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Oscar Arias Sánchez: President of Peace


May 1, 2005

As he gears up for another term as president, Costa Rica’s Oscar Arias talks about waging peace, winning the Nobel, and quips, “Al Qaeda has received a great deal of support and training over the years from the U.S. What’s important about mentioning these connections is to prevent the same mistake from being repeated again.”

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When Oscar Arias Sánchez was first elected President of Costa Rica in 1986, the Reagan administration was using Costa Rica as a staging area for its coup against the Sandinista government of Nicaragua. Arias sought to end this relationship, fearing that the entire region would flare up if the operations continued. One of his first executive actions was to ban the Contras and their U.S. trainers from Costa Rica. He thus resisted what he describes as immense pressure on his country, unique for having no army, to remilitarize. The Reagan administration threatened to cut off aid, but Arias held his ground.

Central American countries at the time were plagued by political disappearances, coups and tireless maneuvering from both Cold War powers, the Soviets and the United States. When Costa Rica’s neighbors convened at the Esquipulas II Accords in August 1987, President Arias successfully wrangled them into signing the ceasefire and seeking common ground. Since his term ended in 1990, Arias has continued to work on democratization, poverty, peace and gender issues. He has targeted disparities between rich and poor around the world, and has sought to eradicate poverty—the key condition, he says, from which conflict arises. It is notable that wars that plagued Central America throughout most of the 80s disappeared in the wake of Arias’s presidency and the ceasefire; of course, the end of the Cold War played no small part in this respite. For his efforts, Arias was awarded the 1987 Nobel Prize for Peace. But his legacy does not end with his presidency. Last year, a law limiting Costa Rican presidents to one term was abolished, and Arias is again running for president of Costa Rica.

I spoke with Arias in an email and phone exchange that lasted from just after September 11, 2001, through the commencement of the U.S. bombing campaign in Afghanistan, into early 2002. Much of what he told me then he reiterates in his campaign discourse today, namely that world leaders need to be better at waging peace, that U.S. foreign policy would benefit from longer-term planning, that poor and rich countries alike need to temper military build-ups and focus on the eradication of poverty and disparities in wealth and health worldwide. Arias credits Costa Rica’s relative prosperity and health (the World Health Organization ranks Costa Rica third in life expectancy, after France and Japan) to the country’s ability to focus on “real human needs over unnecessary defense spending.”

The Costa Rican presidential election will take place in February, 2006.

[Interviewed by Joel Whitney]

Guernica: Tell me about the legacy of Costa Rica’s former President José Figueres Ferrer, aka “don Pepe.”

Oscar Arias Sánchez: Don Pepe was a small man with big ideas, and his legacy to Costa Rica is huge. During his first presidency [in the late 40s] he extended suffrage to women and full citizenship rights to black Costa Ricans, who previously had been confined to one province of the country and treated more as foreigners than as Costa Rican citizens. Those two things alone would have earned him a place among the most important presidents in Costa Rican history, but he did more. The most far-reaching decision he made was to abolish the army in 1948. This decision was incorporated into the constitution in 1949 by our Legislative Assembly, and has impacted our society in almost every aspect in the fifty-plus years since. Because we don’t have to support a large military budget, we have been able to invest significantly in our people, particularly in health care and education. As a result our literacy rates and life expectancy, along with many other health indicators, are on a par with those of Europe and North America. To be sure our educational system still needs a lot of improvement, but our work force was sufficiently qualified for Costa Rica to win an intense competition to bring an Intel plant here in the late 1990s. This is a rather direct consequence of don Pepe’s choice to prioritize real human needs over unnecessary defense spending.

An additional consequence of the abolition of the army has been political calm. While the armed forces have intervened in the political affairs of every other Central American country over the past fifty years, with disastrous results, in Costa Rica we have peacefully transferred power from one administration to the next every four years. Everyone wonders what sets Costa Rica apart from the rest of Central America, and it is these two factors: calm and relative safety, and high levels of human development which have led to relative economic success. Both of these are due, in large part, to don Pepe’s far-sighted decision to abolish the armed forces of Costa Rica back in 1948.

