And this is why Arias, who paused for a leisurely chat over lunch during a recent Washington visit to celebrate the peace accord’s 25th anniversary, frets. He looks around the region he calls home and sees rampant drug violence, intractable poverty and too many democratic institutions that seem wobbly and imperiled. Now, he says, instead of mourning young “guerrilleros” — guerrilla fighters — the region’s mothers cry for slain young “pandilleros” — gang members. He touches more notes of lament than trills of triumph, so much so that I wonder aloud whether he’s depressed at what has become.
“Depressed? No,” Arias says. “Disillusioned” is a better word, he advises. “Latin America has not achieved the development that it deserves. . . . I’m not optimistic for all of Latin America, not only for Central America.”
He’s glum despite the improvements in the region — the rise of Brazil’s economy, signs of a nascent middle class and more. His emergence as a Latin American Jimmy Carteresque troubleshooter has given him a unique and dispiriting vantage point on the region’s ills, particularly the chaotic 2009 coup in Honduras, a constitutional crisis that he was called upon to help resolve but couldn’t pull off. Arias served as a mediator between Manuel Zelaya, the Honduran president who was flown to Costa Rica after that nation’s high court ordered him removed and soldiers stormed his office to force him to fly into exile, and Roberto Micheletti, the head of the National Congress who became de facto president.
“It was impossible to get Micheletti and Zelaya to sit at the same table,” Arias says. “Both were intransigent.”
The Honduran mess made Arias wary of the “specter of authoritarianism” increasing in the region, although he diplomatically avoids singling out individual countries where the powerful are trampling on democratic institutions. “With states that are so weak, there are not sufficient resources for education, health care, infrastructure and security,” he says, chiding the region’s elites for not paying enough in taxes.
At 71, Arias still has those same thick and undulating waves of hair, cleft by a neat part on his left, that appeared in news photos during his peace-planning glory days. But the strands have gone gray, and his voice, both across a table in the bar of the Mayflower Hotel and behind a lectern, can sound somber, trailing off at times, almost wistful. He is not one of those public figures particularly prone to clapping shoulders. His charisma is a subtler thing, a muted presence that somehow draws his listeners in just as persistently and effectively as a less subdued politician’s bearhug might. In a clutch of news reporters after a speech at the Organization of American States, he tightly interlocks the fingers of both hands, forming a ball beneath his chin, as though he were holding onto something that threatened to get away from him. His eyes fix on the ball of fingers before him, rather than the questioners.