Oscar Arias Sanchez (born 1941) was a Costa Rican politician, social activist, his nation's youngest president, and Nobel Peace Laureate (1987). A man of even temperament, Arias worked tirelessly to maintain peace both in Costa Rica and in the wider arena of Central America.
Oscar Arias Sanchez, president of Costa Rica 1986-1990, was born in the rural town of Heredia, not far from the national capital of San José, on September 13, 1941. For several generations his family had been heavily involved in politics and had often served in the national legislature and on several presidential cabinets. The Arias clan were also prominent coffee producers.
Arias was educated in private schools in Heredia and traveled extensively before studying law and economics at the University of Costa Rica. While attending classes there, he became dedicated to national politics, early becoming an active member of the PLN (Partido de Liberación Nacional, or National Liberation Party), whose "Grand Old Man" was charismatic ex-President José ("Pepe") Figueres. Through his association with the PLN Arias became devoted to the twin goals of social equity and antimilitarism (Costa Rica had abolished its armed forces under Figueres in the 1940s).
Arias worked feverishly in the unsuccessful presidential campaign of the PLN's Daniel Oduber, gaining insight into political realities, and when he graduated with his bachelor's degree in 1966, he determined to continue his studies abroad. For the next three years he studied in England at the University of Essex and the London School of Economics, where his graduate thesis (published in 1971) had the provocative title ¿Quien gobierna en Costa Rica? (Who Governs Costa Rica?). This work was virtually a sequel to a book published in 1970, after his return to his native country; Grupos de presión en Costa Rica (Pressure Groups in Costa Rica). Hence, by the age of 30, Arias had an unusual set of credentials: he was a highly-educated, extremely well-traveled, published political thinker and activist. He was on the fast-track within the PLN.
Teaching political science at the University of Costa Rica, Arias was offered—and accepted—the crucial post of minister of national planning and political economy on the cabinet of Pepe Figueres, again president. He distinguished himself in his new position and became known for fair-mindedness and for attempting to de-ideologize social tensions in his nation. He held that cabinet post from 1972 to 1976, and also rose to a position of major power within the PLN itself, being named its international secretary in 1975, and later, in 1979, its head of party, or general secretary. He was also a family man, having married (in 1973) Vassar-trained biochemist Margarita Peñón Góngora and fathering a son (Oscar Felipe) and a daughter (Silvia Eugenia).
From 1978 to 1981 he served in the national legislature, where he became known for legislation making the government more accessible and responsive to the common people, leaving that position to help lead the successful campaign of PLN standard-bearer Luis A. Monge, elected president in 1982. Two years later Arias relinquished his duties as PLN general secretary to devote all of his energies to his own presidential campaign. His slogan was "Roofs, jobs, and peace," at a time when the national economy was in stark recession and Central America was badly torn by the insurgencies in Nicaragua and El Salvador. He gained his party's nomination easily, but the election was a close one, and when he took the oath of office on May 8, 1986, he did so on the strength of 52.3 percent plurality; hardly a landslide or overwhelming mandate.
As president, Arias did his best to realize goals outlined in his earlier books, most notably in Costa Rica in the Year 2000 (1977), in which he foresaw a more equitable distribution of wealth, more justice and better earnings for farmers and urban workers, a more open "accessible" government, and a true rule of law for all. He acted as he had written, as a non-radical, non-ideological populist.
It was in the realm of foreign affairs, however, that President Arias made his greatest impact. He successfully kept Costa Rica neutral in the threatening Central American upheaval. While he had little sympathy for the undemocratic Marxist Sandinistas in Nicaragua, he successfully resisted pressures from the Costa Rican right wing and Washington to aid and abet the anti-Communist Contra guerrillas. He also refused steadfastly to re-arm his nation, believing that diplomacy was the best answer. To that end he collaborated fruitfully with the governments of the region, met with their leaders, and was a major force in the Contadora Peace Plan first broached in 1986. The following year he produced his own ten-point peace plan, a plan that was applauded (in a nonbinding resolution) in the United States Senate (March 1987) with but one dissenting vote. It was agreed to and signed by all five Central American chief executives on August 7, 1987. The plan stressed withdrawal of all foreign elements from the insurgencies, total amnesty, cessation of hostilities, and democratization (free elections) as well as absolute recognition of national sovereignty.
Although the plan agreed to and signed did not result in immediate peace, it showed President Arias as a genuine international statesman, and the nobility of its ten points convinced the Nobel Prize Committee to award the 1987 Peace Prize to the Costa Rican.
Constitutionally unable to succeed himself, Arias relinquished power in April 1990 to opposition candidate Rafael A. Calderón, announcing that he planned to accept a visiting professorship at Harvard and to write on international affairs and crisis resolution. Following his presidency, Arias pursued these goals through a wide range of initiatives.
