Oscar Arias doesn’t like Casa Presidencial. The two-time President of Costa Rica prefers to conduct business not at the presidential offices in the eastern suburb of Zapote, but at his home across town in Rohrmoser. He also advocates building a new site in downtown San José.
Still, he’s brought a touch of home to his office, filling it with photos of himself with two decades’ worth of famous faces: Pope Benedict XVI, former U.S. President Ronald Reagan,Mother Teresa and others.
As a television silently flashes the Channel 11 News onto his empty desk, a book lies open on the coffee table before him, displaying one of his quotations translated into English, French, Greek, Arabic and Chinese.“History is not written by men who predicted failure, who gave up dreaming,” it reads in part.
Four months into Arias’ second term, made possible by a controversial Supreme Court ruling in 2003 to amend the Constitution and permit presidential reelection, this 1987 Nobel Peace Prize-winner known for quoting others faces significant challenges as he seeks to live up to his own optimism. Arias laid out lofty goals for his second term – foremost among them is setting the stage for Costa Rica to become a developed country within 15 years – but, once in office, has faced legislative setbacks, vocal opposition from social groups, approval ratings that dropped to 44%, and the criticisms of the Citizen Action Party (PAC), whose candidate, Ottón Solís, achieved what many considered unthinkable when he came within 1% of defeating Arias in February’s national election. He has his work cut out for him.
Arias will turn 67 next week and is the father of two adult children, Oscar Felipe and Sylvia Eugenia, with former First Lady Margarita Penón, from whom he is divorced.
After our campaign of at least six months,Arias finally gave The Tico Times an interview, scaled down because of his packed agenda from a promised 50 minutes to just 31.
Solemn, attentive and with measured words, the President responded to a range of questions on politics, corruption, the environment and what worries him most.
TT: Since your first term in office, how has your vision of the country, or of yourself as a leader, changed?
OA: My way of being and thinking has changed very little, but if reality changes, one has to change, it seems to me. The world certainly is very different. Twenty years ago we were in the middle of the Cold War… the Soviet Union and the United States contributed the arms and we contributed the dead… No one talked about free trade.
Now there’s no Cold War; globalization has been extended and deepened in all aspects, not just commercial; and the social sectors that supported me have changed.
Twenty years ago, with the issue of peace, young people supported me a great deal. This time young people, incorrectly I think, believe CAFTA isn’t right for this country.
In that (first) opportunity we achieved strict ethics, intellectual and moral meritocracy, housing, employment, real equality of women and men, and, of course, peace. Now what I want is to universalize (secondary) education, try to reduce poverty… and eliminate slums.
Of those priorities you mentioned, which one is most important to you personally? Not one. Two. CAFTA, because without it investment will drop. I’d like to not double, but triple or quadruple the amount of foreign investment. And second, universalizing secondary education.
Do you think increased foreign investment, along with so many foreigners buying property here, puts Costa Rica at risk of losing its identity?
Well, yes. This is a country with beautiful nature, and people have fallen in love with Costa Rica. But we have to be careful about it. My administration has asked the Planning Ministry (MIDEPLAN) to estimate… what the country can and should receive in foreign investment in the future.
When you left office in 1990, you said, “We didn’t end the Cold War to see our world warming up through destroying the environment,” and “It is time to define this sustainable development, where nature is respected.”Today, global warming and sustainable development are even more pressing topics.What are you doing to confront these challenges?
On May 8 (Inauguration Day), I said that Costa Rica’s trademarks should be a country of peace and nature. We’re conscious that our growth has to be very careful so that it continues to be sustainable growth, more than anything in the area of tourism.
And yes, we have polluted – we have polluted the gulf of Nicoya, largely because of a lack of resources. But consciousness does exist. It is a permanent concern before which we cannot yield, because a society like ours demands we respond to environmental groups. A closed society like the communists’ (in Eastern and Central Europe) destroyed the environment and nobody found out. In an open society like ours, that would not be possible.
