The idealist and the realist in Arias converge as the former Costa Rican president meanders into conversation about his latest dream, a peace museum he hopes to build in San Jose. The idea would be to commemorate conflicts resolved through negotiation. “There are too many war museums,” he observes. But realizing ideas such as that one take money, and Arias is hoping to collect donations in the United States to make his become reality.
The outline of the Arias saga has been clearly rendered over the years, a narrative he has been as adept at shaping as the historians. Peace vs. war. The weak vs. the powerful. In Washington, the memories flood back, for it is here, in this city of global might, that Arias — the leader of a country of just 2.6 million souls — defied an American president
and cemented his place in history
. Ronald Reagan was backing the contras in Nicaragua, eager to smash the threat of communism presented by Daniel Ortega’s Sandinistas, who were in league with the Soviets and the Cubans. Arias was complicating the Reagan administration’s support of a military solution by arguing for a peace deal and banking that the Sandinistas wouldn’t prove to be a sturdy threat to democracy in the region.
Looking back, Arias recalls the tense White House meetings and the showdowns with American diplomats and high-ranking officials. He liked President Reagan and Vice President George H.W. Bush, he says, and once told them that friends could disagree. He felt a particular rapport with Bush and resolved that Bush would be the first U.S. official he would tell about the peace plan. He broke the news to Bush over gin and tonics at the vice presidential residence. Bush wasn’t pleased.
Arias had a knack for displeasing U.S. officials. Reagan’s CIA director flew to San Jose to meet with him, but Arias refused to grant him an audience.
It was the peace prize, though, that gave Arias real clout. At the time, Reagan had been pressing Congress to approve more aid for the contras. But when the prize was announced, House Democratic Whip Tony Coelho declared, “This kills it; it’s dead.”
The eagle vs. the sparrow
Back then, People magazine crowned Arias “the mouse that roars for peace in Central America” and recounted how Arias stood his ground in a tense Oval Office meeting with an array of high-powered U.S. officials. “Oscar appeared like Spartacus going before the Roman generals,” Arias’s close adviser John Biehl told the magazine. Arturo Cruz, the former Nicaraguan diplomat, speaking in Washington, frames it this way: the eagle (the United States) vs. the sparrow (Arias). The sparrow, Arias says, ended up winning.
The powerful in the United States had underestimated him, Arias says. But here, he breaks off. Upstairs in his hotel room, he says, he has a book with the perfect quote to illustrate his point. He steps away from the table and disappears into an elevator, returning a few moments later, leafing through the pages. He wants to get the words exactly right. It’s an old U.S. diplomatic cable. And he reads the words aloud, a coy smile, a look of satisfaction and vindication on his face.
“Alert Ollie [North that] Pres. Arias will attend Reagan’s dinner in New York Sept. 22. Boy needs to be straightened out by heavy weights.”
That’s what they called him. Boy.