OSCAR ARIAS SANCHEZ is an uncommon man from an uncommon country.
The country is Costa Rica, a small republic of 2.5 million people in Central America whose many admirers tend to overload it with lavish compliments. They call it "the Switzerland of Latin America" or "the Denmark of the Isthmus of Panama." They make other benign comparisons.
These parallels hold, but not for long. Costa Rica is small, like those two European countries. It is also passionately democratic, and manifestly independent and individualistic, as they are. All three have been progressive welfare states for a long time.
But Costa Rica has something the other two haven't. Or better put, it hasn't got something the other two have: It has no army.
Arias, 58, served as president of Costa Rica from 1986 to 1990. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987 for helping to end the wars that raged through Central America in the 1980s. He is eager to preach the demilitarized state to anyone, or any country, open to it.
Using his Nobel funds, he created the Arias Foundation for Peace and Human Progress to further this aim.
He has had surprising success in two countries that have been devastated by militarism. Arias will likely tell the stories of the conversions of these two nations at 7:30 p.m. tomorrow in his free lecture at Goucher College's Merrick Hall. Arias, Goucher's 1999 Sarah T. Hughes Politician-in-Residence, will be at the school in Towson all day, meeting and talking with students and faculty.
He will also promote his International Code of Conduct on Arms Transfers, which he is eager for the United States to adopt.
While he was president, Arias approached Guillermo Endara, the president of Panama, Costa Rica's neighbor. "I promised him we would be the first nation to recognize his government if he would do something which is quite historic: that is, get rid of the armed forces," Arias said during a telephone interview from San Jose, the Costa Rican capital.
Such a proposition from one head of state to another might seem presumptuous, even brazen. But there were mitigating circumstances. For one thing, Endara's government was ignored in the region. It needed a friend.
Endara had been fairly elected in 1989, only to have his victory snatched away by Panamanian defense forces. This was one of several actions by military strongman Manuel Noriega that led the United States to invade Panama and arrest Noriega as a drug smuggler.
In the aftermath, Endara was sworn in. But the ceremony was tainted in the eyes of many Central Americans because it was held in the Canal Zone. That strip of U.S.-held territory bisects Panama and has been a provocation for anti-American fervor almost since it was established, shortly after Panama became an independent state in 1903. Nearly every Latin American country opposed the U.S. invasion, so the Canal Zone swearing-in made Endara a pariah in the region.
Endara was receptive to Arias' proposition for another reason. Noriega was only the latest in a long line of tyrants, would-be despots and military meddlers that have stultified Panama's political, economic and social life. What Arias was offering appeared to be a chance to put an end to all that. The beleaguered president accepted the offer, and Arias formally opened diplomatic relations with Panama. Later, Panama approved a constitutional amendment that disposed of the military.
"So, constitutionally Panama is the second country in the world to ban its armed forces," said Arias. "As a consequence, I tell my friends in the U.S. that the border between Panama and Costa Rica is the safest border in the world."
A path to peace
Arias is utterly committed to demilitarization as a path to peace. He is an evangelist of the creed, saying, "Our best defense has been to be defenseless. It gives moral authority to a country. Nobody would dare attack us. We would be defended by the whole world."
The man given the most credit as the originator of Costa Rica's disarmed state was Jose Figueres Ferrer, who led a successful armed uprising in 1948 in reaction to an attempt by President Teodoro Picado to annul the election of Otillio Ulate Blanco. Figueres eventually won the presidency himself.
The constitution of Costa Rica was rewritten in 1949 to prohibit the raising of a national army except during a national security crisis. The absence of the army (border guards were retained) has ensured the peaceable transfer of presidential power. The money that would have been spent on a military establishment has gone to hospitals, schools, and other bricks of civilization.
Arias knows that military establishments frequently serve themselves before they serve the national interest. They consume funds that could be better spent. They corrupt the political process.