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COSTA RICA: CAFTA Not a Solution But an Opportunity, Says Oscar Arias

Daniel Zueras

SAN JOSÉ, Feb 7 2007 (IPS) - Monday marked the first anniversary of Óscar Arias’ second electoral victory in Costa Rica with the National Liberation Party. During his first term (1986-1990), Arias was known as the “peace president”. Today, the left are criticising him for promoting free trade with the United States.

Arias was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987 for his contribution to bringing about peace in Central America, enshrined in the Esquipulas Agreement which was signed in August 1987 by the presidents of Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua.

By then the Contadora Group, made up of the governments of Colombia, Mexico, Panama and Venezuela, had got bogged down in talks seeking a peaceful solution to the internal armed conflicts in Central America.

Arias discussed this and other issues in an exclusive interview with IPS.

IPS: You were a key participant in the negotiations that ended the wars in Central America. What is your view of what has happened in the region since then?

OSCAR ARIAS: The Contadora talks failed and I presented the peace plan, appealing to the responsibility and courage presidents ought to have, to obtain a ceasefire, which was achieved. We are not killing each other any more, but now we have different problems: consolidating democracy, getting our economies to grow more quickly to overcome poverty, educating our people and providing healthcare, and building infrastructure to make us more competitive.

IPS: If you were to go back in time, with the knowledge of the results it produced, what would you change about the peace process?

OA: Very little. The leitmotif of my peace plan was that democracy was a condition for peace, and I think we have made quite a lot of progress in democratising these countries. They are fragile, imperfect democracies, but I don’t think that the authoritarian and dictatorial political regimes of the past will return.

IPS: At the time it was said that the road to prosperity would open up and that the violence would end, yet today it is a serious problem in many of these countries.

OA: That is one of the consequences that Central America still endures today, a high degree of violence in countries that were at war, where weapons remained in the hands of many young people. The best antidote is more education for our young people, more job opportunities and better wages than we are offering today.

IPS: The peace agreements contained commitments to education and health, and also with regard to access to land and resources. There were clear development goals.

OA: It’s difficult to determine what the main priorities of Central American countries are, because we lack so many necessary things. We lack infrastructure, we are not competitive in today’s globalised world, we don’t spend enough on education, people don’t pay the taxes that they should.

And my dream of making Central America the first demilitarised zone on the continent was not possible. The United States cancelled its aid because the communist threat was a thing of the past. Twenty years ago, El Salvador came second only to Israel in the amount of U.S. aid per capita it received. All that has vanished over time.

IPS: The United States used to have a great deal of power and influence in Central America. How do you see its role today?

OA: The United States had a lot of influence because Cuba and Russia were also influential. It was a war between superpowers, in which they contributed the weapons and Central Americans contributed the dead bodies. Today, the United States is preoccupied with the Middle East. Its concerns are very far away from Central America.

IPS: What is your view on Latin America’s turn to the left?

OA: The basic difference between many leaders and regimes in Latin America is that there are many people, myself included, who think that we must adapt to the international economy, and that growth for small economies like ours will be driven by foreign trade.

The other vision, on the contrary, is that we can continue to be protectionist, and that the liberalisation of trade will only damage us, because we are negotiating treaties with very advanced economies. I disagree. We are forced to belong to the global economy, as long as the (World Trade Organisation’s) Doha Round of talks flounders, partly because of selfishness, lack of vision and hypocrisy among rich countries which maintain their protectionism and agricultural subsidies.

IPS: Do you believe that DR-CAFTA (the U.S. Free Trade Agreement with Central America and the Dominican Republic) is the solution to underdevelopment in the region?

OA: No, I don’t think it’s the solution, but I believe it’s an opportunity. It’s a step that has to be taken, but we won’t automatically become rich the day the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the United States enters into force. We have to take advantage of this opportunity of gaining access to a market of 300 million people with a high level of consumption. However, we must still do all the other things – educate our people, increase the competitiveness of our economies, increase real wages, pay the taxes that we ought to pay in order to increase benefits for the people who need them – because the social agenda is certainly distinct from CAFTA.

IPS: What’s your opinion on the climate of political and social tension in Costa Rica with regard to the possible approval of DR-CAFTA?

OA: There are political and labour leaders who are very much against it, and a fair proportion of civil society is opposed to it. Not only do I recognise this, I actually think it is their right to oppose it for different reasons. All I ask is that our Congress put it to the vote, whether it is approved or rejected. Now I have convinced a good proportion of the country that the benefits outweigh the disadvantages, and today more Costa Ricans are in favour of the FTA with the United States than a year ago.

IPS: Some social and political sectors are calling for a referendum. Have you considered this possibility?

OA: No one has seriously proposed a referendum. First of all, because they already know that if a referendum were held, those who are against the FTA would lose. Second, because we have just had an election for president and legislators, and more recently for mayors. And third, because the FTA with the United States must be ratified before March 2008. So those who are talking about a referendum are just throwing up another obstacle, to postpone the vote on CAFTA so that it won’t come to pass. IPS: You used to say that fiscal policies in Latin America were too lax. If the fiscal reform enters into force, will there be a noticeable improvement in this country?

OA: The most important agenda in this country is social development. There are 46,000 families living in slums, and I want to halve this number. We want to have universal secondary education by 2010. I began by doubling the lowest pensions; this year they will be increased again. Unemployment stands at six percent; inflation has been cut to 9.4 percent. There is no better social policy than reducing inflation. And then there is infrastructure.

IPS: Do you think that ordinary people are cynical about the justice system?

OA: Everything is relative. Our justice system enjoys high prestige compared with those of other Latin American countries, but people still think that our justice is neither prompt nor effective.

IPS: Two former presidents of this country (Rafael Calderón and Miguel Ángel Rodríguez) have been in jail. Has this benefited or damaged Costa Rica’s image?

OA: It has been very damaging, although at least it shows the country is making an effort to clean up corruption. Unfortunately the fact that they have not yet been charged causes some people concern and creates great uncertainty. What I can guarantee is that there is no impunity in this country.

IPS: What has surprised you most in the first nine months of your administration?

OA: The difficulty in restoring confidence among Costa Ricans, in showing them that there is a government that is on the move and making decisions. And the difficulty in getting important laws approved by parliament. As far as I am concerned, I will not postpone a decision.

IPS: In what ways has your government failed in its mandate so far?

OA: Costa Ricans have high expectations, and perhaps we have not advanced very far with infrastructure, where I only have promises. A big effort is being made to improve our road network, but this is not happening as quickly as it should.

IPS: You tend to be very well regarded by the European left, but not by leftists closer to home. Why do you think that is?

OA: The left voted me into the presidency on the first occasion because I opposed (former U.S. President Ronald) Reagan and his foreign policy in Central America, which was basically interventionist. But now (the left) does not support me because it opposes the FTA.

My opinion has not changed. Twenty years ago I thought the same way, but I couldn’t put all my ideas into practice. Governing is about choosing and setting priorities, and at the time peace in Central America was the main thing. I act according to my principles and convictions. In life, one must adapt one’s thoughts to reality, one can’t be a slave to ideas.

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