Arias Sánchez, Oscar: 1941—

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Oscar Arias Sánchez: 1941: Former Costa Rican president, writer, activist

At a time of great regional discord, Dr. Oscar Arias Sánchez, former president of Costa Rica, envisioned a Central America that would be free from war, strife, and repression. His legacy has been the Arias Peace Plan, the basis for negotiations to end the Central American conflict. For his efforts, Arias was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987. In 1988 he founded the Arias Foundation for Peace and Human Progress, furthering his vision of democracy and nonviolence.

Chose a Political Path

Oscar Arias Sánchez was born in the rural town of Heredia, Costa Rica, on September 13, 1941. His family was one of Costa Rica's richest coffee-growing clans, with heavy political ties. Both of his grandfathers were prominent legislators and his father, Juan Rafael Arias Trejos, was an unsuccessful candidate for vice president of Costa Rica in the 1970s. The oldest of three children, Arias suffered from asthma as a boy. His condition limited his participation in physical pursuits, so he spent much of his time reading, an interest that laid the groundwork for his future educational and political aspirations.

After attending the Escuela República Argentina in Heredia and Colegio Saint Francisa in Moravia, Arias went to the United States to study medicine at Boston University. Exposure to American politics, notably the charismatic performance of John F. Kennedy during his campaign against Richard Nixon, inspired Arias to leave his medical studies and return to Costa Rica to study law and economics. Arias attended the University of Costa Rica, where he became dedicated to national politics and engaged actively in the work of the moderate Partido de Liberación Nacional (PLN), one of Costa Rica's two major parties. José Figueres Ferrer, a former president who abolished the Costa Rican Army in 1948, became his political mentor and influenced his devotion to social equality and anti-militarism.

Arias gained enormous insight into the realities of politics while working for the ultimately unsuccessful presidential campaign of the PLN's Daniel Oduber, and he became determined to go abroad for a more international political perspective. After graduating from the University of Costa Rica in 1966, Arias won a British government grant to study in England, where he spent three years at the University of Essex and the London School of Economics. He would go on to earn a doctorate in political science from the University of Essex for his study of the socioeconomic origins of Costa Rican political leadership.

At a Glance . . .

Born on September 13, 1941, in Heredia, Costa Rica; son of Juan Rafael and Lilian (maiden name, Sánchez) Arias Trejos; married Margarita Peñón Góngora (a biochemist); children: Sylvia Eugenia, Oscar Felipe. Education: University of Costa Rica, Licenciatura en Ambas, 1967; University of Essex (England), PhD, political science, 1974; also attended Harvard University and Boston University, 1959-60, and the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Career: University of Costa Rica, professor of political science, 1969-72; Republic of Costa Rica, member of economic council, 1970-72, minister of national planning and political economy, 1972-77, member of legislative assembly, 1978-81; campaigned for Costa Rican presidential candidate Luis Alberto Monge, 1981-82; presidential candidate, 1984-86; president of Costa Rica, 1986-90. Member of economic council of the president of Costa Rica, 1972-77; National Liberation Party, international secretary, 1975-79, general secretary, 1979-84.

Selected memberships: Officer or member of numerous professional, political and humanitarian organizations, including: Central Bank of Costa Rica, vice pres, bd of directors, 1970-72, dir, 1972-77; Technical Institute of Costa Rica, bd of dirs, 1974-77; North-South Roundtable, Rome, Italy, 1977; bd mem, International Center for Human Rights and Democratic Development (ICHRDD). Participated in the Commission on Global Governance and the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).

Selected awards: Premio Nacional de Ensayo, for Grupos de Presion en Costa Rica, 1970; Nobel Peace Prize, 1987; Martin Luther King Peace Award, 1987; Albert Schweitzer Humanitarian Award, 1988; Americas Award, 1990; Co-recipient, Liberty Medal of Philadelphia, 1991. Has received approximately 50 honorary doctorates from colleges and universities.

Address: Office Arias Foundation for Peace and Human Progress, Apdo 8-6410-1000, San José, Costa Rica.