Global warming is a very serious problem, but there is no consciousness in some countries, above all in the United States, which never supported the Kyoto Protocol (to reduce greenhouse gas emissions).
You have indicated that you would be willing to allow oil exploration and mining in Costa Rica. Environmentalists criticize these activities as damaging to the environment. Why permit them here?
This is relative, right? If they don’t pass the standards of SETENA (the Technical Secretariat of the Environment Ministry), no investment is feasible. But we cannot be more papist than the Pope. That’s why SETENA exists, that’s why it has rigid and severe standards, so the environment isn’t damaged or destroyed.
As proven in most countries where there is oil exploration, it is fundamentally in the transportation of fuel where there are leaks, not in the exploration. I believe (exploration) can be feasible without putting our nature in danger.
When your predecessor, Abel Pacheco (2002-2006), left office, he said the powers of the President are severely limited by the Supreme Court, the Legislative Assembly and other institutions, and that the distribution of powers needs to be reviewed. Now that you’ve returned to office, do you think that’s true?
I think we may have gone a little far in creating more institutions, but in a democratic society there must be checks and balances. My complaint is there is an excess of trámites (bureaucratic processes) to operate in this country.
The discovery of the corruption cases involving two former Presidents instilled an enormous fear in the decision-makers, who prefer to postpone decisions or not make them – to pass the buck, as President
The best example is the parliament – but the legislators get mad – because, diay, it is truly slow. There’s no possibility of setting a date by which a bill must be voted on, as in the United States.
And it seems to me that the Sala IV (Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court), in the case of everyday legislation, should watch for errors in procedure and not in the essence (of bills). Of course, if you look for a hair in a soup you will find it.
It’s been reported that your salary is higher than your predecessor’s (Abel Pacheco, 2002-2006), and you have been working on plans to build a new Casa Presidencial. Given the country’s fiscal situation, why did you make those decisions?
Well, let’s see. This place isn’t appropriate. Since I was (Planning Minister) 35 years ago, we were talking about creating a civic center… where the Legislative Assembly, the Judicial Branch and the Supreme Elections Tribunal (TSE) are. Right now we’re studying the financing possibilities.
About the salary increase that was implemented in the Executive Branch: it wasn’t a salary increase. It’s the payment, or not, of (an exclusive dedication fee). This exists everywhere. An engineer of the Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE) gets paid more if he doesn’t have any other work – or a doctor, or a lawyer. So they did that for the President, Vice-Presidents, Ministers and
Someone can always say, I cede it.
Did you and the Vice-Presidents and ministers cede it?
I don’t know about the others.
But did you?
I didn’t want to talk about this. (Pause.) I ceded it.
In recent months, evidence of significant corruption in the Public Security Ministry has come to light, which your administration is making an effort to eliminate. Do you believe that corruption is equally prevalent in other ministries?
There are some ministries where corruption is more feasible than others, where there has traditionally been more corruption. Excessive bureaucracy promotes and stimulates corruption. People become impatient if they don’t receive a quick hospital appointment, if they can’t pay their taxes quickly because the process is too slow, if it takes a long time to get their passport. All this stimulates bribes, unfortunately.
After Einstein, everything is relative. Here, the important thing is that Costa Rica has a level of corruption that’s infinitely lower than the most Latin American countries.
What the Costa Rican can be sure of is that if other ministers find corruption in their ministries, they are going to bring it into the public eye, to the surface. Absolutely nothing is going to be hidden.
You’re known for your love of reading. What are you reading now?
(Long pause.) I’m reading a book by (economist) Martin Wolf, “Why Globalization Works.”
Is there anything that keeps you up at night?
There are people who, out of ignorance, oppose the things I wanted to do, the things I’m convinced will help the Costa Rican people in a very significant way. But that’s not as bad as (opposing me) out of meanness, just because they don’t want my administration to come out ahead… That hurts me more.
For many years, decisions were postponed, solutions to problems that were far too evident. I don’t want to postpone them… And that raises hackles, but what can I do? That’s what needs to be done.