From the chpter "On Wisdom" 

  The PeaceMaker SiTe  

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Chicken Soup for the Soul Stories for a Better World

from the book

Chicken Soup for the Soul®
Stories for a Better World

Used here by permission ©2001 Arias Foundation for Peace

This page created on 10 November 2005

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A Beginning

Especially important it is to realize that there can be no assured peace and tranquility for any one nation except as it is achieved for all. So long as want, frustration and a sense of injustice prevail among significant sections of the Earth, no other section can be wholly released from fear.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower


When I assumed the presidency of Costa Rica in 1986, Central America was being ripped apart by three civil wars. Marxist guerrillas were fighting repressive militaries in El Salvador and Guatemala, while the Marxist/Leninist Sandinista government of Nicaragua was under attack by counterrevolutionary rebels. Honduras was being used as a military training ground, and Costa Rica was also under pressure, mainly from U.S. government officials, to become involved in the Nicaraguan conflict on the side of the Contra rebels.

Even though Costa Rica was not at war, we could not escape the consequences of the conflicts going on around us. Many in Costa Rica were advocating lining up with the Contras to defeat the Sandinistas, and our declared neutrality had already been breached by armed groups staging attacks along our border with Nicaragua. I also worried about the health of our economy, for I knew that very few international tourists or investors would want to come to a country located in a region undergoing major armed conflicts. Therefore, Costa Rica’s well-being as a nation—economic, social, even spiritual—depended on pacifying the entire region. From the day of my election, that was what I set out to do.

The road to getting a peace agreement signed by all the Central American presidents was filled with potholes. After I drafted my peace plan, which asked for democracy as a precondition for lasting peace in the region, I traveled to the other countries of the region to “sell” it to my fellow presidents. When I met with the president of El Salvador, I found that it was not he, but the military officers, who knew all the details of the plan; at that moment, I realized that the military there would have the final vote on whether to accept any plan for peace. In my meeting with the Sandinista government of Nicaragua, I found that they were against my “pro-Yankee” peace plan. The fact that they called it “pro-Yankee” let me know that they had not even read it, since one of the stipulations of the plan was an end to outside intervention in the region. Representatives of the U.S. government were so opposed to my initiative that they attempted to pressure my colleagues into rejecting the plan. Such was the meddling that at one of the meetings of the Central American presidents (all Spanish-speaking nations), the government of Honduras presented an alternative peace plan that was written in English. This was obviously a plant from officials in Washington, D.C., who had an interest in maintaining support for the Nicaraguan Contras until a military victory could be achieved, and therefore, an interest in derailing my peace plan. Neither the U.S. nor the Honduran officials had even bothered to translate into Spanish their alternative plan for peace in Central America.

Faced with so many obstacles, how did we succeed? Mainly through perseverance, an essential quality in any negotiation. I made visits and numerous phone calls to all my fellow presidents in the region, allowing my stubbornness to become my greatest asset while I persevered until they agreed to sign the plan. Of course, a measure of compromise and humility was also necessary. Although difficult, I accepted changes to the plan that would make it more palatable to the Salvadoran generals, for instance, or to others who had difficulty with one or another of its provisions.

In the end, we signed the Procedure for a Firm and Lasting Peace in Central America on August 7, 1987. This, of course, was not the end, but rather the beginning of the pacification of the region. The cease-fires stipulated in the plan were not easy to achieve. Each country at war had to come up with its own internal peace accords, and the last of these was signed in Guatemala in 1996. My colleagues and I had taken only the first, but very necessary, step: agreeing that, in order to have lasting peace, our societies must put democracy into practice.

For me, one unforgettable image encapsulates the motivation behind these efforts: that of an indigenous woman who was standing in the crowd that day in Guatemala City, her hair braided, her feet bare, holding her child to her breast. She caught my eye on the way into the National Cathedral for a Mass of thanksgiving after the signing of the plan, and when we came back out and crossed the plaza in the opposite direction, there she was again. She approached me and said, “Thank you, Señor Presidente, for this son and for the one who is fighting.” Although there was still much to be done to make our agreement a reality, at that moment, I knew that something new, something positive, something irreversible had begun—and that the remainder of its course would somehow be determined by the people whom this woman and her two sons represented.

Oscar Arias, Ph.D.
Former president of Costa Rica and 1987 Nobel Peace laureate