For Honduras mediator Arias, compromise is a familiar role

Miami HeraldJuly 12, 2009 

Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, the man who is seeking to resolve the Honduran crisis in his living room, is a 67-year-old economist and lawyer by training with salt-and-pepper hair, and the 1987 Nobel Peace Prize.

He is also a wealthy aristocrat -- known to many as Don Oscar -- who skillfully overcame his own nation's single-term presidential limit by championing a reinterpretation of the Costa Rican Constitution that allowed him to run and win his current, second term, which runs from 2006 to 2010.

Friends and admirers describe him as a dogged, self-confident conservative, a bit dull by some standards with a professorial air and passion for demilitarizing Central America.

Even as he agreed to mediate the crisis last week, he said Honduras' coup d'etat was an inevitable outcome -- and ''wake-up call for the hemisphere'' -- of the Latin America's bloated militaries, whose costs he estimated at $50 billion this year.

''We should recognize that such events are not random acts,'' he wrote in an opinion page article published last week in American newspapers. ``They are the result of systematic errors and missteps that many of us have been warning about for decades. They are the price we pay for one of our region's greatest follies: its reckless military spending.''

Arias held two days of talks last week with delegations of ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya and his appointed successor, Roberto Micheletti, in the Costa Rican capital. They broke for the weekend, for a hiatus whose length was uncertain.

It may strike outsiders as odd that Arias has chosen to mediate the crisis inside his home behind an ivy-covered fence in San Jose's Rohrmoser neighborhood. Costa Ricans call their nation's current version of The White House La Casa de Don Oscar.

But he has been hosting Central America's leaders in that same single-story home for years, dating back to his first 1986-90 presidency. It has lush gardens, a swimming pool, expansive living room and impressive library where he engages in perhaps his favorite pastime, reading.

Last week, journalists were camped in a tent outside to monitor the mediation effort.

Born Oscar Arias Sanchez to a prosperous coffee-growing family in September 1941, he is a divorcé with a doctorate from England in political science and the 1987 Nobel Peace Prize ''for his work for peace in Central America,'' which culminated that year in an accord signed in Guatemala.

`VERY CHARMING'

''He is sure of himself, and very charming. Warm? I wouldn't go that far,'' says William Goodfellow, executive director of the Center for International Policy, a Washington, D.C., think tank, who has known him for 23 years.

''He knows the region. He knows the players. And he's trusted by everybody,'' he said.

In a less widely known victory, Arias persuaded Haiti's since-ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to abolish his army in 1995.

How'd he do it? He ordered a poll of Haiti through his Arias Foundation for Peace and Human Progress, funded by his Nobel prize, to demonstrate to Aristide that 62 percent of his people endorsed demilitarization.

Arias made a name for himself during the Cold War. He was elected to the presidency when the Reagan White House was supporting the Contras and the region was wracked by warfare, instability and anxiety.

He took a look at the then-foundering ''Contadora Plan,'' which envisioned having Colombia, Venezuela, Panama and Mexico mediate regional peace, and drove through a peace program of his own. Ronald Reagan may have wanted the Sandinistas and their leader Daniel Ortega vanquished, but Arias saw elections as the answer.

''Oscar Arias is not a leftist,'' says Goodfellow. ``He dislikes and distrusts Fidel Castro and is certainly no fan of Hugo Chávez. But his commitment to democracy is in every fiber of his body.''

In between his two terms as president, he traveled the world, spoke widely and was sometimes mentioned as a candidate for secretary general of the United Nations or Organization of American States, ambitions that could be enhanced by his latest effort at mediation.

DETERMINATION

Admirers say he is stubborn, and use words like ''patience'' and ''persistence'' in describing the characteristics that brought peace to Central America and the prize to the house where he now seeks to solve the Honduras crisis.

''He was very skilled in getting the various warring parties together in Central America and convincing presidents to accept settlements that were arguably not in their interests,'' says William M. LeoGrande, a Latin American expert and dean of American University's School of Public Affairs.

``He got the Sandinistas to agree to hold internationally supervised elections. He got the Salvadoran government essentially to negotiate with its armed opposition.''

His greatest talent?

'His not being willing to take `no' for an answer,'' said LeoGrande. ``He's adept at identifying the commonalities in people's stated positions and then holding them to those.''

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