Guernica: Let me take you back not as far, to 1986. The height of the Cold War. The Sandinistas control Nicaragua’s government to the north. The US is training Contras in Honduras and in Costa Rica. Was there pressure on Costa Rica to remilitarize, to fortify its borders?

Oscar Arias Sánchez: Yes, there was. Although my predecessor in the presidency had officially affirmed Costa Rica’s neutrality in the Central American conflicts, the majority of Costa Rica’s economic and political elite favored the military defeat of the Sandinistas. In fact, as you point out, Costa Rica was allowing its territory to be used for the training and equipping of the Contras, mainly in acquiescence to strong pressure from the U.S., so we really weren’t neutral at all.

When I assumed the presidency in May of 1986, one of my first actions was to reverse the decision of my predecessor to allow the United States to build a clandestine airport on Costa Rican soil in order to supply the so-called Southern Front of the Nicaraguan Contra. When I began to push my peace plan throughout the region and to insist that the Contras were part of the problem, rather than the solution, the Reagan administration suggested that they could cut off economic aid to Costa Rica, and they used many other tactics to impede the progress of the peace plan, including placing pressure on the other Central American governments not to go along with my plan. In sum, there was a great deal of U.S. pressure to continue to pursue a military victory in Nicaragua against the Sandinistas, and many Costa Ricans felt that we should go along with the U.S. But I had based my campaign on a promise to bring peace to the region, and the people elected me to do that, among other things. So I persevered.

Guernica: What convinced you that you could resist this pressure?

Oscar Arias Sánchez: The insistence on a military victory simply did not make sense, and people began to recognize that it was not the most feasible option. Fortunately, the U.S. congress eventually began to take seriously some of the human rights violations that were going on in Central America and to question Reagan’s strategy. But the most important source of hope for me was the support of the Costa Rican people, who always believed in peace. I also knew that our economic well-being depended on pacifying the entire region; there was not a sufficiently marked separation between peaceful Costa Rica and conflict-ridden Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala in the minds of potential foreign visitors and investors. So, I was simply determined to keep my twin promises of doing my best to pacify the region and improve our economy. The second goal depended upon the first, and I wasn’t going to default on that commitment to the Costa Rican people.

Guernica: To get other Central American leaders to sign the cease-fire, you said once that you appealed to their sense of history. How so?

Oscar Arias Sánchez: I told my colleagues that we had the lives and deaths of 30 million Central Americans in our hands, and couldn’t waste this historic opportunity to change the future of the region. I told them that history would never forgive us if we did not have the courage to take advantage of the moment and silence the guns in Central America.

Once the peace plan had been signed, my detractors continued to push against it, saying that the Sandinistas would not comply with it, that they could not be trusted. I insisted that all of the Central American presidents would honor our signatures. Why wouldn’t we? We are not a people with a history of breaking agreements. Our culture places a premium on honor, and I always had faith that once my colleagues fully understood what was in the plan and committed themselves to it with their signatures, they would follow through. And they did.

Guernica: As an advocate of non-violence, what has been your proudest day?

Oscar Arias Sánchez: When we five Central American presidents were crossing the plaza to enter the National Cathedral of Guatemala for a mass of thanksgiving after signing the peace plan, there was an indigenous woman on one side of the crowd, her hair braided and her feet bare. She was holding a child and her face was full of the sadness and resignation that marked so many Central Americans at that time, who had witnessed too many years of violence. After the mass, we came out of the cathedral and were again crossing the plaza, and the woman approached me. She said, “Thank you, señor Presidente, for this son and the one who is fighting.” I will never forget that woman and the ratification she gave to all my efforts in favor of the peace plan. In my heart, her words will always be more important than those of the international press, academic analysts, and political pundits. She spoke with the voice of the people, and it humbled me. That was a great day.

Guernica: What have been the greatest moments of challenge to your beliefs?

