San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Arias Returned to Presidency with Firm Goals

Side by side in a rare joint appearance in April, President Abel Pacheco and Presidentelect Oscar Arias listened to the presentation of a plan for the country’s scientific development.

After the main event, Pacheco and his craggy deadpan brought the house down with a hilarious look at excuses for the country’s failure to advance – is it the heat? The size? All those bananas? Arias chuckled along, then took to the podium with an impassioned condemnation of the country’s status quo.

It was a fitting illustration of the year’s political transition. A country that started the year in the hands of an amiable, grandfatherly psychiatrist who retained his people’s affection but was widely criticized as an ineffective leader, ended 2006 under the leadership of an intellectual and seasoned politico who faces significant opposition but says he’ll make Costa Rica a developed country by 2021.

Before leaving office, Pacheco told The Tico Times he’d depart “satisfied” and with Costa Ricans’ affection: “The simple people love me – we embrace constantly… The little kids cover me with snot and give me kisses.”

His administration, known for its fiscal austerity, handed over a country with a greatly reduced deficit but without the tax reforms Pacheco had named as his top priority four years before.

Nonetheless, he also expressed plenty of doubt about how Arias would handle a country fraught with political discord. February’s elections put the ex-President back in Casa Presidencial by less than one percentage point, and failed to give him a legislative majority.

Under those circumstances, Arias would have to deliver on ambitious campaign promises.

He’d thrown his support behind the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA), showing none of Pacheco’s uncertainty about the controversial pact; however, many Costa Ricans, especially the country’s most powerful unions, continued to protest (see separate story).

What’s more, his goals of slashing poverty, getting 20,000 families out of the nation’s slums, and increasing education spending by 2% of the gross domestic product (GDP) would require the support of a Legislative Assembly that, as an institution, had become infamously inefficient. In the weeks before his May 8 inauguration, analysts and Arias critics wondered publicly if the 1987 Nobel Peace Prize winner – who made his name internationally famous by leading the Central American peace process and, since his first presidency (1986-1990), has traveled widely to lobby for disarmament measures –would devote enough attention to the considerable domestic challenges he faced. In his inauguration speech, Arias made it clear that although his primary focus this time around would be on getting Costa Rica to stop “postponing the solutions to our most pressing problems,” he wouldn’t abandon his international efforts.

Sure enough, a few weeks after taking office, he headed to Europe for a two-week tour. He watched Costa Rica lose to Germany in the opening game of the World Cup, met with foreign dignitaries and potential investors, and asked members of the International Labour Organization (ILO) to support his Costa Rica Consensus. The consensus, through which developed countries would provide debt forgiveness for developing nations that reduce their military spending, was also a top agenda item during Arias’ later trips abroad this year, as was the Arms Trade Treaty he has advocated since 1997. (The treaty got a boost in October when the U.N. General Assembly began the process of legal analysis for the project.)

During the Europe trip, Arias also raised eyebrows during an audience with Pope Benedict XVI. After the meeting, the President announced he’d asked the Pope to reconsider the Catholic Church’s stance on birth control, and asked Vatican City Secretary of State Angelo Sodano to help communicate the benefits of free trade to bishops in Costa Rica, where the Church expressed doubts about CAFTA. This interaction drew criticism from CAFTA opponents back home, though Sodano’s eventual letter was neutral and called for dialogue.

When his administration reached its 100-day mark in August, Arias received lukewarm reviews. As they would throughout the rest of the year,members of the Citizen Action Party (PAC) accused him of spending too much time out of the country and focusing his domestic agenda too heavily on CAFTA. Legislators criticized his comments that India’s 5,000-member Congress is more efficient than Costa Rica’s – though that didn’t keep Arias from continuing to berate the 57-member Legislative Assembly’s slowness.

Polls showed public support for Arias dropping somewhat – 40% of Ticos said they thought Arias would improve the country, down from 55% when he took office – and an apparently defensive Arias asked one reporter who asked the President why the country wasn’t seeing more changes whether he was “living on Mars.” In an interview with The Tico Times the following month, however, Arias appeared unshaken and determined to stick to his campaign priorities of implementing CAFTA and increasing coverage of secondary education.

More criticism was ahead. PAC leaders alleged that Arias was setting the stage for weapons manufacture in Costa Rica (see separate story), and when his security detail increased to approximately 300 at several events where anti-CAFTA protestors were present, university students and other activists accused him of limiting their freedom of expression. These accusations faded after police responded to a late October protest with marked restraint.

At year’s end, as the assembly prepared to delve into the heart of the administration’s platform, Arias capped off his year’s travels –which, in addition to his European tour, included trips to Florida, Colorado, Chile, Uruguay and Colombia,where he spoke out in favor of that country’s peace process – with visits to Mexico and Washington, D.C., here he met with U.S. President George W. Bush for the first time. He asked Bush to forgive Costa Rica’s debt so the funds can be spent on education and the environment, a request Bush said he would consider.


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