From email@example.com Fri Feb 25 07:51:56 2000
Oscar Arias: Harsh words for the U.S. from a voice for peace and prosperity
By Kitty Felde, The Los Angeles Times, Sunday, February 20, 2000
SAN JOSE, COSTA RICA - As President Bill Clinton ponders his post-presidential career options, he might consider the example of a former president of Costa Rica, Oscar Arias Sanchez. It was Arias who brokered a Central American peace deal at a time when no one believed it was possible.
Arias served as Costa Rica's president from 1986 to 1990, a turbulent period in Central America. The Sandinistas were battling the Contras in Nicaragua, civil war raged in Guatemala and El Salvador was in turmoil. As tensions on Costa Rica's borders increased, so did pressure to remilitarize the country, which constitutionally abolished its army in 1949.
Arias had another approach. Even before his inauguration, he began lobbying the nine leaders of Latin American countries to sit down together and talk about regional issues. In 1987, Arias drafted the Esquipulas II accords, or the "procedure to establish a firm and lasting peace in Central America," and persuaded his fellow heads of state to sign it. It was a peace plan that, according to Arias, Washington insisted would never work. Time has proved Washington wrong.
Arias' efforts to carve out a peaceful solution in the region were recognized that same year when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. He used the proceeds to create the Arias Foundation for Peace and Human Progress. Today, the former president takes a hands-on approach to the foundation's work to demilitarize and democratize Central America and the Caribbean.
Arias, 59, is grayer than when he won the Nobel prize. He has a doctorate in political science and was trained as an economist as well as in law. His concerns today are as much grounded in economic development as in peacemaking. He is also the divorced father of two children. His daughter is a recent graduate of Boston College, while his son is in his first year at Harvard. He's still considered a national treasure. Every tour-bus driver in San Jose knows where to find "la casa de Oscar Arias." If you're fortunate enough to catch him on his front porch, Arias won't smile, but he will wave. In a recent conversation in the den of his house, Arias spoke softly and chose his words carefully. But he's as pointed in his criticism of U.S. foreign policy today as he was about U.S. intervention in Central American politics in the 1980s. * * *
Q: How were you able to persuade Latin American leaders to agree to a peaceful solution to the conflicts in the region?
A: I appealed to their sense of history, to their responsibility of transferring to our children a peaceful Central America, to their dignity - not accepting what Washington was recommending. And I believed I touched their hearts when I said, "We need to choose between life and death. The superpowers are providing the arms. We are providing the death.
"In the early - 80s," I used to tell the Central Americans, "in every other single part of the world, young people bury old people. Here, it's just the opposite: Old people bury the young people. So we need to stop this bloodshed. If we had in our hands the opportunity . . . to pacify the region, to silence the guns," I said to my colleagues, "we cannot miss this opportunity, this responsibility." So we agreed on cease-fires. We agreed on negotiated solutions to the conflicts. We committed ourselves to comply. And time proved that we were right, and that we had the will to silence the guns.
We took a calculated risk. As Francois Mitterrand once said of us Costa Ricans, "This is a country that dared to declare peace to the world." For us, the best defense was precisely to be defenseless. . . . This is why the Rio Treaty, a strong OAS [Organization of American States] and a powerful United Nations are important to us, because we believe in collective security and the strength of dialogue, of solving conflicts at the negotiating table instead of resorting to military force, as has been the case, unfortunately, in the last conflicts that we experienced at the end of the last century.
Q: In light of the recent political upheaval in Ecuador - indigenous activists and the military forcing that country's president to resign - are you concerned about a return of military rule in Latin America?
A: Recent events in Ecuador have demonstrated just how fragile democracy can be when the people of a country face extreme hardships in their daily lives. It was the hunger, the suffering and the anger of the Ecuadoran people that made it possible for the military to depose the constitutionally elected government. The depth of the economic crisis in Ecuador made that nation particularly susceptible to political instability, but widespread poverty and deprivation put democracy at risk throughout Latin America and around the world. Although Latin American armed forces have generally submitted themselves to civilian authority in recent years, the potential for a rise in militarism and despotism will remain if Latin American leaders fail to address the needs of their countries.
Q: What can the U.S. do to defuse economic tensions in Latin America?
A: Unfortunately, I don't see in the United States the will to expand NAFTA [the North American Free Trade Agreement] to the Central American and Caribbean countries, and that is certainly the best way to help our economies.
The United States has been telling us for decades: trade, not aid. Now we want trade, not aid, and Washington is not willing to expand NAFTA. . . .
John Foster Dulles once said that the U.S. has no friends in Latin America, only interests. I tell my friends in Washington that he was wrong, because the U.S. has many friends, and its most important interest is a more prosperous Latin America. It is in the U.S. interest to have a more prosperous neighbor to the south.
Because if we cannot export goods, we will keep exporting people.
And that's not what the U.S. wants.
We need to be able to attract more foreign, direct investment.