Oscar Arias Sánchez: I am constantly challenged by pessimists who insist that military solutions are the only way to go. This was true in the 1980s, and it is true today. You should know that I do not consider myself a pacifist; there are times, in my view, when military action may be necessary. However, what really bothers me is the lack of will to reflect first, and then pursue dialogue, and to persevere in dialogue as much as possible before resorting to military force. People who dismiss the concepts of dialogue, diplomacy, and negotiation as a waste of time are the biggest challenge to people who work for peace. Why? Because these tend to be the people or governments with the most powerful military arsenals, and they are anxious to use them. It is hard to fight against that.
Guernica: How have U.S. leaders reacted to your work? I believe you formed a friendship with Jimmy Carter—is this right? Have you formed relationships with other U.S. presidents, either positive or negative?

Oscar Arias Sánchez: Yes, I do consider President Carter a friend, and we have worked together on a number of projects, most notably trying to get Latin American governments to agree on a voluntary moratorium on purchases of high-tech weapons in the face of President Clinton’s decision to lift the ban on sales of such technology to Latin America. Our efforts in that case were obstructed by a few countries whose military institutions continue to exert undue influence on their democratically elected leaders, unfortunately. I do consider President Carter to be a true ally and advocate for democracy and peace in Latin America. We most recently saw each other when we were both in Nicaragua to monitor the elections there last November.

As for other presidents, I’ve already spoken of my relationship with President Reagan—we saw eye-to-eye on almost nothing. When George H.W. Bush became president in 1989, on the other hand, he changed U.S. policy towards our region and took a much more supportive stance towards our efforts to comply with the peace plan. I would consider him a personal friend and someone whose administration did a lot of positive things for Central America and for Costa Rica, in particular. Those three are the U.S. presidents with whom I have had the most contact.

Guernica: What is your opinion of the conflict in Afghanistan and the war on terrorism, in general?

Oscar Arias Sánchez: As I mentioned earlier, I am not a pacifist, however I do believe that the U.S. tends to resort to force too quickly. I am not referring only to the current administration; the same thing happened in the Balkans, and on other occasions. Action had to be taken in response to the terrorist attacks on September 11, but I am very concerned about the current administration’s rhetoric and apparent zeal to expand military action to other places. I’m afraid that terrorism is being used as an excuse, not only for possible military action in such places as Iraq, Iran, and the Philippines, but also for exorbitant increases in defense spending that have nothing to do with terrorism. The hard-line rhetoric of this administration with regard to such countries as North Korea and Iran has only increased tensions with those countries, when the U.S. should instead be seeking engagement and dialogue, which are the only effective means of establishing peace.

Terrorism is one threat to humanity, but there are so many others. It strikes me that the U.S. seems to be a single-issue country, at least in its foreign policy. It appears that Washington feels the need to “dumb down” world events for the U.S. population, so that they need not contemplate more than one issue at a time. From the 1950s through the late 80s it was communism. After the Cold War was over, it became the “war on drugs.” Now it is the war on terror. I would like to see the U.S. fighting another war, perhaps in addition to that against terror: a war on poverty, illiteracy, disease and environmental degradation. It is certainly within the power of your country to act on all of these fronts, but, unfortunately, your leaders have become obsessed with a single issue.

The world today spends about $800 billion a year on defense. If just five to ten percent of that were redirected to anti-poverty programs, in ten years we could have all children fed, vaccinated, and educated, all villages would have safe drinking water, and all families would enjoy health and sanitation services. It’s not a matter of resources, it’s a matter of priorities. Our priorities are wrong because our values are wrong. The values for the twenty-first century should be different: instead of greed, generosity; instead of selfishness, solidarity; instead of fanaticism, tolerance; instead of indifference, love.

Al Qaeda has received a great deal of support and training over the years from the U.S. What’s important about mentioning these connections is not to point fingers or issue blame, but rather to prevent the same mistake from being repeated again

Guernica: What is the likelihood of realizing a more widespread peace in our lifetime?