Arias returned to Costa Rica in 1969 and joined the University of Costa Rica's faculty as a professor of political science, while continuing his work with the PLN. He embarked on a political career in 1970 as an assistant to Figueres. Shortly after Figueres was reelected in 1972, Arias was appointed Minister of National Planning and Political Economy. He distinguished himself in his new position and became known for legislation making the government more accessible and responsive to the common people. He held this post until 1977time enough to implement successful economic and technological development programs, which earned him enough recognition to be elected to the national assembly the following year, and then general secretary of the PLN in 1981. Arias resigned from his national assembly position that same year to campaign for PLN presidential candidate Luis Alberto Monge, who was elected in 1982.

Led the PLN to Victory

Arias finally made the decision to make his own run for the presidency of Costa Rica, and he relinquished his duties as PLN general secretary in 1984 in order to devote his attention to his own campaign. Characterizing himself as the "Peace" candidate, Arias's platform was "roofs, jobs, and peace." At the time Costa Rica was plagued with severe economic problems, and Central America was embroiled in violence and discord. Discord had fallen upon the region with the introduction of the pro-Marxist Sandinista regime in Nicaragua, leading to civil war in Guatemala, internal unrest in El Salvador and Nicaragua, and increasing border tensions between Nicaragua and its neighboring states, Honduras and Costa Rica. The conflict was exacerbated by the ideological and military interference of Russia, which supported the Sandinista government, and the United States, which backed the Contra rebel movement that sought to overthrow it. These were difficult conditions in which to accomplish his third electoral promise, that of peace.

Arias campaigned against Rafael Angel Calderon Fournier, who represented the right-leaning Partido Unidad Social Cristiana (PUSC). Their platforms were similar, focusing on perpetuating the current foreign policy, which extolled official neutrality, friendship with the United States, and hostility toward Costa Rica's northern neighbor, Nicaragua. On the domestic front, both candidates focused on the economic crisis facing the country. Arias called for increasing wages by raising taxes on the middle and upper classes and by enhancing education, health, and housing services. He also promised to tackle Costa Rica's huge foreign debt without leaving its citizenry impoverished. The campaign came to a head when Calderon suggested that Costa Ricans should be sent to fight if Nicaragua invaded Honduras. Arias upheld his position as the "peace candidate," and denounced Calderon as a threat to the country's neutrality and stability, maintaining that Costa Rica should stay neutral in the Central American conflict.

Though Arias lacked the charisma of most successful politicians, his positions were convincing enough to lead the PLN to election victory, winning 52.3 percent of the votes. He took the office of president on May 8, 1986, remarking that the people had "chosen bread" over guns. Despite the mounting pressures for Costa Rica to become involved in the conflict, Arias set out to maintain neutrality and act as a broker of peace. In his inaugural addressquoted in Contemporary Heroes and Heroines he said: "We will keep Costa Rica out of the armed conflicts of Central America and we will endeavor through diplomatic and political means to prevent Central American brothers from killing each other."

Arias's administration was grounded in the belief that minimal government intervention and bureaucracy leads to a prosperous economy. Under his leadership Costa Rica became the wealthiest country with the highest standard of living in the region. The gross national product increased by an average of five percent during his tenure as president and the unemployment rate of 3.4 percent was the lowest in the hemisphere. His accomplishments and accessibilityhe was known to mingle in the streets without bodyguards, dine in public restaurants, and drive his own carelevated him to the status of national hero. However, he was later criticized for leaving his country in a disastrous fiscal situation after his term of office was over. Incumbent president Rafael Angel Calderon claimed that Arias embarked on a spending spree during his last year in order to enhance the PLN's chances to win the coming election. With that purpose, he was accused of keeping inflation artificially low by avoiding necessary hikes in the rates of state-owned utilities, such as water, telephone and electricity. This resulted in a fiscal deficit that threatened to climb to seven percent of the gross national product.

Sought Peace for Central America

Though Arias's domestic economic initiatives brought him both praise and criticism, it was his leadership in foreign affairs that made the greatest impact on both Costa Rica and the world. Soon after he was elected, Arias called for the defense of democracy and liberty in the region and spoke out against American and Soviet involvement in Central America, particularly the Reagan Administration's policy of supporting the Contras. Though the United States provided Costa Rica with a large amount of aid and continued to pressure him to support U.S. policy, Arias defiantly maintained his position of neutrality.

