It was the day that made President Oscar Arias world famous.
Some 20 years ago, five Central American Presidents signed a historic agreement drafted by Arias during his first term (1986-90) to end years of military conflict in the region. This week, area leaders met in San José to celebrate the anniversary of those accords.
“What could we do, in the end, five little nations in the 80s? We were only ants in a land of elephants, just pawns in the great chess game of the Earth,”Arias said at a commemorative summit Aug. 8 in San José with the Presidents of Guatemala, Panama, Honduras and El Salvador. “The response, which for so many years seemed impossible, today is unquestionable: We could sit down at a table, look one another in the eyes, and speak among ourselves.”
The peace initiative, signed in Guatemala City Aug. 7, 1987, by the Presidents of Costa Rica, Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala, called for national reconciliation, cessation of hostilities, amnesty decrees, free elections, democratization, assistance for refugees, the end of foreign aid to irregular forces, and a ban on the use of any state’s territory for aggression against another (TT, Aug. 14, 1987). It was blow to U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s administration, which had sought to orchestrate an accord less conciliatory to Nicaragua’s Sandinista government.
“It was very courageous for all five heads of state to make this treaty,” said David Taylor Ives, executive director of the Albert Schweitzer Institute at QuinnipiacUniversity in the U.S. state of Connecticut. “The United States could have eaten them all for lunch.”
Arias’ role in drafting the accords won him the Nobel Peace Prize in October 1987. He used the money – $335,571 – to found the Arias Foundation for Peace and Human Progress, which organized the commemoration this week together with the Costa Rican government.
Nicaragua, which has chilly relations with its southern neighbor, was the only signing country not represented at the summit, held at the National Auditorium of the Children’s Museum in downtown San José.
Two-time Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, one of the accord’s original signers, said Wednesday that Arias had “conspired against” the Sandinista revolution in the 1980s, according to reports in the daily La Nación.
The Presidents who did join Arias are Manuel Zelaya of Honduras, Oscar Berger of Guatemala, Elías Antonio Saca of El Salvador and Martín Torrijos of Panama. In short speeches, they celebrated past successes and identified present and future challenges for the region, such as fighting drug trafficking, poverty and organized crime.
“Our great win 20 years ago, when we were able to silence weapons in Central America, will not survive in the midst of ghettos and gangs…exclusive and deteriorating health systems…populations without formal education…economically divided societies,” Arias said.
Arias did not miss a chance to speak at length about the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA), which he said would help keep peace in the region by promoting economic development.
The Arias Foundation distributed a bulletin at the summit with recommendations to strengthen security, democracy and social and economic progress in the region. The bulletin was a product of meetings organized by the foundation with government officials and opinion leaders in Spain, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Panama, Honduras and Guatemala between April and July 2007.
Arias Foundation Director Luis Alberto Cordero suggested that the Central American Presidents meet again within four months to discuss the bulletin’s recommendations.
“We wouldn’t want our children and grandchildren to meet here in 20 or 40 years to commemorate what we did then (in 1987) and lament what we weren’t able to do since,” Cordero said at the summit.
Legacy of the Accords
The success of the peace accords, named Esquipulas II after the GuatamalanCity where initial talks took place, was far from certain in August 1987. Critics said it had no teeth and that the Presidents would not comply. They were partly right. Despite a 90-day implementation deadline, no country besides Costa Rica had fully complied with the accord within one year. Civil war continued to wrack El Salvador, Guatemala’s decades-long insurgency simmered on, Honduras kept allowing anti-Sandinista troops to operate on its borders, and ceasefire talks in Nicaragua were slow and bumpy (TT, Aug. 12, 1988).
But the accords set the stage for the free and fair elections Nicaragua saw in 1990 and the peace agreements signed in El Salvador in 1992 and Guatemala in 1996, said political analyst Luis Guillermo Solís.
“Even when there was a delayed effect…vis a vis the implementation of the peace accords, something that could be called the spirit of Esquipulas was very fundamental,” Solís said. “Shortcomings, yes, there were many. But overall it served its purpose.”
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, speaking at a June conference celebrating the peace agreement, agreed that it led to peace and development. “The Esquipulas II Accord… triggered a series of initiatives that enabled the region to turn the page on a long era of bitter armed conflicts,” he said.
Now Arias asks fans to put their money where their mouths are. Speaking at the same conference, he said, “We have… witnessed an embarrassing scarcity of support from the developed world…Nations that sent money and arms with lightening speed, during our time of war and darkness, became slow to shine down the light of generosity afterward.”
Ives says this statement is especially applicable to the United States. He has not heard that the U.S. government is doing anything to recognize the anniversary, and “I have my ear to the ground on this.”
An Uneasy Alliance
Costa Rica is also getting the cold shoulder from a closer neighbor: Nicaragua.
Ortega said that he could not attend the summit because he had a meeting with Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
But the tension that has been building between the two Presidents, whose terms also coincided in the late 1980s, may be the real reason for Ortega’s absence.
Ortega said in March that Arias’ Nobel Peace Prize should have gone to former Salvadorian President José Napoleón Duarte. In May, Ortega argued that the anniversary celebrations should be held in Esquipulas instead of San José.
Other points of friction between the two leaders include the countries’ border region, the treatment of Nicaraguan immigrants, and Costa Rica’s unwillingness to join institutions of regional integration such as the Central American Parliament (TT, April 27).
Relations between the two countries were tense in 1987, too. Costa Rican authorities allowed anti-Sandinista rebel leader Edén “Comandante Cero” Pastora to operate from camps inside Costa Rica (TT, May 19, 2006). They also allowed the United States to establish a secret airstrip on the SantaElenaPeninsula, on the northern Pacific coast of Guanacaste, to illegally run arms to the Contras in Nicaragua. Ortega was conspicuously absent from a February 1987 meeting in San José, in which Arias unveiled his peace plan to other Central American Presidents.
In early August of that year, Nicaragua brought then dropped a suit against Costa Rica at the International Court of Justice at The Hague, accusing the Costa Rican government of harboring anti-Sandinista rebels.
“Even when (Ortega) eventually signed the agreement, he was never happy with the role Arias was playing, nor the proposals he was making in terms of the democratization of Nicaragua,” Solís explained. Solís was Chief of Staff of the Ministry of Foreign Relations during Arias’ first administration.
The Road to Peace
Esquipulas II focused largely on Nicaragua, where military conflict between Sandinistas and U.S.-funded Contras was spilling over the border, and Ortega was increasingly curbing civil and political rights. In 1983, Mexico, Venezuela, Panama and Colombia founded the Contadora Group with the goal of achieving peace in the region (TT, Aug. 14, 1987). After a series of talks between that group and Central American nations, Arias unveiled a draft of his peace initiative Feb. 15, 1987.
On Aug. 5, the Reagan administration proposed an alternative peace plan with the presumptive goal of derailing the Central American effort. It didn’t work. Presidents Vinicio Cerezo of Guatemala, José Napoleón Duarte of El Salvador, José Azcona of Honduras, Ortega and Arias labored until 2:30 a.m. Aug. 7 in the posh Camino Real Hotel in Guatemala City, ironing out the chinks in Esquipulas II. The five leaders signed the accords later that Friday morning.
Back in San José, radio stations set off sirens to announce the news, and jubilant Ticos rang church bells and honked car horns in celebration. Thousands converged on JuanSantamaríaInternationalAirport and La Sabana Park in western San José to welcome the President and his delegation home (TT, Aug. 14, 1987).
“I think this is a historic event without precedent in Latin America,”Arias said when he signed the accords. “I don’t think either Costa Rica or all of Central America will be able to forget this day.”