The Arias Foundation maintained three programs. The Center for Human Progress was created in 1990, with the objective of eliminating gender discrimination within the Central American Population. The Center for Peace and Reconciliation, also founded in 1990, was founded with the objective of promoting pluralistic participation in building peace in Central America. The Center promoted development in three program areas: demilitarization, conflict prevention and democratization. The Center for Organized Participation was founded in 1993, in collaboration with the Mott Foundation, the Kellogg Foundation and other international donors. Its mission was to strengthen citizen participation in Central America.
Arias was also active in the Carter Center in Atlanta, Georgia. This nonprofit, nonpartisan public policy institute was founded by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, in 1982, and Arias was active in two of the center's 13 programs. The International Negotiation Network (INN) of the Carter Center was an international eminent person's group that included former heads of state and other prominent people who individually or collectively were capable of bringing parties to a conflict together, could serve as mediators in peace negotiations, monitor elections or conduct behind-the-scenes diplomacy. The INN included many distinguished members in addition to Carter and Arias, including: former president Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria, Lisbet Palme, Swedish Committee for UNICEF; Shridath Ramphal, former secretary-general of the Commonwealth of Nations; Marie-Angelique Savane, Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees; Eduard Shevardnadze, former Soviet foreign minister; Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa; former Secretary of State Cyrus Vance; Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel, and Andrew Young, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
Arias was also a member of the Carter Center's Council of Freely Elected Heads of Government, a group of 26 current and former heads of government in the Western Hemisphere. The Council mediated and monitored voting, including elections in Panama, Nicaragua, Haiti, Suriname, The Dominican Republic, Guyana, Paraguay and Mexico.
Arias was a member of the Gorbachev Foundation, a think tank founded in 1992 by former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and located in San Francisco's Presidio National Park. In 1995, the first major forum of the Foundation included not only world leaders, but also scientist Carl Sagan, singer John Denver, and economist Milton Friedman.
The Inter-American Dialogue was an independent organization that sought to foster inter-American relations and which was closely tied to the administration of U.S. President Bill Clinton. The Dialogue's 1994 report, The Americas in 1994: A Time for Leadership, was endorsed by six former presidents, including Arias.
Arias also served on the Advisory Council of Transparency International, an independent nonprofit organization based in Berlin, seeking to counter corruption in international commercial transactions and, through its more than 60 national chapters, at national levels.
PeaceJam, an international outreach program, worked with youth in developing the skills of peacemakers. The program offered resources for teachers to guide students in structuring service projects in their communities or in participating in existing global peace projects that exemplified the values of the Nobel Peace Laureates. In 1997, in Amherst, Massachusetts, Arias spoke to high school students in the PeaceJam program. He told the students that at that moment PeaceJam member Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma was being held prisoner by the military for the crime of speaking out for democracy, free speech, and nonviolent protest. Arias said, "My friends, we must not forget that education and free speech are rare-known privileges in many parts of the world." In a 1995 interview with PeaceJam correspondents Dawn Engle and Ivan Suvanjieff at his residence in Costa Rica, Arias was asked what one thing he would say to all the young people of the world. His reply was, "I think the most important thing for the future generations is to understand that it is necessary to have ideals, to dream, to live a life of principles. It is necessary to understand that the brotherhood is more important than the self. It is necessary to comprehend that the problems of a neighbor in some way affect us too. It is necessary to live in a transparent, crystal-like world where everyone practices what they preach, to end hyprocrisy and to have the courage to fight for what you believe in. I would say don't give in to the naysayers, not to give up one's dreams of bettering the world. Understand that by fighting for the impossible, one begins to make it possible. In that way, no matter how difficult the task is, one will never give up. And it doesn't matter if they call us dreamers, idealists. I always said I would rather be Don Quixote than to be Pancho. Understand that the idealists of today will be the leaders of tomorrow. And we can't stop dreaming."
Further Reading on Oscar Arias Sanchez
A work by Oscar Arias published by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars is The Quest for World Leadership (1992). Published material about Arias in English includes Seth Rolbein, Nobel Costa Rica: A Timely Report on Our Peaceful Pro-Yankee, Central American Neighbor (1988); Kelli Peduzzi, Oscar Arias: Peacemaker and Leader Among Nations (People Who Have Helped the World) (1991); and Kelli Peduzzi, Oscar Arias, Peacemaker (People Who Made a Difference) (1993). Publications are available through the Carter Center in Atlanta, Georgia, describing the programs in which Arias was active. See indexes of the New York Times, Miami Herald, and Latin America Regional Reports. See also the Nobel Prize press release (1987).