MANAGUA – Costa Rican President Oscar Arias this week quietly assumed the six-month pro-tempore presidency of the Central American Integration System (SICA) in an event devoid of normal institutional protocol and overshadowed by the coup in Honduras.
The expected tensions between Arias and outgoing SICA head Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, who had earlier suggested that the temporary presidency should go to Guatemala and not Costa Rica, never materialized.
In fact, Arias’ acceptance of the SICA leadership – far from being a point of controversy or intrigue – was more like a tangential occurrence only loosely associated with the rest of the meeting. In the hour or so before the summit started (Ortega delayed the meeting by about 90 minutes to wait for the arrival of Cuban President Raúl Castro, who is not part of SICA), Arias was seen sitting quietly and alone at the presidential banquet table, reviewing his acceptance speech like a studious pupil waiting for class to start, while other leftist Latin American leaders stood around talking and joking with one another.
Prior to this week’s meeting, Nicaragua had expressed doubt about whether Arias was up to the challenge of taking over the regional body. Arias is an admitted skeptic of SICA meetings, which he has called a waste of time and made a habit of skipping.
There’s also been concerns raised about Costa Rica’s commitment as a state to SICA institutions. Costa Rica has refused to join the Central American Parliament, theCentral American Court
or the CA-4 immigration initiative (NT, June 5).
But when it finally came time for Arias to take the microphone and assume the presidency of SICA June 29, he spoke like an integrationist who is ready to assume the challenge of trying to hold the region together at this complicated moment in history.
Flanked by representatives of the leftistleaning Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA) and other Latin American leaders not belonging to SICA, Arias called for the region to never let its political differences outweigh that which it shares in common, especially “in a moment when it is crucial for Central America to remain united.”
“We have started to wake up from the long bellicose nightmare in this region, so it’s not the moment for us to squabble over lesser issues now,” Arias said.
The Costa Rican president also defended Costa Rica’s integrationist spirit, saying that sovereignty should not be confused with an aversion to integration. Unlike other countries in Central America, Arias said, Costa Rica has never withdrawn from any regional institutions, nor proposed changing the system or violated the will of the region.
“Costa Rica will continue being integrationist like it has been to this day,” Arias said. “And it will continue to represent this region with great pride in regional forums.”
Still, Arias argued, “integration can’t be the one and only objective of SICA.”
He said the regional body needs to focus on concrete results to improve the wellbeing of its people, and not just issue joint declarations, resolutions and proposals.
“Because our people look to us with hope and are asking for much more than just politics,” he said. “They ask for results from politics, for fruits for concrete realities. They want dignified housing, health and education, peace and liberty.”
In the next six months of Arias’ protempore presidency, the Costa Rican leader said he will focus on five key points: concluding Central America’s association agreement with the European Union; initiating a new trade agreement with the southern cone countries of Mercosur; recapitalizing the Central American Integration Bank; developing a three-year plan and vision for SICA; and reestablishing the constitutional order in Honduras.
“All this will demonstrate with concrete acts Costa Rica’s commitment to Central America,” Arias said.
Though the Costa Rican president acknowledged that he has had his differences with other Central American leaders in the past, and said “let me spare you the suspense, we’ll have more in the future, too,” he stressed that “there’s nothing wrong with that” when it’s done in a constructive way.
Indeed, he said, such discussions will help to strengthen the integration process moving forward.