A political comeback

May 22, 2006

Latin American political leaders of late have had short shelf lives as they have been carried into and then unceremoniously chased from office by an impatient, at times undemocratic, electorate no longer willing to tolerate poor living conditions.

The list of former presidents given a second chance is short. But more than a decade after leaving office, Oscar Arias Sanchez, former president of Costa Rica, is again the president. The democratic statesman was inaugurated this month, 20 years after first being elected president. He promptly pledged to strengthen his country's weak economy, create jobs, invest in public education and run an ethical administration. This was a sound message that should not be lost on other Latin American leaders facing similar challenges.

The Bush administration should support Mr. Arias' efforts, especially at a time when U.S. credibility is low in the region and newly elected presidents are criticizing and challenging American foreign policy in Latin America.

Mr. Arias' election adds a welcome voice of moderation to the left-leaning voices of the new president of Bolivia and popular presidential candidates in Mexico and Peru. Ideally, Mr. Arias, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987 for leading talks that helped end civil wars in Nicaragua and El Salvador, can serve as a counterpoint to the hostile and influential rhetoric of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

Still, he faces several hurdles at home after winning a razor-close election, a result of his support for the Central American Free Trade Agreement, which many Costa Ricans oppose. His country is mired in political corruption scandals, poverty is rampant, and there is widespread public discontent.

The Bush administration signaled support for Mr. Arias by sending first lady Laura Bush to his inauguration, but the gesture will seem empty without continued engagement.

It's worth noting that while Mr. Arias was being inaugurated inside the National Stadium, about 4,000 people were outside protesting CAFTA, echoing larger anti-American protests in the region.

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