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Leaving office, Arias reflects on his legacy

Nobel Prize winner and Costa Rican president pushed for disarmament, free trade and carbon neutrality.

Costa Rica's President Oscar Arias at Tocumen Airport in Panama City, June 30, 2009. (Jose Miguel Gomez/Reuters)

SAN JOSE, Costa Rica — During a United Nations meeting about nuclear arms proliferation last September, a 69-year-old Nobel Peace Prize laureate cleared his throat to deliver bold remarks to a room of world leaders with high-powered armies.

“I of course introduced the theme of disarming in general, laying down not just nuclear arms but all arms,” said Costa Rican President Oscar Arias in a recent interview, recalling the New York summit. “Nuclear arms kill many people all at once, but other weapons kill many people, little by little, every day, everywhere in the world.”

This sentiment is not so out of the ordinary, coming from Arias. Pressing world leaders to bid farewell to arms is by now perhaps the president’s best-known discourse. Finishing his four-year term in office, which ends with Laura Chinchilla’s inauguration Saturday, he speaks of cranking up the disarmament discourse as one of his greatest achievements.

In an exit interview, the president checked off his administration’s best forays in diplomacy — some of which, like the global disarmament mission, have borne little success. Arias said Costa Rica has made necessary inroads on the global map, such as swapping friendship with Taiwan for China; pushing through a regional free trade deal; attempting to help restore order in nearby Honduras; and punching above Costa Rica’s weight class on environment issues. For a country famed for neutrality — even called the “Switzerland of Central America” — Costa Rica under Arias’ watch has not been a silent observer.

As a temporary member of the U.N. Security Council, Arias said, Costa Rica made sure to point out that the five permanent members are responsible for about 80 percent of weapons sold worldwide. The world spends about $1.6 trillion on weapons and soldiers, he said, when it should be combating poverty and improving education and health care. Unlike if he were the leader of some other countries, Arias doesn’t get lambasted at home for such utterances: Costa Ricans are proud of the fact they abolished the military more than 60 years ago.

On the world stage, one of the most memorable scenes arrived last June at Costa Rica’s doorstep in the form of a freshly toppled Honduran president, still in his pajamas. Arias never succeeded at returning Manuel Zelaya to the presidency, but his attempt to mediate between the quarreling sides — widely backed by the international community, Washington included — came about as close as anybody might have gotten. The talks produced a comprehensive road map for Honduras; the sides just didn't follow Arias' directions.

“We met in this very room,” Arias said looking around his San Jose living room, where he had held the Honduran talks. In those days, Arias would emerge from rocky negotiations looking weary and sounding entirely hoarse. “Jokingly, I told my Honduran fellows that the Palestinians and Israelis were more flexible than what I was encountering on each side of this conflict.”

But Arias rarely jokes. A political science doctoral graduate from the U.K.’s University of Essex and recipient of more than 50 honorary degrees from the likes of Harvard and Princeton, Arias’ speeches carry an air of erudition. He speaks in slow, enunciated sentences, marked by scholarly pauses. His delivery can seem dry, were it not for his speeches’ bright ornaments of inspiring quotations by great thinkers, leaders and poets.

Arias recalled a more successful negotiation during his first term in office (1986-1990), when he brokered a peace deal that ended years of bloody civil war in Central America, winning him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987. “We had the courage to face the superpowers that wanted a military triumph for each side they supported in Central America. We told them ‘no,’ and presented a peace plan.”