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Last Updated: 06/23/2003
Bill Brown
talks to Simon Stander

The Washington Office on Latin America has been working to improve conditions in Latin America for thirty years. It's founder, a native of Colorado and resident of Costa Rica, remembers the early days. This is the first of a two part interview with the editor.

William B Brown walked into a bare office in the Methodist Building in Washington in 1974 accompanied by a young pastor, Joe Eldridge.  Shortly afterward they had a nun, Jo-Marie, working as secretary. The Washington Office on Latin America was underway, and it has worked continuously since then, with a constantly expanding staff, to improve the condition of the poor and oppressed in Latin America.

Bill Brown, now 91 is alive and well, and inspired by ”the sterile years of his business success (during which he amassed a tidy sum), the brutal certainties of the Great Depression, the brutal certainties of the Great War, and the brutal realities of the great American business scene”, he devoted a large part of his retirement years to applying his socialist sympathies to fight for human rights, human dignity and democracy in Central America and elsewhere in Latin America.

           Bill’s views of his own country are not entirely negative. He recalls Jimmy Carter with great warmth and describes him as “fantastic”, his admiration and reverence for Roosevelt could scarcely be greater, and he recalls, too, the help of many senators including Ted Kennedy, but his memories of the Reagan years are quite the opposite. What Bill hates most of all is how the lure of wealth and power has undermined almost everything he has sought to achieve. For instance, while still in business, he took many years out to write and live in Mexico. He discovered once he started to put words on the page and put his ideas in order, that man was simply not constituted to succeed because he is so easily diverted by the desire to “make a buck”. This he found to be true in Mexico as it was in the USA and since then pretty well everywhere in the world.

Bill has known what is to be privileged and broke and modestly wealthy and in mortal danger from hired assassins. He was born, at his family’s Florida estate in Coconut Grove, into an “old money” family based in Colorado shortly before the First World War. They owned, among other property, the Colorado National Bank in Denver, and Bill went off to Yale, his father’s alma mater, to study Psychology. While there he found that the depression had cut off his source of funding and, with the help of his Dean, Dean Mendel, to whom he is ever grateful, he managed to work his way through to graduation. He took his degree magna cum laude back to Colorado to launch himself on an academic career at the University of Colorado at Boulder. The paucity of the stipend ($300 per semester) and the pregnancy of his new wife sent him off on a long tangent toward a business career in journalism and printing instead. At one stage he was general manager of The Nation magazine in its pro-Israel days and he fondly recalls regular visits from and conversations with Eleanor Roosevelt whom he regarded as a fellow socialist.

             Toward the end of his business career, he lived much of the time in Mexico, and it was there, doubtless remembering the help of Dean Mendel, that he ensured three young men from poor backgrounds could get a University education. It was there that he really came to understand that the poor of Latin America needed help from the USA not exploitation.

In these years leading up to and during the early formative years of the Washington Office on Latin America, coalitions of churches provided all kinds of help: money, personnel and inspiration. Apart from Joe Eldridge, who remains as Chairman of the Board, Bill, always ready to give credit where it is deserved, singles out Bill Wipfler of the National Council of Churches and Thomas Quigley of the National Catholic Conference.

As with many alert and thoughtful young people in the thirties, Bill was taken by socialism, and for a time at Yale was a member of the John Reed Society, but Bill is not doctrinaire. He is not driven by a single notion of the how the world should be analysed and re-ordered. Socialism is really a matter of having a heart and finding allies where you can to make the world better for the millions who have nothing. To him the concept of human dignity is stronger than that of human rights.

[Next issue: more about the early days of the Washington Office on Latin America, and how Bill came to Costa Rica to advise and assist with the newspaper, Pueblo, started by Javier Solis.]


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