When Dr. Oscar Arias was elected president of Costa Rica in 1986, Central America was torn by conflict. There was fighting everywhere - in Nicaragua,
El Salvador, and Guatemala, and there were border arguments between
Nicaragua, Honduras, and Costa Rica. The US role in Central America made
matters worse. President Reagan suspended aid to Nicaragua, funded a
revolutionary group with a dictatorial history known as the Contras, and imposed a trade
embargo for five years that began in 1985. Nicaragua was being economically
strangled! In the face of a deteriorating situation, Arias advocated peace.
"For free men everything is possible. The challenges confronting us can be
overcome by an America which is democratic and free..."
Standing Up for What You Believe In
Arias believes in democratic ideals, with freedom and equality for all.
Many countries throughout the world claim to support these values, but, Arias is unique in that he is
anti-military as well. He doesn't believe in using armed forces to bring about
change. He doesn't even believe in having a military. Why would he have such
a crazy notion? When Arias was only seven, the President of Costa Rica, Jose
Figueres Ferrer abolished the army, originally in the interest of helping himself stay in power and end a bloody civil war. As a result, Costa Rica became a safe haven sandwiched between war-torn nations, free from the excesses and political ambitions of the military, and free to use its resources for other causes such as education.
Imagine how you would feel if your neighbors were battling and you didn't
have a weapon to protect yourself. Would you hide? Arias did just the
opposite. He stood up and shouted out loudly for peace. You might ask, why
would he get involved? Costa Rica was doing fine economically, politically,
and socially. However, Arias didn't see Costa Rica as a single entity. He saw his
people as Central Americans, and as a Central American, he felt the
necessity to help his fellow Central Americans. He wanted to work for the
peace and prosperity of the region, not just for his country.
As President of Costa Rica, Arias' beliefs clashed with U.S. foreign policy
and Cold War ideology. Can you envision this lone man in a tiny country in
the middle of Central America standing up against the entire Cold War? Well,
that's exactly what he did. Arias refused to support U.S. military efforts
in Nicaragua. He ended Costa Rica's support of the U.S.-backed Contras and
expelled the U.S. ambassador and a CIA station chief because they supplied
weapons, information, and funds to the Contras from secret Costa Rican
"There are profound differences between what Washington thinks and what
Costa Rica thinks. We both believe that a durable peace in Central America
is possible only if there is democracy. But how to achieve that democracy is
where we part company. I feel that it is not through any military pressure
that the Contras might be able to exercise."
The Arias Peace Plan
Arias lobbied for democracy in another way as an advocate for peaceful
resolution. In 1987, he drafted a peace plan to deal specifically with
Nicaragua, but he hoped all the countries in the region would work to end
the regional crisis. It wasn't easy to draft such a plan. Many defeatists
said it would never work. Arias disregarded the naysayers and he assembled
the presidents of Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. Once he
got them together, he wouldn't let them leave the negotiating room until
they reached an accord! It worked. On August 7, the presidents signed the
final peace agreement.
The agreement is widely known as the Arias Peace Plan, but the official
name is the Esquipulas II Accords, or the Procedure to Establish a Firm
and Lasting Peace in Central America.
The agreement called for:
Had it not been for Arias' idealistic vision and Costa Rica's neutrality,
Central America might have experienced even greater bloodshed and
destruction during the Cold War.
- An end to outside aid for guerrillas,
- A cease-fire,
- More peace talks,
- And a ban on the use of one country as a base for attacks on another.
"We seek peace and democracy together, indivisible: an end to the shedding
of human blood..."
The Nobel Prize committee was so excited about the peace plan that they
awarded Arias the Nobel Prize. Other people weren't so happy. President
Reagen was seeking an additional $270 million from Congress to support the
Contras. Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega refused to talk directly with
rebel leaders. Arias had to urge him to accept an offer from Nicaraguan
Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo to mediate talks between the government and
the rebels. Arias worked to overcome the many obstacles to the plan.
"Of course, they did not give the Nobel Prize to Costa Rica or to me because
the process is complete or because we have already reached peace, but we are
at the half-way point...."
The Long Road to Peace
Arias' efforts gave people hope that a lasting resolution could be reached.
Talks began and the peace process started. The U.S. Congress passed bills to
end contra funding, and Violeta Chamorro, leader of an opposition political party called UNO and
the widow of a murdered newspaper editor, Pedro Chamorro, was elected president of
Nicaragua. Nicaragua's problems weren't solved that quickly. Economic
problems threatened the country, the US considered withholding aid, and a scandal called Irangate in the U.S. revealed the United States' secret support for the Contras. The road
to the end of the civil war has been a long one, but as another democratic election in Nicaragua followed in which a new candidate from a different political party successfully took power, it was recognized that the war finally ended.
Has Central America found peace?
Peace is a process which never ends; it is the result of innumerable
decisions made by many persons in many lands. It is an attitude, a way of
life, a way of solving problems and of resolving conflicts. It cannot be
forced on the smallest nation, nor can it be imposed by the largest. It can
neither ignore our differences nor overlook our common interests. It
requires us to work and live together."
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