Oscar Arias has been somewhat of a titan on the Costa Rican political scene. The recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, second-term president and champion of free trade has made ripples internationally through his dogged campaign for disarmament, his pledge to make his country carbon neutral by 2021 and his role in the Honduran peace process.
In less than eight days, Arias will leave Costa Rica politics permanently. The politician, who was born into an upper-class family in Heredia and received a graduate degree in England, said the decision to retire from local politics was made “for obvious reasons.” He continued, “I am 61 years old, and I don’t want to return to national politics.”
He has also shrugged off any suggestion that he take the helm of an international organization such as the Organization of American States or the United Nations.
He admitted he might dabble in international affairs, but for now, he is content to remain at his home in Rohrmoser and catch up on old issues of The Economist, along with a stack of unread political reports.
“I want to find as much time as I can to enjoy reading, listening to music, and being with friends and family,” he said.
He comes off a four-year term marked by the controversy over the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA); the global economic recession; the establishment of a formal relationship with China; and the undertaking of large-scale infrastructure projects, including the completion of the Caldera Highway, which was 35 years in the making.
While Arias was criticized for focusing too heavily on international issues at the expense of problems at home, his administration is able to point to a 3 percent reduction in extreme poverty and the introduction of the widely praised school dropout prevention program, Avancemos, as solid accomplishments.
On Monday, he invited the international press corps to his home for coffee and pastries and spent a little over an hour answering what consisted of wrap-up questions. An excerpt from the interview follows, with some of the questions having been altered for clarity.
Question: In your government plan, you wrote much about Costa Rica’s struggle to become a developed country.
At what point do we know that Costa Rica has become a developed country?
OA: Costa Rica continues to be a middle class country. We are still very far from becoming a first world country. Why? Because we haven’t done things well, because everything is slow in this country, and because we have created a culture of opposition. The opposition is convinced that their fundamental right is to oppose. And I don’t agree. … We have created a culture of disagreements (where)…it’s very hard to arrive at agreements. … (Concerning CAFTA, each part of the agreement) was sent to the Sala IV (the constitutional chamber of the Supreme court), not necessarily to review it for constitutionality, but just to delay the processing of these laws.
I wasn’t able to do all the things I had promised in the campaign; but the (approval of the) free trade agreement was one of them. A tax reform wasn’t possible. … One of the things we need to undertake is a reform to make our parliament operate more quickly. Until this is resolved, it will be difficult to advance energetically.
What do you see as the greatest accomplishment of the last four years?
When asked what is the most important (accomplishment) of this government, I almost always say the same thing. We returned confidence to the people of Costa Rica. We offered new hope to the Costa Rica people, so that they can resolve their problems. …What we did was this: we gave direction, a route, a path to Costa Rica. I am sure that (President-elect) Laura Chinchilla will continue this.
Of the things we leave behind, one of the most important is spending in education and – in general – social expenditures.
I am not sure if there is another neoliberal government like us that spends half of its budget on social issues. … When we arrived in office, we began spending (for the first time) 6 percent on education and we are leaving at a level of spending 7.2 percent of gross domestic product on education.
But you are also leaving the country at a deficit, right?
Our income didn’t match what I had promised in the campaign. We are going to leave a country with a small deficit of 5 percent. But let’s put that into perspective. In the United States, the deficit is double ours. And in England the deficit is three times ours. A 5 percent deficit is one that cannot keep growing. We have to try to lower it. … I think it’s a responsibility of everyone, but I did what I had to.
The country continues to struggle with citizen safety, what did you do to improve security in your four years?
We increased the budget for security by 165 percent. We raised the number of police officers by 4,500. There was an editorial in La Nación that said we were increasing the bureaucracy. No, we are increasing the number of police and teachers. This is an area where more needs to be done and I am sure it will happen.
What do you consider your greatest accomplishment in issues relating to the environment?
The work of this government in the environment goes much further than a specific bill or a particular decision. This was the government that proposed 2021 (as the date when Costa Rica would) become a neutral country in its emissions. This is the government that planted close to 19 million trees during its four years, seeking to make Costa Rica the country with the most trees per capita and per square kilometer in the world. This is the government that saw Costa Rica improve 27 points in environmental sustainability, according to the World Economic Forum…and third place in the world for environmental planning. This is the government that began protecting marine resources. … All of these initiatives constitute the most ambitious environmental agenda that Costa Rica has adopted.
Fifteen months after the inauguration of United States President Barack Obama, what is your evaluation of the relationship between the U.S. and Latin America?
In the U.S. political campaign, Latin America was not an important issue. Neither Obama nor McCain offered great things to Latin America. Of greater concern was the internal economy…and after that, Iraq and Afghanistan and how to confront terrorism. … When I talked with President Obama at the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago … I said something that I’ve said to all (U.S.) presidents: “Pay attention to Latin America, but not for generosity or for solidarity, but because it is in the interests of the United States to give it attention. If you have a more prosperous neighbor to the south – a Latin American population with a better quality of life – you are going to have fewer problems.”
You’ve heard me say this before: “Poverty doesn’t need a passport to travel.” The dream of all poor Latin Americans is to cross the border one day, whether legally or illegally; to bring the family, to educate them there and give them opportunities, or else to go alone and send remittances to family. Frankly, I don’t think many give (Latin America) much attention because there is not a political interest (involved) when it comes to it. Attention is focused casually on Colombia and Mexico. You’ve heard me lament over the insignificance of the Merida Plan. I have told my friends in Washington that it is not sufficient.
What do you see as Costa Rica’s future in Asia?
I have said this often: This is the century of the Asian countries. Regrettably, the 21st century is not the century for Latin America, by our own fault. … I think the reestablishment of relations with China was a very clear necessity. China is a country with an emerging economy, which is growing (in significance) in the world. The truth is it was absolutely wrong to continue with Taiwan. (Establishing relations with China) was a healthy and important decision.
You’ve been one of the most influential leaders in Latin America. What plans do you have in the years to come?
I want them to be peaceful…to find time to read…official documents, read books that I have wanted to read, read magazines. I want to have time to read The Economist, which I haven’t had time to read in full. … I can’t avoid accepting some invitations to participate in conferences. We will see what happens today in Brussels and tomorrow in Brussels. If we sign the (Cooperation Agreement with the European Union), which everyone hopes for, I might attend the signing. But I will retire from national politics.