MANAGUA – Putting aside sharp ideological and personal differences, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and Costa Rican counterpart Oscar Arias this week took a stiff first step toward thawing the frosty relations between their two administrations.
Following a 45-minute meeting in the Nicaraguan capital Tuesday afternoon – the first between the two leaders since they returned to their respective presidencies more than half a year ago – Arias and Ortega announced their intention to restart the Bilateral Commission, a 1990s effort to create a permanent dialogue to address issues of common interest that have long defined relations between the two neighboring countries.
The Commission was suspended in 1997, during an escalation of tensions over Costa Rica’s right to navigate along the San Juan River – an issue that is now before the International Court of Justice in The Hague and one that both men agreed won’t be touched by the new Commission.
“Nicaragua and Costa Rica share not only a common border, but a common dream,”Arias said. “Yet we haven’t talked for 10 years.”
Ortega, for his part, noted that the outgoing administration of Nicaraguan President Enrique Bolaños (2002-2007) had made efforts to restart the Bilateral Commission last year (TT, Aug. 11, 2006), but added that since Bolaños was a lame-duck leader the effort didn’t count for much.
The new attempt to restart the dialogue, the Nicaraguan leader added, will be more institutionalized and sustainable under the watch of two Presidents who will be in office for the next several years.
The Bilateral Commission is expected to restart dialogue in November, when Ortega will travel to San José at Arias’ invitation.
Arias, who this week visited Managua at the invitation of Nicaraguan Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Central American Peace Accords, also addressed recent criticism that he alone didn’t deserve to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987 for what was essentially a group effort among all the region’s leaders.
Ortega in recent months has said he thinks that former Salvadoran President and peace accord signatory Napoleón Duarte should have won the award, and former Guatemalan President Vinicio Cerezo, also a signatory to the peace accords, said this week that all five Presidents should have won the Nobel Prize together.
Arias, despite building his international reputation for the past 20 years on his status of Nobel laureate, addressed the issue tactfully, and with uncharacteristic humility.
“I would have been happy – perhaps even happier – to have won this award along with the other five Presidents,” Arias said.
Then, slipping back into more familiar character, Arias went on to explain the reasons why he won the Nobel and the others didn’t.
When it comes to interpreting the original causes of the conflict in Nicaragua and the steps toward a peace process, Arias and Ortega, whose first presidential terms also coincided in the 1980s, have two very different visions of history.
Arias said that after the first attempts to hatch a peace plan failed in 1986, he “humbly” drafted a new plan, which then became dubbed the “Arias Peace Plan.”Arias said he then traveled around and met with every other Central American President, as well as leaders of various European nations, to win support for his plan before eventually getting all five Presidents together in a hotel room in Guatemala City in August 1987 to hammer out a final product.
“I remember telling them we have to do what (former U.S. President) Roosevelt once did, and that’s close the door and agree that we are not leaving until we have an agreement,” he said.
The final product was a homegrown peace accord that showed the world that Central America was capable of solving Central America’s problems, Arias said.
He added that the five Presidents bravely signed the peace accord, which became known as Esquipulas II, “knowing that there was fierce opposition from the United States, Cuba and the Soviet Union, which were all convinced that the only solution to Central America’s problems was a military one.”
Arias painted a picture of 1980s Nicaragua as a Cold War battleground between the ideological and geopolitical interests of the United States and the Soviet Union. The war in Nicaragua, he said, threatened to engulf Costa Rica to the point that his country came to a crossroads and had to decide to either join the fighting or opt to work for peace.
The issue, Arias said, became the center of the 1985 presidential campaign in Costa Rica between him and opponent Rafael Angel Calderón, with the latter opting to abandon Costa Rica’s neutrality in the escalating regional conflict.
But, Arias said, “Costa Rica elected to stay away from arms. In February 1986, I was elected President by the vote of women and youth who feared, as I did, that our country would be added to the list of Central American nations where mothers bury their children, and not the other way around.”
After taking office, Arias said he adopted a get-tough policy with the Contras operating from Costa Rica, and told them to abandon his country. He said he then got to work drafting the peace plan.
Ortega, however, remembers history differently.
The Nicaraguan leader of then and now rejects the notion that his country’s armed struggle was a proxy war between the United States and the Soviet Union. Ortega stressed that the Sandinista revolution was a home-grown effort, during which “not a single Soviet-supplied bullet was fired.”
Even after the Sandinistas took power, Ortega said, “there was no East-West conflict in Nicaragua.”What there was, he added,“was simply a Nicaragua defending itself against a terrorist policy by the yanqui government.”
Ortega insisted that his government was always “looking for peace, but the United States wanted to destroy the Sandinista Revolution, they wanted to invade with troops.”
Though Arias and Ortega failed to agree on the past, both men seem to agree on the future challenges to the peace process in Central America – namely poverty, social injustice, citizen insecurity and inequality.
Arias called for the two countries to work together on the pending job of peace.
“I hope that together Nicaraguans and Costa Ricans can walk side by side to finish this task,” Arias said, adding, “Costa Rica loves Nicaragua, admires Nicaragua and needs Nicaragua to achieve its goals.”
Ortega, too, called for unity to combat poverty and inequality.
Walking side by side, however, might prove difficult for two Presidents who appear to be heading in different directions.
While Arias spoke of the importance of his country ratifying the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA), Ortega called for a struggle against “savage capitalism” and ended his speech by shouting “¡Viva ALBA!” in reference to the Venezuelan-promoted alternative trade and development pact between socialist countries in Latin America.