Project Costa Rica: Costa Rica's Journey to a Peaceful Society

Latin leader starts peace process, recieves Nobel Prize

by April Stanley

A Costa Rican newspaper vendor is overjoyed that  Dr. Oscar Arias, a Latin American leader, received  the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987.
(Photo courtesy of the Arias Foundation)
A Costa Rican newspaper vendor is overjoyed that
Dr. Oscar Arias, a Latin American leader, received
the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987.

Costa Ricans, who call themselves Ticos, boast of having the oldest and most stable democracy in Central America.

Costa Rica's political stability is largely due to the absence of a standing army. Whereas in other Latin American countries, military coups have often disrupted the political system; in Costa Rica this is not a possibility. The army was constitutionally banned in Costa Rica in 1948.

Costa Rican politics since then have focused on consensus, neutrality and isolation from international conflict. However, in the 1980s the political stability that Ticos boast about was tested when Costa Rica became dangerously close to the Nicaraguan Revolution.

The fighting in Nicaragua was between the Sandinista regime, backed by the Soviet Union, and the guerrilla rebel forces known as the Contras and supported by the United States.

The Sandinistas led a communist guerrilla movement and overthrew the government in 1979. Once in power, the Sandinistas were considered a political party.

The United States had never been interested in Nicaragua but became quite intimately involved because the Sandinistas were communists. The U.S. Central American policy focused on ousting the communist Sandinista regime by militarily and financially aiding the Contras's guerrilla attacks.

Nicaragua became yet another bloody stage for the battle between capitalist and communist ideologies. By providing millions of dollars and generous military aid, the United States maneuvered the Contras like a puppet against the Sandinista government, with little consideration of the damage being done.

By the early 1980s, the Contras needed foreign bases to attack the Sandinista government.

Neighboring Costa Rica was experiencing severe economic crisis and was in need of assistance, so the country went against its tradition of isolation and allowed Contra bases in exchange for U.S. economic aid.

"We desperately needed United States aid to deal with the economic crisis," said Fernando Volio Costa Rican foreign minister. "In order to get that aid we decided to play ball with the United States on the issue of the Contras."

Things quickly changed in Costa Rica after it became part of the war equation. In 1982, San José, the capital city, became a stage for terrorist activities against other states in the region, mainly Nicaragua and El Salvador. Costa Rican President Luis Alberto Monge Alvarez called on U.S. security assistance. He had elite anti-terrorism forces trained and called for a voluntary group of citizens to join the battle.

Once Costa Rica had ventured away from neutrality, there was no possibility of return. After a 1985 border clash killed two Tico guards and wounded others, Monge decided to train the civil guards with the help of U.S. green berets.

After the training, the civil guards were equipped with the same infantry weapons as a modern army.

U.S. involvement prevented economic collapse, but the political situation was spiraling out of control. By 1985 there were dozens of formal protests by Nicaraguans and Costa Ricans alike against border incidents. The likelihood of an overt international conflict was increasing.

Amidst this turmoil, Dr. Oscar Arias Sánchez was elected president in 1986.

He spoke sharply of abandoning former Monge's belligerent policy of providing military assistance for guerrilla attacks and returning to a peaceful and neutral society. Arias knew that to achieve his goal, Costa Rica had to end Contra operations and move away from the U.S. Central American policy.

It was expensive and dangerous to share a border with communist Nicaragua, and in order to preserve the political structure of Costa Rica, Arias knew his neighbors had to be democratized. With that in mind, he suspended Contra activities in Costa Rica.

The once helpful United States reacted by freezing some funds and drastically reducing economic aid. Arias pushed for negotiations with the Reagan administration, explaining that aiding the Contras was prolonging the bloodshed and was not successful in finding peace. Arias was convinced that the only lasting solution would be to democratize Nicaragua, and he was determined to do so.

Other Central American states had experienced many revolutions, guerrilla attacks, civil wars and authoritarian regimes. The region was in need of a solution to the decades-old problem. So in February 1986, Arias took the region's problems into his own hands and formed a 10-point peace proposal called the Arias Peace Plan.

If the leaders of El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Costa Rica and Nicaragua signed the plan, they were required to call a cease-fire, begin talks with opposition groups, reduce arms, declare amnesty for political prisoners, end outside support for insurgent forces, conduct free elections and set a calendar for democratization.

On Aug. 17, 1987, the leaders of the five countries came together to discuss the Arias Peace Plan. It was signed by each leader and became known as the Central American Peace Accord, or Esquipulas II.

Previous attempts toward a solution, initiated by the United States, focused on security forces and emphasized using forceful means.

In contrast, the Central American Peace Accord addressed the root of the regional problems and put emphasis on negotiation and democratization. An important component of these negotiations was that leaders worked toward accepting each other despite personal differences. It also made clear that Central America was willing to work together and find a solution without outside influence and manipulation fueled by ideology.

The road toward peace was a long and difficult one. The influential U.S. president, Ronald Reagan rejected the plan. He deprived Costa Rica of economic aid and continually pushed Congress to allow more military aid to the Contras. When House Democrats proposed $30.8 million in humanitarian aid for the Contras, Reagan refused to negotiate and insisted that the focus should be on military assistance instead.

However, the Sandinistas embraced the Central American Peace Accord, realizing it reflected the need for Central America to be independent from U.S. policies if political and social changes were to be achieved.

Changes did not occur overnight, nor did each country immediately comply with every agreement of Esquipulas II. The negotiations had reached a grim stalemate. Meetings among the Central American leaders were canceled at least six times for fear of a diplomatic failure. Time passed and the dream of democracy and peace seemed unattainable.

Then three key events occurred that helped end the stalemate.

First, the new U.S. administration under President George Bush realized that aiding the Contras was a failing endeavor, not to mention that it was prolonging the violence and fear for the people of Nicaragua. In 1989, Bush gave up on the Contras as a means to political change, sent humanitarian aid to the Contras, and focused on negotiations with the Sandinistas. The peace process needed U.S. compliance in order to work.

Second, the Sandinista economy was collapsing. Inflation was at 35,000 percent in 1988 and unemployment at 20 percent. Washington imposed an economic embargo forcing Nicaragua to look for other markets, an effort that was unsuccessful. It was obvious that improving the economic situation would require improving relations with the United States.

Lastly, the Sandinistas lost the support of the Soviet Union; the Soviet Union withdrew much of its support for guerrilla movements abroad and became reclusive. The Cold War was coming to an end and funding for the Nicaraguan communists had run dry.

After more presidential summits, U.N. involvement in Nicaragua, and a bloody Contra attack launched from Honduras, the leaders again signed an agreement to get the three-year old peace process moving.

Confident of victory, Nicaraguan leader Daniel Ortega promised that the 1990 presidential election would be free and fair. But when the votes were counted, U.S.-supported Violeta Barrios de Chamorro became the new Nicaraguan leader. Power was peacefully transferred for the first time in decades. The conflict between the communist government of Nicaragua and the United States was finally over. The Bush Administration sent aid for the ailing economy, and the Contras, starved of U.S. military funds, were forced to sign a cease-fire agreement.

Arias's Peace Plan, which was based on diplomacy and democracy, opened the door to political changes in the region. The 1987 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Arias for his achievement in initiating the Central American peace process.