President Oscar Arias is no novice to playing mediator in a peace process. Nor is he new to the role of representative of the region on the world’s stage.
The Costa Rican chief executive played both parts effectively during his first term as president (1986-1990), when there was far more conflict on the isthmus – aggravated by meddling of the Cold War superpowers – with the result being Arias’ center-stage acceptance of the 1987 Nobel Peace Prize.
Now, as mediator in the Honduran presidential identity crisis, he resumes those roles, and the spotlight falls once again on his now heavily lined face. But the situation currently facing Arias is an age apart from that he faced in the 1980s.
“These are two very different moments,” said Eusebio Mujal-León, a professor of government at GeorgetownUniversity, in the United States. “In the 1980s, it was the height of the Cold War and Central America was close to the center of U.S. – Soviet policies.”
Then, the U.S. and the Soviet Union were vying to define the ideological destiny of the region. The U.S. is taking a much more handsoff approach this time around, and no other world power has made any strong moves.
Arias also is dealing with two stubborn politicians, both claiming to be president of one country, as opposed to four legitimate presidents of four separate countries – three of which were in the middle of civil wars.
Now, instead of trying to end violence, Arias is trying to maintain peace in a very divided and volatile Honduras.
Arias Back in Picture
Since June 28, the day of the congressionally approved military coup that ousted Manuel Zelaya from the Honduran presidency, Arias has been in the picture. Zelaya was flown to Costa Rica the morning of the coup, and a press conference was held, with Arias seated complacently next to the pajama-clad Zelaya; pictures of the two were later splashed across media channels.
Arias made a “master move” when Zelaya arrived, said Constantino Urcuyo, a professor of political science at the University of Costa Rica. Arias condemned the coup, welcomed Zelaya and offered to accompany the exiled president to Nicaragua for the Central American Integration System meeting, where Arias was to take the reins as the rotating president.
“In that moment, he was so clever that he became a protagonist (in resolving the conflict),” Urcuyo said. “Who was thinking about Arias? He was just a souvenir from the past. But at that moment, he was against the military and the oligarchy in Honduras, and he was for democracy on the front lines.”
Just over a week later, Arias held, highly anticipated talks with Zelaya and the de facto Honduran President Roberto Micheletti. But while Arias has played the cool veteran this time, he was a much more aggressive, if soft-spoken, politician during the 1980s peace process after being elected the youngest Costa Rican president at 44 years of age.
Central America was a microcosm of the Cold War conflict in the 1980s, with both the U.S. and the Soviet Union providing military and financial aid to back their separate causes – though, it was mostly military.
Arias surprised many when, within his first few months in office, he used his quiet voice to loudly lambaste the (U.S. President Ronald) Reagan administration’s policy of arming the Nicaraguan Contras, who were fighting a war against Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega’s Sandinistas.
“If I were Mr. Reagan, I would give money to Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Costa Rica for economic aid and not military aid to the Contras,” Arias said at the time (TT, 1986 Review).
His words were later used in the U.S. House of Representatives to block a Reagan administration aid package of $100 million to the Contras – although it later passed.
Leave Us Central Americans…
Within the context of the current Honduran debacle, Arias echoed one of his more famous phrases from the 1980s: “Leave us Central Americans to solve the problems of Central America.”
But this time, it wasn’t directed at the United States and the Soviet Union, it was directed at Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.
Zelaya is a follower and ally of Chávez.
The U.S., on the other hand, has been very careful to appear nonintrusive under the new administration of President Barach Obama. As opposed to the Reagan era’s ramped-up foreign policy, Obama represents the first U.S. president whose “political views and foreign policy are not fixed by the Cold War mentality,” Mujal-León said.
“The whole strategy of the Reagan administration in the Third World, was to go tit for tat with the Soviet Union,” he said.
Now, Central Americans are dealing with the reality of defining their own future without U.S. intervention. The Obama administration has come out forcefully against the coup, but it is staying out of the conflict and supporting Arias’ role as mediator. As in 1987, Arias is a non-polarizing figure – at least as far as could be found in Central America – and “could be a lifesaver in that respect, because (Zelaya and Micheletti) don’t trust anyone,” Urcuyo said.
“In reality, everyone in Latin America is waiting for the U.S. to respond with more force,” said Antonio Barrios, an international relations professor at the National University of Costa Rica. “Without a doubt, the U.S. is not taking this approach.”
This has left a vacuum in the region, and the Organization of American States,which also condemned the coup, has been unwilling to fill that role, Barrios said.
This has led some to ask that Obama take a stronger stand. Even the violently anti-U.S. Chávez and Zelaya are asking for more intervention. However, Urcuyo said he believes this to be a ploy to “bring Obama into a storm and make him commit mistakes and errors” that could later be exploited.
There is also the personal animosity between Zelaya and Micheletti that Arias has to suffer: neither man met with the other when they came to San José, and Micheletti wouldn’t leave the airport until he knew Zelaya had left Arias’ living room.
But in 1987, there were strong personalities as well, one of whom is still present in Nicaragua’s Ortega. The original conference of presidents to discuss what would become the Esquipulas II Accord was held without Ortega, who denounced the plan as “U.S. interventionist policy” (TT, 1987 Review).
Ortega also had filed suits in the International Court of Justice against Costa Rica and Honduras, claiming both countries provided sanctuary to Contra rebels, and the relationship has always been tense between Arias and Ortega, Urcuyo said.
But the wrinkles were ironed out and the accord was signed on Aug. 7, 1987, eventually bringing about talks with rebel groups and reconciliation committees and peace to a region engulfed in violence for a decade.
Whether or not Arias can do the same this time around is another question, although Urcuyo said the process looks simpler than in the 1980s and Arias has played his part well… “Until now. Let’s wait and see what happens this weekend.”