As Oscar Arias prepares to take the reins Monday as the first President reelected in 36 years, he is doing so nearly two decades after his first administration.
While he was able to provide for Central America’s needs then, the question remains: Over the next four years, can he meet the challenges of a Costa Rica that is dramatically different from the one he once led?
When Arias was elected President in 1986, he had beaten the odds. Coming from behind after having been written off by the polls and lacking the support of his own National Liberation Party’s leadership, he was elected as the youngest President in the country’s history based on the promise that he would bring peace to a war-torn Central America.
Twenty years later, when Costa Ricans went to the polls in February, the situation could not have been more different.
Arias, 65, had almost everything stacked in his favor. The leader, whose popularity reached an unprecedented 84% while in office, is the best-known Costa Rican in the world, championing peace and democracy internationally; he has a Nobel Peace Prize under his belt for accomplishing his earlier campaign promise; and his party – which he now leads – faced almost no competition from its traditional rival, which was reeling from corruption scandals.
Yet despite all of these advantages, Arias’ recent by-the-hair-of-his-chin victory of 41% pales in comparison to his resounding 52% victory in 1986.
This is just one of the many differences the leader faces in a more diverse, more vocal and more fragmented Costa Rica.
“(Arias) is one of the best prepared politicians in Costa Rica’s recent history. He is a seasoned leader with a lot of experience, a lot of thinking around him and a lot of his own knowledge,” said political analyst Luis Guillermo Solís, of the San José-based Latin American Faculty of Social Studies (FLACSO).
“But that doesn’t mean he is going to do his job well, or that he will be able to do his job without consideration of other factors 20 years after his first mandate… Costa Rica has grown very complex.”
The close election reflected a nation more ideologically divided than it has been in decades, particularly regarding the development model the country should follow, incarnate in discussion about the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA).
“One of the biggest changes from 1986 to 2006 is there is little room for Arias to set aside the country’s internal politics,” added analyst Carlos Sojo, also of FLACSO.
While Arias, who describes himself as a timid intellectual, was able to achieve the amazing by brokering the plan that healed a wounded region, the question now is whether he can use his Nobel Peace Prizewinning skills to heal his own nation.
A Look Back
Arias was born to a wealthy coffee-growing family in Heredia in 1940, the oldest of three children. He studied law and economics at the University of Costa Rica and Harvard University before earning a master’s from London School of Economics and a doctorate in political science from the University of Essex in England.
When Arias first took office, Costa Rica’s Central American neighbors were being ravaged by civil wars. The fall of the Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua in 1979 and the start of the leftist Sandinista regime, followed by the ideological and military interference of the United States and Soviet Union, left that country in upheaval. Cold War tensions also aggravated already complicated civil struggles in El Salvador and Guatemala.
Arias, recognizing that ending the region’s wars was the most important issue for Costa Ricans, based his campaign on peace, urging the country to be an “active agent” in creating peace in Central America and a “catalyst of solutions” (TT, Jan. 31, 1986).
Before he took office, Arias told a U.S. reporter that President Ronald Reagan would do better giving economic aid to Central America than military aid to the Contras (TT, Feb. 21, 1986). He famously stood up to U.S. pressure throughout his administration and throughout countless personal meetings with high-level U.S. officials, including Reagan.
The 46-year-old President’s most important victory came on Aug. 7, 1987, when the peace plan he had drafted was signed by the five Central American presidents (TT, Aug. 14, 1987). Two months later, he became the pride of his nation when the Peace Prize was announced (TT, Oct. 16, 1997).
In response to doomsayers who predicted the pact would fail, he said: “If the Central American presidents have the political will to sign the plan, I think we will have the will to carry it out. The superpowers and other countries will not impede the will of 25 million people.”
Despite Arias’ history of standing up to U.S. policy, his opponents in the recent campaign accused him of being in bed with the United States because of his strong support for CAFTA. Still, the incoming President could prove to have more disagreements than agreements with the administration of U.S. President George W.
Bush, according to Solís. For example, Arias has been highly critical of U.S. foreign policy, particularly of the U.S.-led war in Iraq.
As Latin America takes another swing to the left – albeit one, with a few exceptions, less radical than the leftism of two decades ago – Arias will have to figure out how to navigate Costa Rica’s course.
Analyst Sojo says the new President will likely follow an intermediate line, as he did 20 years ago and in tune with his Nobel legacy.
“For example, he openly supports CAFTA, but he has also made declarations in The Washington Post in which he opposes the abusive protectionism of the North,” he said.
Regardless, the fact that Arias is experienced in dealing with the United States will play to Costa Rica’s advantage, according to Sojo.
Will the People Follow?
The incoming President is not a charismatic man of the people, particularly compared to the heads of some other Latin American countries.His role has always been that of an educator.