In May of 1986 Arias met with the presidents of Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua to discuss the then existing Peace Plan for Central America, the Contadora plan. After failing to reach a full agreement, Arias began working on his own peace plan. In February of 1987 he drafted what became popularly known as the Arias Peace Plan, which called for cease-fires in all guerrilla wars in the region, a stop to outside military aid and media censorship, a general amnesty for political prisoners, eventual free elections, and reductions in civil- and human-rights abuses. This led to the signing of the Esquipulas II Accords or the Procedure to Establish a Firm and Lasting Peace in Central America by all five Central American presidents on August 7, 1987.

That same year Arias was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts. The Nobel Committee commended him for an "outstanding contribution to the possible return of stability and peace to a region long torn by strife and civil war." On a less official note, awarding the Prize to Arias was seen as an impetus to speed up the peace process in Central America. Seen as a blow to Reagan's Contra policy, the award was a catalyst for the Arias Peace Plan. In his acceptance speech, quoted on The Arias Foundation website, Arias spoke with great urgency to the superpowers: "Let Central Americans decide the future of Central America. Leave the interpretation of and the compliance with the Peace Plan to us. Support the efforts for peace in our region, not the forces of war; send us not swords but ploughshares, not spears but pruning hooks. If, for your own purposes, you cannot stop hoarding the weapons of war, then in the name of God, at least leave us in peace." Critics were quick to point out that Arias had won the award before peace had come to Central America. Implementing the Arias Peace Plan was fraught with complications, but in the end it helped resolve the internal conflicts in the region and created a favorable climate for strengthening economic development and democratic institutions.

Founded an Organization For Peace

Less than a year after accepting the Nobel Prize, Arias founded the Arias Foundation for Peace and Human Progress, an organization devoted to building just and peaceful societies in Central America. Funded with an endowment from the Nobel Prize's monetary award, as well as grants from public and private organizations, the foundation established three programs: The Center for Human Progress, to promote equal opportunities for women; 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.

Because his country's Constitution did not allow him a second term as president, Arias stepped down in April of 1990. He accepted a visiting professorship at Harvard University and set out to delve into international affairs and crisis resolution. Since that time he has been active in the work of his foundation, as well as a member or officer of multiple organizations, including Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, International Press Service, the Inter-American Dialogue, and the Gorbachev Foundation. He has also been active with the Carter Center in Atlanta, Georgia, working with fellow Nobel laureate and former U.S. President Jimmy Carter. The Carter Center is involved in such programs as the International Negotiation Network (INN), which includes former heads of state and other prominent individuals who serve as mediators in peace negotiations, monitor elections, and conduct behind-the-scenes diplomacy. He has also joined other Nobel Peace laureates on such issues as promoting arms trade restrictions and bringing attention to Burma's deplorable human-rights record.

In 1973 Arias married Margarita Peñón Góngora, a biochemist who was educated at Vassar College in the United States. The couple have two children, Silvia Eugenia and Oscar Felipe. Arias has published a number of books and articles and remains a committed champion of world peace.

Selected writings

Significado del movimiento estudiantil en Costa Rica, 1970.

Grupos de presion en Costa Rica, 1971.

Quien gobierna en Costa Rica? Un estudio del liderazgo formal en Costa Rica, 1974.

Planificacion y desarrollo regional y local latinamericano, contributor, 1975.

Democracia, independencia y sociedad latinoamericana, 1977.

Los caminos para el desarrollo de Costa Rica, 1977. Costa Rica in the Year 2000, 1977.

Nuevos rumbos para el desarrollo costarricense, 1979.



Globe & Mail (Toronto), August 21, 2002.

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, October 4, 2002.

San Francisco Chronicle, March 29, 2002.

Time Magazine, February 17, 1986; March 1, 1993.

Wall Street Journal, May 23, 1986; October 14, 1987; January 14, 1988; March 23, 1988; March 31, 1989; October 5, 1990; December 6, 1991; February 28, 1992.


"Dr. Oscar Arias Sánchez Biography," The Arias Foundation, (March 31, 2003).

Kelly M. Martinez