WASHINGTON, D.C. – Costa Rican President Oscar Arias met with U.S. President George W. Bush Wednesday near the end of a weeklong tour of Mexico City and the U.S. capital.
During his trip, Arias encouraged investment in Costa Rica, pushed for debt forgiveness and approval of the disarmament measures he champions, and called for democracy in Cuba.
Bush and Arias, who spoke in the Oval Office for 45 minutes Wednesday morning, also discussed education and the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA).
Arias asked Bush to pardon Costa Rica’s $104 million debt to the United States and allow the country to instead invest these funds in education and environmental protection – an idea he’d presented to leaders in Congress. Bush said he would consider the proposal and “investigate whether or not the United States can help” Arias with his efforts to improve Costa Rican education.
Arias’ visit was prompted by an invitation from the Bush administration to come and “talk about diverse topics… to take a tour of the continent, to see what is happening in our America,” Arias told the press Monday. “They wrongly think I know a lot about Latin America and want to know my opinion.”
He denied he is wanted as a mediator between the Bush administration and various emerging leftist governments of Latin America. U.S. interest in the region is heightened because of the results of recent elections in Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia, according to Arias, but the country’s foreign policy clearly remains focused on the Middle East.
“If you read the papers here, the topic is Iraq, so much so that Latin America is completely forgotten,” he said.
Arias, accompanied by Costa Rican Foreign Minister Bruno Stagno, Housing Minister Guillermo Zúñiga, Foreign Trade Minister Marco Vinicio Ruiz and Environment and Energy Minister Roberto Dobles, remarked that he was “familiar” with the Oval Office, having met there with former U.S.
President Ronald Reagan and Bush’s father, former U.S. President George H.W. Bush, during his first presidency (1986-1990) when Central America was a major U.S. foreign policy concern. However, on those occasions, he was at the White House to discuss Nicaragua, not Costa Rica, he said.
At Bush’s side during this week’s meeting were U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, U.S.Ambassador to Costa Rica Mark Langdale and Press Secretary Tony Snow, according to a statement from Casa Presidencial.
On Monday, Arias told reporters he would likely see eye to eye with Bush on many topics, such free trade – Costa Rica is the only signatory country that hasn’t yet ratified CAFTA, but Arias is strongly in favor of it – but said he could not disagree more with Bush’s preventive invasion of Iraq.
Evoking the words of French statesman Charles Maurice de Talleyrand, as others have, he said: “Iraq was worse than a crime. It was a great mistake.”
On Trade, Cuba and Arms
Earlier in the week, Arias addressed approximately 100 diplomats, academics, consultants and students at an event Monday sponsored by the Council of the Americas at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Guests came from throughout the eastern seaboard to hear Arias, whom Eric Farnsworth, vice-president of the Council of the Americas’Washington office, introduced as “one of the most noted and notable Latin American” leaders, a “rare Latin American treasure” and a “visionary.”
Arias said that Latin America is at a crossroads, and must choose the path of globalization and democracy, and that smaller countries such as Costa Rica cannot survive without opening their economies to trade and investment.
“Today I have come to convince you that Latin America will only make it to the future on time if it embraces globalization and does not flee from it,” he said. “If we cannot export more and more goods, we will end up exporting more and more people.”
Arias later told The Tico Times he is worried about the impact the recently elected U.S. Congress, which will take office in January, will have on future bilateral freetrade agreements between the United States and Latin American countries. For the first time in a dozen years, Democrats will have a majority in Congress, and many of the party’s congressmen have voiced their objections to free trade as it has been known by the Bush administration.
Beyond globalization, Arias urged Latin American leaders to fight for democracy in Cuba and “stop covering up what we know is true.”
“Cuba is not some different kind of democracy, nor has it followed a path chosen by the Cuban people. Cuba is, plain and simple, a dictatorship,” he said. “It is a dictatorship that has not only robbed the Cuban people of their liberty, but has condemned to poverty the nation that could very well have been the first developed nation in Latin America.”
The President pushed his fellow Latin Americans to “strongly pressure” the United States to close its naval base at GuantánamoBay and lift its economic embargo on Cuba.
Arias also used his visit to the United States to promote the Costa Rica Consensus – a plan through which developing countries that invest more in health, education and housing and less in soldiers and weapons would be rewarded debt forgiveness.
Asked about Nicaraguan President-elect Daniel Ortega’s recent victory, Arias said the once and future President will need to “be more pragmatic” in a changed international context.
“He cannot confront the United States as he has in the past,” Arias said. “And I’m sure he is not going to do that. I do believe that we Central American Presidents can do business with him.”
During his visit to D.C., Arias also met with U.S. Trade Secretary Carlos Gutiérrez; senators John Kerry, Richard Lugar, Harry Reid, Hill Nelson, Tom Harbin and Ken Salazar; Congressmen Charles Rangel and Elliot Angel; and Inter-American Integration Bank president Alberto Moreno.
In a statement from Casa Presidencial upon his return, Arias expressed delight that Lugar has “five pictures of me’’ from the President’s 1986 inauguration in his office.
Chaotic Handoff in Mexico
Before visiting the United States, Arias attended President Felipe Calderón’s tension fraught inauguration in Mexico City. Thousands of supporters of leftist candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador – who claims he is the rightful winner of the elections and that Calderón is guilty of voter fraud – protested outside the Congress where he was sworn in.
Arias told reporters in Washington the experience had made him “sad.”
“The signs and images that were sent from Mexico City to the world were images of lack of governance, denial of democracy, and lack of dialogue and humility to sit down and try to reach agreements,” he said.
“As a Latin American, I was quite sad that day. My advice to him (Calderón): he needs a lot of humility, patience to talk to the opposition party, to create bridges.”
Following the ceremony, Arias met with more than 50 business representatives during a meeting organized by property insurance company Stewart Title and designed to drum up interest in Mexican investments in Costa Rica. Appliance retailer Elektra and General Motors Capital showed interest in such investments, according to Foreign Trade Minister Ruiz.
Arias said Monday that Costa Rica ranks third in Latin America in foreign investment per capita, falling behind Chile and Mexico; however, he hopes to surpass Mexico “soon.’’
Tico Times reporters Katherine Stanley and Amanda Roberson contributed to this report from San José.