“The teacher knows, he will show the right path, and the class must follow with discipline,” Sojo explained.
While the country is ready to support a strong leader, Arias’ leadership style poses several challenges, analysts say.
First, because of Arias’ low margin of victory and the election’s high abstention rate, the incoming President is arriving in office with only about a quarter of the voting population having given him their support (TT, March 10).
Furthermore, the presidency itself is not as powerful as it was 20 years ago.
“A number of institutions have been created and empowered that have curtailed the ability of the President to do what he wants,” Solís said.
“The Sala IV (Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court), the Ombudsman… a whole new institutional framework has been created that is fundamentally characterized by reduction of power to the presidency… The new President will have to exercise humility in ways to which he is not accustomed.”
Solís worked with Arias during his first administration but has since publicly objected to his return to Casa Presidencial, which stems from a controversial 2003 decision of the Sala IV that revoked a 1969 constitutional reform prohibiting reelection. The decision caused many Costa Ricans, including Solís, to claim that Arias thinks he is above the law.
Arias must consider the opposition in his decision-making, Sojo said. Incoming Second Vice-President Kevin Casas echoed this idea during a recent roundtable discussion about Arias’ main challenges, saying the new President’s number one challenge will be talking to the people.
“Societal frameworks have changed; Costa Rican society is more dispersed, more fragmented, more angry with politicians; it is disillusioned with the elite,” Solís explained. “Society is also far more organized than it used to be.Women’s groups, university student groups, environmental groups used to be very muted, but are now very vocally objecting to the system.”
The weighty domestic issues troubling Costa Rica could pose a challenge for the new President, considering most of his leadership has been directed outward.
Today, Costa Rica’s gross domestic product is two times what it was in 1985.
The past 20 years have seen great advances in economic modernization, with a great increase in foreign investment and diversification of exports. Yet most Costa Ricans are not reaping the benefits of this growth.
The gap between rich and poor has grown: while per-capita incomes among the richest 20% of the population nearly doubled in real terms from 1988 to 2004, the per-capita income among the poorest 20% barely increased a couple of dollars (TT, April 7).
Arias must focus on better distribution of this wealth not only by improving social services, but also by providing more opportunities, Casas said during the roundtable discussion. The country must find a way to improve crumbling infrastructure; dramatically increase its investment in research and development; facilitate credit to small businesses and farmers; and, above all, increase tax collection, a goal outgoing President Abel Pacheco was unable to achieve despite a four-year struggle.
Once the pride of Costa Rica, public health and education are struggling, and Arias will need to halt the middle-class flight to private alternatives by improving public services through more investment in schools and better management of the healthcare bureaucracy, Casas continued.
The country lacked a concrete housing agenda for a decade, and slums have proliferated while every day it gets harder for the middle class to afford homes, he continued. In public security, the number of police remains the same today as it was when Arias was President the first time, despite the population having increased by a million, Casas said.
While Arias’ first administration won several awards for contributions to the environment, environmentalists today are worried his second administration may be more pro-industry than pro-conservation.
“Internal politics are going to require much more of Arias’ attention than he expects,” Sojo predicts.
Whether he gives them this attention remains to be seen. Before becoming involved in his second term for the presidency, Arias dedicated himself to world peace and disarmament, particularly through his Arias Foundation for Peace and Human Progress, which he established with his Peace Prize monetary award. He participated in several international organizations and received a host of honorary degrees from institutions around the globe.
This, combined with his legacy of focusing attention on the Central American region rather than Costa Rica, has earned Arias flack from local critics, who accuse him of having little interest in domestic issues. However, Arias has defended his global vision from the start.
“The real world does not allow us to live in isolation. Today the problems of one are the problems of all,” he said in 1989 during his third annual address to the nation as President (TT, May 5, 1989).
Some Ticos gave Arias their vote this time around because of his international image, assuming that he will positively reposition Costa Rica internationally. Arias has boasted about being the first Nobel Peace Prize winner ever to return to the presidency, suggesting his leadership will have an impact reaching far beyond Costa Rican borders.
With Pacheco having neglected Costa Rica’s foreign policy, Costa Rica, led by Arias, must step back into the international arena, according to analyst Solís.
“Don Abel was not only inactive (in foreign policy), he betrayed some of the country’s most cherished traditions – including his support for war in Iraq,” he said. “It is crucial for Costa Rica to reposition itself in the United Nations.”
“Will Arias overdo (the international agenda)?” Solís asked. “I don’t think so, because he is sensitive to the matter, he won’t do it again.
“Even for those of us who are critical of the Arias administration’s outlook, Arias is still capable of amazing us,” he added.“He is the kind of person who can surprise people… The traits of his personality… will allow him to do wonderful things.”