By Eric Robinson
Two decades after his first overwhelmingly successful term as president of Costa Rica, Oscar Arias was sworn in again today as president. Arias’s second term seems to hold as many difficulties as his first term, but totally different in nature. Born into a wealthy coffee family, Arias studied law and economics at the University of Costa Rica and Harvard, then earned a masters degree from the London School of Economics and a Ph.D in political science at the University of Essex in England.
His main challenge in his first term beginning in 1986 evolved around bringing peace to war-torn Central America. In defiance tp the myopic US government’s urging to enter the CA war by supporting the re-establishment of a dictatorial right-wing contra Nicaraguan government, in order to receive American foreign aid, in an underdog victory, Costa Ricans (Ticos) instead elected young peace proponent Oscar Arias to presidency in 1986. He pleaded with American President Ronald Reagan to supply economic aid to the region rather than military assistance to the Nicaraguan contras. Reagan reacted saying Arias’s plan was ‘fatally flawed’. Arias however, convinced five Central American presidents to endorse his plan ending the revolution and stabilizing Central America. Arias said that the risks to ensure peace were less than the irreparable costs of war. When Arias in 1987 received his Nobel Peace Prize, Ticos proudly saw it as their own prize for electing him.
But things now are quite different. His popularity was 84% his first term, but this time 65 year old Oscar Arias won by a sliver only receiving 41% of all popular votes cast in a surprisingly low turn-out election. Ticos seem to have lost their enthusiasm over the years. Arias’s challenges this time stem from domestic problems, and deep divisions of largely uneducated Ticos over the CAFTA (Central American Free Trade Agreement) with the U.S.A. Though Arias is in favour in principal with the agreement, he opposes ‘the abusive protectionism of the North’. He has also been an outspoken critic of the US involvement in the war in Iraq.
The office of the presidency in Costa Rica has been weakened over the last twenty years, as a number of powerful institutions and rights organizations have been created. The gap between rich and poor is widening, as education, health care, housing and public security are inadequate. Arias will need to govern with humility, which he is not used to. He will need to balance his traditional pro-environment views against the economic benefits of supporting industry. Many voters that supported Arias this time did so for his international image “The real world does not allow us to live in isolation.
“Today the problems of one are the problems of all”, quoting him from a 1989 speech. Arias, being the first Nobel Prize Laureate to ever return to presidency, in his own quiet, refined way may surprise all of us.