Arias’ Last Hurrah

December 24, 2009

Costa Rican President Oscar Arias is ending his second term in office with a 73 percent approval rating – an impressive number for the head of a nation that has seen the highest unemployment rates in two decades, exports drop by 12 percent and the gross domestic product (GDP) fall by 5 percent.

The 68-year-old president has spent the last year thrusting Costa Rica further onto the world stage. His team pushed the country’s 2021 carbon neutral plan at the recent United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, Denmark, and Arias himself grabbed the spotlight as mediator in the Honduran political crisis. Also, he convinced the United States to consider a proposal to curtail the sale of weapons.

The Honduran crisis fell into Arias’ lap. He woke up on a Sunday morning in late June with Honduran President Manuel Zelaya calling from the JuanSantamaríaInternationalAirport in San José. Zalaya had arrived in Costa Rica after having been ousted by the military at gunpoint from his own country. Arias, with a resume full of conflict mediation experience – most notably his championing of a Central America peace plan that led to the resolution of armed conflict in the region in the 1980s and won Arias the Nobel Peace Prize – was tapped to lead efforts to find a solution. His proposal for a solution to the crisis included the restoration of Zelaya to power.

In this sense, the failure to see Zelaya restored before elections were held in Honduras in late November was a disappointment.

However, Arias surprised many observers by urging the international community to recognize the results of the November elections in order to enable Honduras to put the crisis behind it and minimize further hardship for the nation’s population.

The carbon neutrality plan, which was first proposed in 2007, gained even more attention this year as the proposal was picked up by international media and discussed at the Climate Change Conference in

Copenhagen. But analysts in Costa Rica say the plan is more talk than action and it will be very difficult for the country to be entirely carbon neutral by 2010.

Any success in the curtailment of arms has been the result of years of campaigns on Arias’ part. He has used every opportunity on the international stage to preach peace over the years. This year, he saw a breakthrough when United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the U.S. would commit itself

to developing an international standard for arms trading. For Arias, that would be one more peace trophy to put on his shelf.

But his focus on foreign affairs has drawn criticism from political opponents, many of whom say Arias has ignored issues on the home front. Just about the only program that his opponents praise is Avancemos, an educational initiative that pays children to stay in school. Nearly 160,000 students have received scholarships of between ¢15,000 and ¢50,000 ($25-$85) per month while the school dropout rate has fallen from 11 percent in 2006 to 8.7 percent in 2008.

But this year, Arias also has pushed through massive projects such as construction of the new national soccer stadium (a gift from China) and the new highway to Caldera, on the central Pacific. His administration also oversaw the initiation of the long-awaited train from Heredia to San José and expansion of the international airport in San José. Additionally, Arias followed through on his promise to begin renovation of the long-neglected Caribbean port city of Limón.

With four months left in Arias’ second presidential term, Costa Rica may see one last drive to complete projects that are underway. But what the president will do when he leaves the Casa Presidencial continues to be a lingering question.

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