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Arias Tours Europe, Will Watch Soccer Game

President Oscar Arias left for Europe this week to promote trade and cheer on Costa Rica’s National Soccer Team as it plays Germany in the opening match of the World Cup today.

He departed Monday afternoon for his first international excursion since he took office May 8 – a two-week European tour that will include visits to the United Nations Office in Geneva, an audience with the Pope in the Vatican, and visits to the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the International Labor Organization (ILO).

Before he left, Arias told reporters gathered at Juan Santamaría International Airport outside San José that he hopes to limit the time he spends outside Costa Rica during this term.

“I hope to leave much less than 20 years ago,” he said, explaining that a large part of his job during his first term was promoting peace in Central America, but national issues are now his priority.

In keeping with this statement, Arias started the midday press conference with two announcements about national policy.

The Social Security System (Caja) will double government payouts for 74,400 people who are unable to work, Arias said (see separate article).

He also announced a temporary tax on luxury homes intended to fund improvements in housing conditions for people living in shantytowns (see separate article).

Including the plans among his promised improvements to education, public security and the standard of living for the poor, Arias said change will require investment from taxpayers.

“It has to come from the pockets of the Costa Rican people,” he said.

Repeating his support for the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA), Arias said foreign investment could help pay for social programs.

“If we don’t have CAFTA, we have to pay (more) taxes,” he said.

Arias told reporters he aims to take advantage of the excitement surrounding the World Cup to stoke interest in his nation.

“I am going to promote Costa Rica; I am going to promote tourism; I am going to promote foreign investment,” he said. “The opportunity we have is to position Costa Rica in this moment.”

During the conference, Arias repeatedly declined to comment on the chances of Costa Rica’s embattled soccer team – La Selección – beating Germany.

“I don’t have confidence in my ability as a prophet,”Arias joked after being asked if he had confidence in the team.

As of Monday, La Selección had lost four of five warm-up matches. Arias compared his cautious optimism about the team’s prospects to the doubts he had before successfully negotiating the Central American peace deal that earned him a Nobel Peace Prize during his first term as President (1986-1990).

“A pessimist is an optimist who is well informed,” he said dryly, later smiling as he wished the team luck.

Since he was invited to the game by the German government, neither he nor Costa Rica had to pay for him to watch the match, Arias said.

Though Arias will spend one afternoon watching soccer, his itinerary is chock-full of diplomatic meetings and trade discussions.

On Tuesday, he visited permanent Costa Rican missions at the United Nations Office in Geneva. On Wednesday, he denounced arms construction and trade and spoke in favor of a proposed anti-arms trade treaty during a ministerial summit on armed conflict and development at the United Nations Office, according to a statement from Casa Presidencial.

Saying that 1,000 people die every day from gun violence and tens of thousands of child soldiers die every year, Arias asked representatives at the summit to support an anti-arms trade treaty to “require our countries not to transfer weapons to states, groups or individuals if there is reason to believe the weapons will be used to violate human rights or existing international law.”

Over 30 countries have expressed support for the initiative, the statement said, though others feel it infringes on their right to defend their security interests.

“When it comes to the link between conventional weapons, armed violence and crippled development, the evidence is so overwhelming that practically no one disputes it,” Arias said. Over the past decade, Latin America has seen its gross domestic product slashed by 12% each year because of armed conflicts, he said.

Arias’ Foundation for Peace and Human Progress, legal experts at England’s Cambridge University and a group of nonprofit organizations drafted the anti-arms trade treaty, which Arias urged summit representatives to discuss during the U.N.

Programme of Action on Small Arms and

Light Weapons meeting later this month.

Today, before heading to the Allianz Arena to watch La Selección face Germany in the first game of the World Cup, the President plans to meet with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Tomorrow, he plans to meet with a group of Germany business leaders at the Costa Rica Arena investment fair (TT, May 26).

In Italy during the second week of his trip, Arias plans meet with the Pope, Italian President Giorgio Napolitano and Italian business leaders.

Arias, who is accompanied on his trip by Foreign Relations Minister Bruno Stagno, Foreign Trade Minister Marco Ruiz and Labor Minister Francisco Morales, is scheduled to return to Costa Rica June 16.



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