The Difficult Battle of Wills with Ronald Reagan

This article was originally published in Spanish in La Nación December 4, 2011.

By David Díaz Arias

On March 22, 1987, The New York Times published an article titled “Costa Rica’s Return to Neutrality Strains Relations with Washington,” in which it informed that: “The Arias administration has detained Contra commanders, closed their bases and an air strip built under the supervision of associates of Colonel Oliver L. North, the White House advisor fired owing to the Iran-Contra scandal.”

Further along, the article referred to the displeasure of the Reagan administration with Óscar Arias’ stance toward the Contras. The journalist pointed out: “When he took office ten months ago, President Arias said that Costa Rica, a country that had abolished the army in 1948 and since then had enjoyed a stable democracy, was a ‘nation of wellbeing, not a garrison state’.”

How was that point reached? Why did Arias win the Nobel Peace Prize? Nearly twenty-five years after that recognition, these are questions well worth answering.

Change. In May 1986, Óscar Arias Sánchez took office. Peace played an important role in his election campaign, as documented in the book by (his campaign manager) Guido Fernández, El primer domingo de febrero. The appeal for peace, repeatedly defended with the watchword of neutrality (of his predecessor Luis Alberto Monge), became very important in Arias’ campaign after August 1985. However, some authors, such as Stephen Kinzer (Blood of Brothers: Life and War in Nicaragua), locate it only a few weeks prior to the elections of February 1986.

In effect, peace had become an indispensable label in the discourse of Costa Rican national identity since the nineteenth century. By the middle of the decade of the 1980s, peace was an element of cohesion and one of the major concerns of Costa Ricans, as shown by popular support for the discourse of neutrality. From 1983 on the so-called Contadora Group (Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia and Panama) had attempted to bring peace to Central America, although without success. Thus, early in 1986, wars continued to dominate in the region.
Upon taking office as President, Arias made it clear that the Contras would not have room to maneuver in Costa Rica. His goal was to move from a discourse of neutrality to implementation, at the same time that he proposed a regional dialogue leading to peace.

In A Twilight Struggle: American Power and Nicaragua, 1977-1990, Robert Kagan noted the change that he represented in an interview Arias gave to an American reporter on February 21, 1986. In the interview, as President elect, he indicated his opposition to the funds Reagan wanted to give to the Contras. Those statements caused an impact in Washington and Arias’ opposition in Costa Rica noted that criticizing Reagan could weaken the country’s ties with the United States.

Over the coming months Arias criticized the Sandinistas several times, at one point leading the Reagan administration to think there would be no change. However, in September 1986, as Marc Edelman and Joanne Kenen document in The Costa Rica Reader, Arias sent the Civil Guard to close the Contra airstrip in the north of the country.

Confrontation. In The Struggle for Peace in Central America, Darío Moreno argues that Arias’ confrontation with the Reagan administration grew out of the Costa Rican’s opposition to Contra activities in our country. Certain representatives of the U.S. government demanded Arias stop his political campaign against the so-called Nicaraguan Resistance (the “Contras”), threatening to suspend U.S. economic aid to Costa Rica.

Thus, the CIA chief, William Casey, traveled to San José and demanded a meeting with Arias, which he refused to grant. Moreover, Oliver North contacted Arias and let him know that U.S. economic aid would be reduced. Nevertheless, in November 1986, it was revealed that agents of the Reagan administration had illegally sold arms to Iran, intending to use the funds from those sales to finance the Contras. That secret deal became known as the “Iran-Contra scandal.”

In early December, Reagan received Arias at the White House. Edelman and Kenen note that the problem for Reagan was that “Arias had his own agenda and used the opportunity to argue strongly for peaceful solutions to the region’s conflicts, particularly in Nicaragua.” Shortly before this visit, the Contadora initiative had been taken up once again by the Guatemalan President Vinicio Cerezo with the Esquipulas project, which brought together the Central American presidents in May of 1986.

In February 1987, Arias brought together the presidents, all except Daniel Ortega (of Nicaragua), to discuss his peace plan. They all agreed to talks but it was still necessary to involve Nicaragua. The Iran-Contra scandal gave Arias the room to maneuver to move forward with his plan. Moreno points out: “The scandal weakened the Reagan administration and allowed the Costa Rican President and his ambassador in Washington, Guido Fernández, to forge an alliance with moderate Democrats to pressure the Reagan government to accept a negotiated solution to the Central American conflict.”

Nobel. In March 1987 the U.S. Senate voted 97 to 1 in favor of the Arias Peace Plan. Several months later Arias was attending a conference in Indianapolis when he received an invitation to visit the White House to speak with Reagan. The details of that second interview are revealed in testimonial form in the book by Guido Fernández, El desafío de la paz en Centroamérica. There he describes the tense meeting in which Arias told Reagan that the U.S. was virtually alone in its attempt to resolve the Nicaraguan situation by military means. Certain moderates in the Reagan administration suggested the Peace Plan should be accepted, lest U.S. policy in Central America collapse entirely. Thus was formed the initiative known as the “Wright-Reagan Plan,” in which the U.S. offered to host peace negotiations. However, Ortega rejected that plan and Arias ruled it out and asked that the presidents focus on the plan he had formulated.

In August 1987, the five Central American presidents signed the Arias Peace Plan. Edelman and Kenan point out: “It was a victory for Costa Rican diplomacy and a defeat for the Reagan administration’s policies of ‘military solutions’.” In October 1987 the announcement was made that Oscar Arias had won the Nobel Peace Prize.

The author is professor of history at the Universidad de Costa Rica.