Óscar Arias Sánchez (b. 1940)

I visited the Óscar Arias Peace Park in San José, Costa Rica. Embedded in the concrete base all around the central monument are rusting, shattered guns. Armies and insurgents once used those guns across Central America. At the top are statues of two young women. One is holding aloft a gun snapped in two. The other is playing a violin. It took the only nation in the Americas without an army to end the wars that plagued Central America for over a decade.
Daniel Buttry

A Mediator of Nations

We must trust that dialogue—so often scorned as too slow or too simple—is the only path to peace and the light that can guide us through these dark hours.
Óscar Arias Sánchez

Crisis in Honduras

Profile image of Oscar Arias

Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

After years of relative quiet in the global news, Central America once again became a front-page story when a military coup deposed the president of Honduras in June, 2009. The president was picked up in the middle of the night, flown by military plane to Costa Rica where he was dumped in his pajamas on the runway. The military installed a new president, but all the governments in the Americas reacted negatively. The former president tried to return in spite of threats by the Honduran military. Everyone turned to Óscar Arias for a solution. This president of Costa Rica had mediated an end to civil wars in Central America, so perhaps he could help move the Honduran crisis to an acceptable solution.

Background & Presidency

Óscar Rafael de Jesús Arias Sánchez grew up in a wealthy Costa Rican family. After receiving his university training in law, economics and political science, he joined the National Liberation Party, a social democratic political party. After serving in various positions and in the national Legislative Assembly, Arias ran for president and won in 1986. He stepped into office at a very volatile time.

Central America at War

During the 1980s, Central America was torn by war—civil wars in Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua cost tens of thousands of lives. The United States supported the military regimes in Guatemala and El Salvador while supporting the Contras, who sought to overturn the leftist Sandanista government, in Nicaragua. Panama was invaded by the United States. Wars were spilling over into Honduras and Costa Rica.

Costa Rica was the only country without a standing army, having abolished the army in 1948. Even before he was sworn in as president, Arias had traveled throughout Central and South America to invite heads of state to his inauguration. When they were gathered together, he suggested an alliance for the defense of democracy and liberty. He wanted all governments to hold free and fair elections and commit themselves to meeting the people’s needs and interests. Arias believed no army or totalitarian regime was entitled to make those decisions for people.

Leading a Fair Peace Process from Outside the Conflict

A three-year peace effort initiated by the presidents of Mexico, Panama, Venezuela and Colombia, called the Contadora Process, ultimately failed to win the trust of all the parties to the various conflicts. That’s where Óscar Arias stepped in. Based on his discussions with the Central American presidents and leading figures of the resistance movements, Arias drafted a plan that dealt with all the conflicts in Central America, holding all the nations to the same standards. As he met with the Central American leaders, he educated them on what genuine democracy was: In democratic systems, everything that is not prohibited is permitted, while in totalitarian systems, everything that is not permitted is prohibited. On August 7, 1987, the presidents of Nicaragua, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Costa Rica signed the Esquipulas II Accord. The Accord called for a simultaneous cease-fire, amnesty for all rebels, and restoration of full press and political freedoms.

‘Profound differences between Washington … and Costa Rica’

Achieving that peace was not easy. Arias had to cajole many of the leaders to keep commitments they had made to the process. The Accord was weak on sanctions to back up the agreements, but Arias’ own involvement helped ease the parties through the difficulties. The biggest problem was the political pressure of the United States that sought to shape all decisions in Central America through either military or diplomatic means. They felt the Arias plan gave too much recognition to the Sandanistas in Nicaragua, treating them as a legitimate government. Even though Arias was moving the parties to peace, the Reagan Administration still tried to pump hundreds of millions of dollars of aid to the Contras in a destabilizing way that was not allowed by the Accord.

There are profound differences between what Washington thinks and what Costa Rica thinks, President Arias said. We both believe that a durable peace in Central America is possible only if there is democracy. But how to achieve that democracy is where we part company. Arias did not give in to the diplomatic pressure from the U.S. but pressed forward in achieving the agreement.

The peace agreement was most unstable in Guatemala, not achieving a genuine resolution to the civil war until 1994. But it did start the dialogue between the government and the opposition forces, something that had not happened in 25 years.

Organizational Work

The Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Óscar Arias in 1987 as the Central American peace process was still being shaped. Following the signing of the Accord, Arias used the monetary part of the award to launch the Arias Foundation for Peace and Human Progress. This foundation has three programs: The Center for Human Progress to foster better opportunities for women in Central America; the Center for Philanthropy to encourage giving for social change; and the Center for Peace and Reconciliation to work on demilitarization and conflict resolution in the developing world.

After he stepped down as president of Costa Rica, Arias became active in many peacemaking institutes and organizations including the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SPIRI) and the International Negotiation Network of the Jimmy Carter Center.

Second Presidential Term

Oscar Arias

Lawrence Jackson/Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

In 2003, Arias led a campaign to amend the Costa Rican constitution to allow former presidents to seek re-election. When the campaign succeeded, Arias then ran for another term as president. He won by a narrow margin in 2006. In his second term, he tried to address the global issue of the debt crisis of many poorer countries. His Costa Rica Consensus suggested mechanisms whereby debt forgiveness and international aid from wealthier nations to poorer countries would be tied to both lower military spending and to increases in spending on education, health care, housing and the environment. Most proposals coming from the global economic powers have called for cuts in social services and fail to address growing militarization among poor countries. The model of building peace in Costa Rica, and its extension through Arias’ mediation into the surrounding region, provides a constructive challenge to many of the development models operating today.

Continuing Peace Work

Arias established an enduring platform for peace. He brought major strengths to all of his endeavors: coming from the only country in the Western Hemisphere with no armed forces and the most viable economy in Central America. The importance of his work now is clear, acknowledged in the Nobel Prize and his greatest accomplishment—a major peace agreement ending some of the worst wars in the region.

But Arias is clear that this work is not finished. The combination of powerful militaries and fragile democracies creates a terrible risk that continues to endanger Latin America, he says. He calls the increasing amount of military spending in the region a ridiculous sum, especially during a time when only Colombia is engaged in armed conflict. More combat planes, missiles and soldiers won’t provide additional bread for our families, desks for our schools or medicine for our clinics. All they can do is destabilize a region that continues to view armed forces as the final arbiter of social conflicts.

This is his clarion call: The liberating army we need in the Americas today is one of leaders who come together in peace, in the spirit of cooperation.

Oscar Arias with Barack Obama

U.S. President Barack Obama greets Óscar Arias Sánchez during a reception at the Summit of the Americas in Port of Spain, Trinidad, April 2009.
Pete Souza/Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

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