Leaving office, Arias reflects on his legacy

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.”

After that first term ended, Arias claimed, “the country had lost its way in foreign policy.” This term, his foreign affairs team went hard at work, setting up diplomatic relations with 20 countries, including Cuba and China.

Whether Costa Rica has been set back on track during the past four Arias years will be a topic for debate for years to come. Although Arias made new friends abroad, he sparked controversy at home as a no-holds-barred champion of free trade. The most hotly contested of his commercial dealings was joining the Central American Free Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA). The treaty revealed a deep disagreement over globalization and, amid angry protest, ultimately won only narrow approval in an October 2007 public referendum.

“It certainly was a fierce debate, but a necessary, indispensable one,” Arias said.

Costa Rica has gone on to ink further free trade deals, with far less vocal public disapproval, with Singapore and China, Costa Rica’s second trading partner after the United States. Arias has declared this “the Asian century.” But diversifying trade channels has been a priority. Now the negotiating team looks poised to reach a Central American trade pact with the European Union sometime this month.

Arias said his administration marvels at the success of countries like Chile. Despite a long left-leaning tradition under (until now) consecutive Concertacion party rule, he said, Chile knows how to assert itself in the global economy. Arias, of the social democratic National Liberation Party, said, “that’s what we’ve wanted to do in these four years.”

The president has also secured Costa Rica’s reputation for being one of the ecologically smartest developing countries. He launched a campaign for the country to become carbon neutral by 2021, a mission he hopes will be met in part thanks to having already planted nearly 20 million trees during his term. According to Arias, reforesting and forest preservation programs have enabled Costa Rica to become the country with the most trees per capita, per square kilometer in the world.

However, recent decisions, such as a decree that authorized a Canadian mining company to build a potentially harmful open-pit gold mine near the northern border with Nicaragua, have angered environmentalists and university groups and called into question Arias’ devotion to green issues. A court recently halted the mine project with precautionary measures. Arias said he set forth “the most ambitious environment agenda” Costa Rica has ever known; he’s certain no blemish will tarnish his green legacy.

Arias insisted he is retiring from politics and is excited about possible newfound free time for things like reading The Economist magazine from front to back.

He has watched as his former vice president, Laura Chinchilla, has made her rounds with heads of state across Central America, Mexico and Colombia, shoring up support ahead of her inauguration. She has pledged that, while adding a woman’s touch to the Casa Presidencial, she will continue the bulk of the incumbent administration’s programs. Arias seems confident she will, saying, “We’ve made the way for Costa Rica and I hope Laura follows … no, not hope, I am sure she will follow.”