Connect to share and comment

Leaving office, Arias reflects on his legacy

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

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.”