San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Arias Returns, Promises Action

During his inauguration speech Monday, new President Oscar Arias promised to bring action to Costa Rica, rather than allowing the country to wallow in indecision, and in the days preceding and following his inauguration the leader has lived up to his words.

From signing a decree to give financial aid to families whose children stay in school, to announcing a new Costa Rica Consensus plan for developing countries, to telling U.S. congressmen it is counterproductive to both give aid to developing countries and subsidies to their own farmers, Arias (who was also President from 1986-1990) has wasted no time in taking back the presidential reins.

As Latin Americans, we must decide if we are to continue seeking utopias and blaming others for our misfortune, or if, on the contrary, we will acknowledge that our destiny depends on what we do today to create societies that are better educated, more productive, more just and more dedicated to building solid institutions than to listening to the passionate words of politicians, Arias said during his inauguration at the National Stadium in western San José.

It is, above all, as Costa Ricans that we must make decisions. For years, out of fear and out of convenience, we have been postponing the solutions to our most pressing problems, he continued.

While Arias has focused most of his attention and most of his inauguration speech on addressing domestic issues, he has also made clear that he plans to be a regional leader, as he was during his first administration.

The new President took the opportunity to meet personally with some of the more than 50 visiting international dignitaries who came to Costa Rica last weekend for his inauguration. The impressive list included U.S. First Lady Laura Bush, Spanish Prince Felipe de Borbón, various Latin American Presidents, Taiwanese President Chen Shuibian and José Miguel Insulza, Secretary General of the Organization of American States (OAS).

Arias met separately with Chen and Insulza Tuesday morning. The former offered Costa Rica $15 million for the reconstruction of the Calderón Guardia Hospital in San José, which was destroyed by fire last year (TT, July 15, 2005). Arias has suggested that Costa Rica s recognition of Taiwan as a separate nation may come to an end under his administration, however, he told the press Saturday that for the moment nothing is going to change in diplomatic relations.

Arias also met with Central American Presidents for breakfast Monday morning. They agreed to unite as a common force in a summit today in Vienna with the European Union, particularly regarding the possibility of a free-trade agreement with the E.U. Because of his new arrival in office, Arias will not attend the summit; he decided instead to send his second Vice-President Kevin Casas.

Arias had planned further discussion with his Latin American counterparts during a lunch at the National Cultural Center (CENAC), however many leaders left immediately after the inauguration, skipping out on the gourmet meal. Those who did attend got a different taste of Costa Rica when a combination of afternoon showers and not enough umbrellas meant some attendees, including Chen and Bush, got wet on their way inside.

The new President had also hoped to meet with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to discuss the possibility of Venezuela providing Central America with oil under preferential conditions. However, Chavez announced Saturday he would not be able to attend because of problems with his agenda, to which Arias said: There will be other opportunities.

During his inauguration address, Arias explained he hopes to return Costa Rica to the international theater. He plans to give life to the newly dubbed Costa Rica Consensus which is based on the idea that developing countries that invest more in health, education and housing for their people, and less in weapons and soldiers, should be rewarded with debt forgiveness and international aid.

Arias shared this and other ideas with a group of visiting U.S. congressmen, including Republican Dan Burton from Indiana. But aid can only go so far, Arias told them, adding it is inexplicable that developed countries give $60 billion in foreign aid, but spend four times that to subsidize their own farmers.Arias said though he hasn t lost faith in the World Trade Organization s Doha Round, we haven t been able to win the battle for true free trade.

The new President, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987 for his efforts to bring peace to war-torn Central America, on Friday night also welcomed to his home fellow Nobel laureates Betty Williams, from Ireland, and Polish unionist and former President Lech Walesa.

I want to give some advice to the unions: that they give the President time so that he can prepare and govern well, that they remain calm. Without (union) support, it will be difficult for him to be President, Walesa told the press outside Arias house, according to Al Día.

Walesa s advice fell on deaf ears. Three days later unions were one of the leading forces behind a protest during the inauguration against Arias and against his support of the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA).

The protestors didn t get the response they wanted either.

Turning our backs on economic integration, returning to commercial protectionism, and disdaining the attraction of foreign investment at this time constitute the surest ways to condemn Costa Rica s youth to underdevelopment, Arias said during his inauguration address.

He was met with applause by the approximately 15,000 students whose blue, white and red T-shirts formed a human Costa Rican flag in the stands National Liberation Party members, special invitees and other Costa Ricans who packed the National Stadium during the hot, sunny morning.

Arias speech culminated an event that began with cheerleaders, who showed off their acrobatic skills to the tunes of The Real Slim Shady, Disco Inferno and the appropriate or not (It s getting) Hot in Herre (so take off all your clothes).

The event ended with traditional dances by colorfully dressed men and women and the release of doves. Moments later the clouds, which had emerged during Arias address, burst into rain.

In his address, the new President also pledged a clear path in the active struggle against poverty; and promised to strengthen the public health and education systems, including increasing investment in education to 8% of the GDP.

The President took action hours later after his first Cabinet meeting Monday night, aiming to improve both poverty and education by signing a decree awarding poor mothers ¢40,000-50,000 ($79-98) a month for keeping their kids in high school. The program will start with approximately 13,000 students and may eventually expand to 140,000 students.

The President also pledged to resolve the state s permanent fiscal crisis and improve the country s shameful infrastructure. The new President added that he plans to reduce the country s dependence on fossil fuels and make Costa Rica an international leader in environmental protection.

Arias said he saved his most important pledge for last: honesty in public office.

For all of the political parties and social organizations of the country, today I have a message that is also a request, a request that we might work together for our future, a request that we might learn that no party has a monopoly on honesty, on patriotism, on good intentions and on love for Costa Rica, he said.

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