Oscar Arias Sánchez: For ages the world has been living by the stupidity of an old Roman adage that says if you want peace, prepare for war. As if anything said in ancient times must be wise, people have used this phrase to justify some of the most unjustifiable arms build-ups, which, far from creating peace, has only become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Where weapons are stored up, they are used. Thank God this has not yet happened with nuclear weapons, but we are not yet assured that it never will. Not only the use of the weapons, but the build-up itself is an affront to peace and human dignity. The best way to perpetuate poverty is spending on arms, and poverty itself is a form of violence. The wealthy industrialized countries have been too slow to recognize this. I hope that in this new century and new millennium, the world will learn that if you want peace, you must prepare for peace, plan for peace, work for it, and comply with its dictates. Lasting peace will never be achieved with the instruments of war.

I have to believe in the possibility of peace, because the alternative is to accept the inevitability of continual war, and of always living in fear. It doesn’t have to be that way. However, there are no simple solutions, and I am not the possessor of a magic formula for peace. All I can say is that for peace to succeed it requires perseverance, patience, humility, compromise, and commitment, from all parties. That doesn’t mean that one side should condition its actions on those of the other; intransigence from one quarter must be met by renewed perseverance from the other, not by tit-for-tat stubbornness. To make peace requires taking risks. It requires the participation of all sectors of society, including and perhaps especially women. In many instances women have proved stronger advocates for peace than men, and they should have a place at every negotiating table. Our hope for peaceful coexistence in the world rests on changing our values. That is a hard and long battle, but it can be won, if each individual begins by conquering himself or herself.

Guernica: You once quoted a World Policy Institute source as saying, “The last four times the United States sent troops into combat in significant numbers—in Panama, Iraq, Somalia, and Haiti—their troops faced adversaries that had received US-origin arms, training, or military production technology in the period leading up to the conflict.” You point out that Saddam Hussein used weapons provided by the coalition of allies he used them against in the Gulf War of 1991, including the United States. What does this suggest to you?

Oscar Arias Sánchez: It’s clear to me that many weapons sales are very short-sighted. The U.S. and other arms-producing countries sell weapons for a variety of reasons, but most sales involve strategic interest or profit motivation, or both. First of all, basing weapons sales solely on profit is extremely irresponsible, as money interests tend to eclipse other important considerations. Second, the problem with basing weapons sales on strategic interest is that these interests tend to shift over time, while weapons are durable goods that do not evaporate as quickly as some alliances do. Once supplied, they can’t be taken back. That leads to situations such as the ones we have seen in Iraq, Somalia, etc., where former allies used U.S. weapons against U.S. soldiers. It is perhaps not necessary to point out that Bin Laden was once a U.S. ally too, and Al Qaeda has received a great deal of support and training over the years from the U.S. What’s important about mentioning these connections is not to point fingers or issue blame, but rather to prevent the same mistake from being repeated again, something which looks possible given the way that the U.S. is rewarding cooperation in the war on terror with weapons, in some cases.

That is why I have been advocating for an International Code of Conduct on Arms Transfers since 1997. A number of other Nobel Peace laureates have joined me, and we are calling on countries that supply weapons to comply with certain restrictions: not to sell weapons to human rights abusers, not to sell them to governments or groups carrying out aggression against states, not to make weapons sales that could disrupt security or development in the receiving region. These are in many ways common sense principles, but sadly, there seems to be very little common sense in the international arms trade.

The principles of the code have been transformed into a Framework Convention with the help of experts in international law, so that we are presenting the governments of the world with a binding international agreement that is based on already existing components of international law. Our hope is to carry out a campaign over the next five years and eventually see this convention adopted by all the governments of the world. It is a lofty goal, but every international campaign had to begin somewhere. We now have a convention banning the use of land mines, an international criminal court, and a convention on the rights of the child, because of the persistence of dedicated groups of people. We hope that the same will happen with the Framework Convention on International Arms Transfers, and that it will curtail this boomerang effect of weapons sales, as well as many of the other negative consequences of irresponsible arms transfers.

To Guernica or Oscar Arias Sánchez write here.

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One comment for Oscar Arias Sánchez: President of Peace

  1. Comment by Rachel Smith on December 9, 2009 at 9:08 pm

    What a fascinating interview, as my school will be representing costa rica in a model united nations conference in february, this interview allowed me to get an insight into the mindset of president Oscar Arias Sanchez. Thankyou!

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