Lenin Moreno, the vice president of Ecuador, never set out to win the Nobel Peace Prize. But sometimes the most deserving nominees find their life's work at the point of a gun - literally.
Moreno grew up in Nuevo Rocafuerte, an Amazonian backwater near the Peruvian border. Despite his isolated upbringing, Moreno transformed himself into an elite lawyer in this country of over 14 million people astride the equator on the Pacific Coast of South America. Life was good, and then it wasn't.
One afternoon two teenagers decided to steal his car in a grocery store parking lot in Quito, the country's capital. Moreno handed over his keys and wallet, but still they shot him in the back, paralyzing him for life. One minute he was buying bread for his family; the next he was on a path that would turn him into an accidental activist, responsible for bringing a strong measure of peace to tens of thousands of disabled people in Ecuador.
Ecuador is not a wealthy place, though it's incredibly rich in natural resources - both the extractable kind, and the less tangible ones, like natural beauty, human intelligence and creative thinking. The country was born out of the conquest, with Indian groups and the descendants of African slaves kept in submission by a dominant class descended from the Spaniards. The notion that some people weren't worth as much as other people was built into the culture, and endures to this day. Sadly, the burden is even greater for physically and mentally handicapped people, who until recently were often seen begging on cobblestone streets, strips of old inner-tubes tied to their hands and knees to protect their skin as they dragged themselves along.
Like most Ecuadorians, Moreno hadn't thought much about these people. They were background images, just more of the huge poverty class that still plagues Ecuador. But the bullet in his back changed all that. The injury plunged Moreno into a dark crevasse of neuralgia and depression. Bedridden and in extreme pain, he sank as low as a man can go. Drugs didn't work. Doctors were baffled.
But then Moreno discovered the value of laughter as a healing agent. His doctors thought it was ridiculous, at first. But his wife and three daughters believed in him. And together they laughed him out of his nightmare situation, and inspired him to write a number of books about the power of laughter to heal. After four years he was able to use a wheelchair to move around. He came to realize that the best way to cure his own chronic pain was with love, humor, friendship, respect of himself and others, optimism, faith and hope. These principals became the basis of his wildly popular motivational talks.That would be enough for most people, but not Moreno.
Able to move now, he returned to his legal work, and politics, and in 2007 was elected Vice President of Ecuador, serving under Rafael Correa. This was the first time that many Ecuadorians had seen a disabled man, in a wheelchair no less, in a position of power. Moreno knew how lucky he was to be educated, wealthy, and powerful, living with his family in a house filled with paintings, many of them the work of his oldest daughter Irina. And still he knew how tough it was to be handicapped. So he used the power of the former to help the latter.
In that first year, Moreno was astounded to learn that Ecuador spent little more than 100,000 dollars a year assisting its handicapped citizens. He took a fact-finding trip around the country and uncovered handicapped people living in chicken coops, caves, and rat-infested grass shelters. And not just one, but many.
Soon after taking office, Moreno raised the amount spent annually on help for the disabled in Ecuador by over 5,000 percent. He also founded the Manuela Espejo Solidarity Mission for the Disabled, which offers rehab, technical help, and psychological support to thousands of disabled Ecuadorians. Between 2009 and 2010 the Solidarity Mission visited over a million homes around the country and interviewed nearly 300,000 disabled people to find out what needs were most pressing. Many of those people received free medical checkups. And now the Solidarity Mission is spreading to Paraguay, Peru, Guatemala, Chile, El Salvador and Colombia.
These days, the baroque lobby of the vice presidential palace is often crowded with blind boys holding their mothers' hands, developmentally disabled adults clustered in groups, and people in wheelchairs and on crutches who believe that the vice president is someone who understands their needs.
Moreno downplays his exceptionalism. He once told a reporter from the Miami Herald: "We're all handicapped at some moment in our life--whether it's as children or as seniors. So I'm sure I'm not the only one."
But let's hope the Nobel committee plays it up. It would be good to see Moreno in Oslo this year.
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