Oscar Arias: Leader of Strength and Peace

By Jim Treadway

"There’s a definite lack of leaders [today]," documentary producer Richard Symons commented to a Frontline Club audience on 8 October.  "Where are they?"

Symons had just screened the third film in his and Joanna Natasegara’s series The Price of Kings, which explores the weight of leadership.  Previous films have focused on Yasser Arafat and Shimon Peres.

One true leader, the latest Price of Kings film suggests, has been Oscar Arias, two-time President of Costa Rica.

In 1987, he famously defied American and Soviet insistence – "an incredible amount of pressure," one aide put it – that Costa Rica pick a side in the Cold War proxy battles that were tearing Central America apart.

"I had to fight Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev," Arias reflects in the film.  "It was not gonna be easy, to say to Goliath, ‘well, here’s David, little David, but we’re gonna fight for our convictions, for our principles, for our ideals."

Peace was Arias’ ideal.  With no military behind him – Costa Rica’s disbanded in 1948 – he nonetheless broke from Washington and Moscow to bring ideologically-opposed Central American leaders to a negotiating table.

"Dial back to 1986," Symons said, "if you looked at those guys and what was going on in their countries, Arias must have been absolutely off his tits to think he could even get them on the phone!"

The Esquipulas Peace Agreement resulted, settling bloody conflicts that raged between Kremlin- and American-backed groups fighting for power over Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala.  His efforts earned him the 1987 Nobel Peace Prize.

"In person, he’s an oddly persuasive man," Natasegara shared.  "He’s not necessarily hugely charismatic, and yet there’s something right about what he says, and you see how he could have convinced them."

In 2006, Arias risked his legacy by serving once more as Costa Rica’s President; the film shows how his dogged support for an unpopular mining project left his reputation among Costa Ricans in tatters. 

Today, he campaigns – so far unsucessfully – for an International Arms Treaty that would halt the flow of weapons from idustrialized nations to the third world.  

"Use the dividends of peace," Arias says simply, "[and] the world would be quite different, it seems to me."

After the screening, an audience member wondered why so many people in the film, even those very close to Arias, did not speak entirely positively about him.  Natasegara answered, 

"Ironically, I think apart from two people in the film […] everybody was very warm about him.  And I think that’s what’s nice […] that they feel so much trust in him that they can speak openly about his flaws […]  So if they speak badly towards him, it’s only because he allows this kind of openness."

The trailer for The Price of Kings:  Oscar Arias can be seen here.