez's extroversion.

``Temperamentally, they complemented each other,'' said an associate of both.

At the practical level, the relationship gave Cordovez unrivaled access to the Secretary-General, who unhesitatingly rescheduled other appointments to receive briefings from Cordovez on Afghan developments.

``And it doesn't hurt that their wives are very close friends,'' one source added.

Senior UN officials say that Cordovez has been able to develop an extraordinary rapport with all the disparate, even warring, elements involved in his mission - and not only the principals: Afghanistan, Pakistan, the US, and the Soviet Union.

In addition to the publicized dozen rounds of Geneva talks, stretching from June 1982 to the signing session that opened on March 2, 1988, his shuttle diplomacy has carried him repeatedly to Kabul, Islamabad, Moscow, and Washington. The US and USSR are the guarantors of the Geneva accord as well as permanent members of the UN Security Council, under whose mandate he operates.

In addition, he has visited the capitals of the Council's three other permanent members - London, Paris, and Peking - to keep their governments informed and solicit their crucial support for his undertaking.

At the same time, he has stretched his mandate to include secret meetings with squabbling leaders of the Afghan mujahideen, and, in Rome, with Afghanistan's former King Zahir Shah.

``It was an intricate chess game, expertly played,'' a UN diplomat said.

Cordovez, a gentleman rancher in his homeland, spends his rare periods of leisure at his fashionable Manhattan apartment reading, collecting Latin American colonial art, and enjoying music, both classical and modern Latin. As a more active hobby, he tinkers at carpentry, building his own bookcases and painstakingly repairing collected artifacts and broken household items.

``As you see,'' a friend said, ``Diego is a fixer.''

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