Adam Isacson has a moving personal recollection of the recent inauguration of Oscar Arias Sanchez as president of Costa Rica:
In his inaugural speech, Arias promised to govern in line with many of the values his foundation sought to promote. He promised to spend 8 percent of GDP on education. He called for improving basic infrastructure and access to technology, to modernize the country. To cheers, he called for strengthening the national healthcare and social welfare system, and to pay for it with an increase in progressive income taxes. He called for a foreign policy based on human rights, peaceful conflict resolution, promoting demilitarization, “human development,” and reliance on the United Nations. He said that Costa Rica should be a “moral power” in the world, and its “brand” should be “peace and love for nature.”
This all makes Arias sound like another center-left leader who will quickly run afoul of the Bush administration (just as Arias, for his efforts to end Central America’s wars peacefully, ran afoul of the Reagan administration twenty years ago). But that’s not likely. Arias is not only an admirer of the United States at heart (he is particularly fond of John F. Kennedy), he is a fierce defender of a free trade agreement with the United States. The Bush administration – no doubt anxious to hold on to its dwindling number of friendly leaders in the region – has promised “full cooperation” with Arias, and that’s why they sent Laura to represent the United States instead of, say, the deputy secretary of transportation.
Arias’ pro-CAFTA stance, however, has made Costa Rica no exception to the deeply divisive neoliberalism-versus-statism debates that have swept through Latin America lately. Of all Central American countries, Costa Rica – with its educated workforce and economy less dependent on agriculture – probably stands to gain most from a free-trade agreement with the United States. But the issue is hugely controversial within Costa Rica, and the rather emotional debate has left the country more polarized than it has been in decades.
I've always had a great deal of respect for Arias. I find few words more compelling than these from his Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech:
I know well you share what we say to all members of the international community, and particularly to those in the East and the West, with far greater power and resources than my small nation could never hope to possess, I say to them, with the utmost urgency: let Central Americans decide the future of Central America. Leave the interpretation and implementation of our peace plan to us. Support the efforts for peace instead of the forces of war in our region. Send our people ploughshares instead of swords, pruning hooks instead of spears. If they, for their own purposes, cannot refrain from amassing the weapons of war, then, in the name of God, at least they should leave us in peace.
I wish him well.