How are American companies going to come here to invest if whatever they produce here doesn't have any access to the U.S. market? Because there's no NAFTA. If NAFTA is for only three countries - Canada, the United States, and Mexico - the U.S. will be investing in Mexico because it's the obvious place to invest, not here.
Q: But some U.S. companies are choosing to invest here.
A: Intel recently invested in Costa Rica. When I left government, foreign direct investment was no more than $180 million a year. Now it's $500 million. Per-capita-wise, it's a lot. Per-capita-wise, it's more than what the world is investing in China. Why are they choosing Costa Rica? A state of law, an independent judiciary, a stable democracy, a stable economy, a skilled labor force. And if they, like Intel, invest close to the airport, there's no problem with transportation. I was trying to persuade [Costa Rican] congressmen yesterday that we should be spending much more on building our infrastructure instead of cellular phones. Why should we keep a state monopoly on communications if many private enterprises would be willing to invest in telecommunications, but not in running water for our rural communities?
Q: You have been a vocal proponent of creating a code of conduct on arms sales. Has the U.S. been a problem in this area?
A: Indeed, it is quite sad to see the United States becoming the main exporter of arms. It is quite sad to look at the U.S. government subsidizing arms exports. It is quite sad for the United States government to support the sale of weapons to nondemocratic countries, to countries that violate human rights, to countries that are engaged in armed aggression against other countries or their own people.
President [Jimmy] Carter introduced a ban [in 1977] so that the U.S. would not export high-tech weapons to Latin American countries. This ban was lifted by President Clinton because Lockheed Martin wanted to sell F-16s to Pinochet. So President Carter and I, before the  hemispheric summit that took place in Santiago, wrote a letter to each head of state in Latin America suggesting that they should commit themselves to a moratorium for two years, during which they would not buy any high-tech weapons. We wrote this letter because I've been trying to persuade Latin American countries . . . to cut military spending. And it has been cut quite drastically, more than in any other region of the world. Then, suddenly, we have this threat that if the Chileans buy the F-16s, I was told by the rest of the South American governments, . . . we need to buy. We won't be able to resist the pressure of the armed forces in our countries. This is quite sad, because this is putting profits before principles.
The children of the world, what they want and what they need are health clinics and schools, not tanks or armed helicopters or fighter jets.
I tell my friends in Washington that it is time for the United States not only to be the military superpower it is, or the economic superpower it is, but also the moral superpower that it should be. . . . And it is not [a moral superpower] because its value system is wrong. That is for the U.S. to deal with: . . . so much greed, so much cynicism, so much hypocrisy, so much individualistic values.
These values need to be replaced by more solidarity, by more compassion, by justice. . . . I don't think we can really enjoy a more peaceful 21st century with the value system of the 20th century.
Certainly, if you want to be that city up on the hill for the rest of the world to look at you with admiration, you need to change your value system.
Q: Is there a failure of leadership in the United States today?
A: Yes. . . . Its leaders are not leading. They are being led by public opinion. . . . To govern is to educate. [The U.S. government] is not educating the American public. If the people do not want taxes, it needs to please them. If they don't want foreign aid, it needs to please them, so foreign aid is cut. If they want arms exports, then it exports arms. If they want the U.S. government to be involved militarily in different conflicts, then that's what is done, simply to please. One is not elected to please. One is elected to lead, to guide, and to educate.
There is a difference between the typical politician and the statesman. A typical politician is that person who tells people what people want to hear, while the statesman tells people what people need to know. The U.S. has too many politicians and very few statesmen. . . . They read the polls and then they try to please the people - and President Clinton is one of them.
Q: Besides arms sales, what else threatens world peace?
A: Poverty, inequality, illiteracy, environmental degradation and drugs. Let me just remind you about the figures on inequality. The richest 20% of the world's population was 30 times richer in 1960 vis-a-vis the poorest 30%, 60 times richer in 1990 [and] last year, 74 times richer. You see, if the per-capita income in sub-Saharan Africa increases by 2%, and its per-capita income is $400 a year, that is $8 more. If the per-capita income in the United States increases by 2%, and its per-capita income is $30,000, that is $600 more. So that gap tends to increase.
It is in the U.S. interest to have a more prosperous Latin America. For the Europeans, it is in their own interest to have a more prosperous sub-Saharan Africa. Population quadrupled in the 20th century, and it will triple in the 21st century. And poverty needs no passport to travel. That is something some industrialized nations have not realized.
Q: How important are international institutions to ensuring a more peaceful 21st century?
A: The U.S. has become too arrogant. It wants to lead the world alone. . . . As I tell some friends in Washington, it is the Roman [empire] of the end of the second millennium. . . . It doesn't want to share power with other countries through an international organization like the U.N. And it's not just [Sen.] Jesse Helms. It's Clinton and [Secretary of State] Madeleine Albright and everybody. It's not one person or the Republican Party. On most of the international issues - the international criminal court, the environment, the Rio conference, the rights of the child, land mines - it is dragging its feet. It's not interested.
In the United States, [leaders] are not leading the American people toward a 21st century with a different ethics, which is what the world needs.
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