Nobel Winner Oscar Arias Makes Costa Rica the Mouse That Roars for Peace in Central America

updated 11/09/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/09/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

When Costa Rican President Oscar Arias Sánchez announced he had a peace plan fore Central America, the Regan Administration decided to take him to the woodshed. Having had the temerity to dictate terms to Uncle Sam, Arias was summouned to the White House last June to be taught a lesson: The U.S. was not about to be tweaked by an obscure little nation a quarter the size of Kansas. "It was very scary stuff," says one of Arias' closest advisers, Chilean-born John Biehl. "The Oval Office was filled with all the big boys, and Oscar appeared like Spartacus going before the Roman generals." President Reagan asked why Arias' plan had left out the U.S.-backed contra insurgents, who are fighting a civil war against Nicaragua's Sandinista rulers. Though his country gets millions of dollars in aid from the U.S., Arias stood his ground. "You think the contras are part of the solution," he told the President firmly. "I think they are part of the problem."

Having confronted his opposition in the White House, Arias was soon traveling to an unprecedented meeting in Managua, where he made it clear to Sandinista chief Daniel Ortega Saavedra that he holds no brief for left-wing dictatorships either. "What you call democracy isn't democracy here or in any other part of the world," Arias told him.

It remains to be seen whether such diplomatic chutzpah and principled evenhandedness can end the bloodshed in Central America, but Arias recently won a ringing endorsement for his efforts—the Nobel Peace Prize. Signed by the presidents of Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Costa Rica, the Arias plan calls for a regional cease-fire and peaceful political dialogue, paving the way in phases for free elections throughout Central America. Convinced that the scheme favors the Marxist Sandinista regime, the Reagan Administration has been pressing its regional allies, such as El Salvador and Honduras, to stall implementation of the plan.

Whatever the Yanquis may think, Arias' peacemaking is clearly a hit in his own country. On the night of his first public appearance after winning the Nobel, Arias and his wife, Margarita, were rushing to make the 8:15 p.m. opening of a new play in San José, the nation's capital. When they arrived at the theater, the audience began clapping and calling, "Oscar, Oscar!" As Arias mounted the stairs, shaking out-reached hands and submitting to embraces, an old record player began to play the national anthem. Caught in the aisle, Arias stood to attention while the audience sang out their pride in him and their country.

Arias' neighbors in Central America are also sticking with the Costa Rican president, hoping he can guide them to a peace of their own making. Says Biehl: "I still don't think people understand that something new is going on in Central America."

The 47-year-old Arias, who says he represents a "new generation" of Latin leader, personifies that self-assertive spirit. The youngest Costa Rican president ever, Arias has challenged the status quo on every front, besting an entrenched political Old Guard and insisting on his country's right to neutrality. Heir to a coffee fortune held by one of Costa Rica's richest families, Arias has held liberal views that have made him a political maverick. His education at the London School of Economics put a British accent on both his English and on his freethinking political ideas, and Arias says he is also an admirer of the U.S. He studied at Harvard and Boston University (in 1959-60), adopted John F. Kennedy, with whom he corresponded, as a role model and visited him in Hyannisport.

Arias has presented an image of accessibility and personal integrity that has both startled and delighted his countrymen. The president can often be seen threading through downtown San José behind the wheel of his Jeep, and in a part of the world where petty corruption is often taken for granted, he even pays his own restaurant bills. Though Costa Rican society is still given to Latin machismo, Arias has brought six women into the top ranks of his government. And though he is serious and intellectual, the author of five books on his nation's economic and social outlook, he is also "the best tango dancer in Central America," says Costa Rican actress Mimi Prado.

Above all, Arias is known for his persistence, a quality that in the 1986 elections brought him the presidency he had longed for since childhood. He had previously held cabinet posts and was a well-regarded politician. However, he was lagging in the polls and searching for an issue to turn his campaign around when he took up the cause of regional peace.

"The press in this country, pushed by the American Embassy, was making the election a competition to see who would be harder on Nicaragua—and they were driving us to war," says Arias. "I saw no reason why other nations should tell Central Americans how to solve their problems." In a determinedly neutral country that voted to abolish its army in 1948, Arias' warning struck a deep chord. Coming from behind, he was elected by a 7 percent margin, and last February he persuaded the presidents of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador to hold a peace summit with Nicaragua's Ortega.

Arias' initiative disturbed the Reagan Administration, which was already angry with him for refusing to let the contras operate from Costa Rican territory. Despite White House attempts to put up stumbling blocks, the five presidents met last August in a hotel room in Guatemala City, where Arias pressed them to reach an accord. "I told them 24 million people in Central America want and deserve peace," says Arias. "I recalled reading in a biography of Franklin Roosevelt that the President would lock his advisers in a room until they reached agreement. So when my colleagues wanted to break for dinner, I suggested room service." At 4 a.m. the following day, an elated Arias walked out with the accord he had come for.

Arias' taste for bold personal diplomacy has led some critics to call him vain. He does relish his successes, keeping a scrapbook of newspaper stories charting his political career and treating visitors to video re-runs of his televised campaign spots. "Vain? Of course he is—but it is not a sin," says Guido Fernández, his ambassador to the U.S. "He is self-confident, always believing that things will go right for him, but when he has a setback, he tries again." Arias' determination may have been whetted by his childhood struggles with asthma. He often lay awake nights, unable to sleep, and became a voracious reader. He and the Vassar-educated Margarita, 39, live with their children, Sylvia, 11, and Oscar Felipe, 7, in the Arias family mansion, which temporarily doubles as the presidential palace. The house is protected by only two members of the Civil Guard, and constituents frequently stop by to drop off petitions and, lately, congratulatory letters.

Arias remains cautious about his peace plan, realizing that its prospects are tenuous without U.S. approval. Still, the Nobel represents hope for Arias, Costa Rica and all Central America. When he goes to Oslo in December to receive his award, Arias wants the presidents of Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala standing beside him because, he says, "it belongs to all of us" and because—though he does not say so—it bestows a burden of responsibility they must carry together.

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