Two-time President of Costa Rica and 1987 Nobel Peace Laureate
Oscar Arias, two-time President of Costa Rica and 1987 Nobel Peace Laureate, holds international stature as a spokesperson for the developing world. Championing such issues as human development, democracy, and demilitarization, he has traveled the globe spreading a message of peace and applying the lessons garnered from the Central American Peace Process to topics of current global debate. The New York Times reported that Oscar Arias’ “...positions on Central American issues have become the standards by which many people in Congress and elsewhere have come to judge United States policy.” In a similar way, he has come to take a leading position in international fora and discourse.
Dr. Arias was born in Heredia, Costa Rica in 1940. He studied Law and Economics at the University of Costa Rica. His thesis, Grupos de Presión en Costa Rica (Pressure Groups in Costa Rica) earned him the 1971 National Essay Prize. In 1974, he received a doctoral degree in Political Science at the University of Essex, England. After serving as Professor of Political Science at the University of Costa Rica, Dr. Arias was appointed Costa Rican Minister of Planning and Economic Policy. He won a seat in Congress in 1978 and was elected secretary-general of the National Liberation Party in 1981. In 1986, Oscar Arias was elected president of Costa Rica.
Dr. Arias assumed office at a time of great regional discord. The fall of the Somoza dictatorship in 1979 and the introduction of the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua had already been a source of contention in Central America. The ideological and military interference of the superpowers, still entrenched in the Cold War, threatened to broaden this conflict in both scope and definition. Such intervention heightened the state of civil war that had by then claimed more than one hundred thousand lives in Guatemala. It aggravated internal unrest in El Salvador and Nicaragua, as well as border tensions between Nicaragua and its neighboring states: Honduras and Costa Rica. Despite the previous presidential administration’s decision not to become embroiled in the growing conflict, Costa Rica’s involvement seemed almost unavoidable. In the face of these threats, Dr. Arias intensified his efforts to promote peace.
Even before assuming the presidency, Dr. Arias traveled throughout Central and South America to personally invite the Latin American heads of state to visit Costa Rica for his presidential inauguration. On the day he took office, the presidents of nine Latin American countries met in San José. In this meeting Dr. Arias called for a continental alliance for the defense of democracy and liberty. He affirmed the principles that all Central Americans were entitled to the same liberties and social and economic guarantees of democracy, that each nation had the right to select, through free and fair elections, the type of government that could best meet the needs and interests of its people, and that neither armies nor totalitarian regimes were entitled to make this decision. At that moment Costa Rica, led by Oscar Arias, assumed an active role in the search for democracy and peace for the countries of the region.
In 1987, President Arias drafted a peace plan to end the regional crisis. Widely recognized as the Arias Peace Plan, his initiative culminated in the signing of the Esquipulas II Accords, or the Procedure to Establish a Firm and Lasting Peace in Central America, by five Central American presidents on August 7, 1987. In that same year he was awarded the Nobel Peace prize.
In 1988, Dr. Arias used the monetary award from the Nobel Peace prize to establish the Arias Foundation for Peace and Human Progress. Under the auspices of the Foundation, three programs were established: The Center for Human Progress to promote equal opportunities for women in all sectors of Central American society; the Center for Organized Participation to foster change-oriented philanthropy in Latin America; and the Center for Peace and Reconciliation to work for demilitarization and conflict resolution in the developing world. From these same headquarters, Dr. Arias has continued his pursuit of global peace and human security.
Dr. Arias has received approximately sixty honorary doctorates from colleges and universities such as Harvard, Princeton, Dartmouth, Oberlin, Marquette, Washington University in St. Louis, and Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada. He has also received numerous prizes, among them the Martin Luther King Jr. Peace Award, the Liberty Medal of Philadelphia, the Jackson Ralston Prize, the Prince of Asturias Award, the Albert Schweitzer Humanitarian Award, and the Americas Award.
Oscar Arias participates actively in several international organizations. He serves on the Board of Directors of the International Center for Human Rights and Democratic Development (ICHRDD) and Economists Allied for Arms Reduction (ECAAR). Dr. Arias also serves on the Board of the InterAction Council, the International Negotiation Network of the Carter Center, the Peres Center for Peace, International Crisis Group (ICG) and Transparency International. In addition, he has been part of the Commission on Global Governance and the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), and is currently a member of the Independent World Commission on the Oceans and of the International Olympic Committee 2000 (IOC 2000). He is also an active member of the Inter-American Dialogue, the Society for International Development, and the Create 21, Asahi Forum.
While Oscar Arias is best known for his international efforts, he is also lauded for his capable management of the Costa Rican economy. Dr. Arias believed in minimal government intervention and bureaucracy as a means to a prosperous economy. Under his leadership, Costa Rica’s economy thrived and served as a model for neighboring countries. During his term of office, Costa Rica maintained its stronghold as the richest country in the region, with the healthiest economy and highest standard of living. The gross national product increased by an average of 5% per year during his first term in office, and the unemployment rate was reduced to 3.4%, the lowest in the hemisphere. This superior economic growth was balanced by a strong social welfare program which included, among other projects, an initiative to provide housing to the poor.
Dr. Arias was a visible president, frequently venturing out in public on his own to listen to the concerns of the citizenry. Following the conclusion of his first term in office in 1990, he continued to be “a man of the people,” promoting such innovative ideas as human security, global governance, and human development. By bringing human concerns to the forefront of the international agenda, he provides a link between the impoverished South and the developed North, between the more politically stable West and the conflict-ridden East. To the people of the industrialized countries, he carries a sincere message of solidarity and partnership, to counter the growing threats faced by all nations today and to initiate an era of peace and prosperity for all humankind.
In 2006 he was elected to a second term as President, becoming the first Nobel Laureate in history to be elected to a nation’s top office after winning that prize. During his second administration, he ensured that Costa Rica made decisions aligned with the changes taking place in the world, abandoning prejudices and outdated models of the twentieth century; he restored the confidence of the Costa Rican people, discredited indecision as a strategy for confronting problems, and rejected the thesis that forward progress cannot be made without consensus. He was convinced that if, in his first administration in the 1980s, the eyes of the world turned to Costa Rica to resolve the armed conflicts in Central America, in the 21st century the eyes of the world should turn to Costa Rica as a center for trade and investment. For that reason, in his second Administration, he multiplied by six the country’s infrastructure spending. He created the “Avancemos” (Let’s Move Forward) program, which offers a monthly stipend to mothers who ensure their children do not drop out of high school, and assigned more than half of the national budget to social programs to improve the well-being of the country’s neediest citizens. He approved a free-trade agreement with the United States while negotiating additional treaties with the European Union, China, Singapore and Panama; lifted the state monopolies on insurance and telecommunications; and initiated diplomatic relations with China, Cuba, and many moderate Arab nations. Finally, he continued to work tirelessly on behalf of an International Treaty on Arms Transfers and the Costa Rica Consensus, a strategy to reward with international aid developing nations that reduce military spending and invest in social, educational and environmental programs.
After leaving office in 2010, Dr. Arias has dedicated his time to the Arias Foundation for Peace and Human Progress.