Childhood & Early Life
Óscar Arias Sánchez was born on 13 September 1940 in Heredia, located ten kilometers north of San José, into a wealthy and politically influential family. Over generations, several of his family members had held prominent posts, both in national legislature and presidential cabinets.
Oscar’s father, Juan Arias, a lawyer, was the head of the Costa Rica Central Bank. His mother, Lillyan Arias Sanchez, was the scion of another coffee growing family. He was the eldest of his parents’ three children. His brother, Rodrigo Arias Sánchez, is around six years junior to him.
Brought up in such an environment, there is no wonder that when asked about his life’s ambition, Oscar would promptly say that he wanted to be the president. However, as a child he suffered from chronic asthma and therefore spent a lot of time indoors, reading books. He was very studious and often read into nights.
He began his education at a private Catholic school in Heredia and then moved to Colegio Saint Francis in San Jose. By the time he passed out from school, his life’s ambition had changed and he now wanted to become a doctor.
Accordingly in 1959, he enrolled at Boston University, where he took premedical courses in chemistry, botany and zoology, but quickly realized that these subjects did not interest him. Instead he liked history and politics better.
Moreover, coming from a small town like Heredia with its temperate climate, Oscar Arias found it hard to adjust in Boston. While his classmates headed for the local bars, he would attend classical music concerts at Boston Symphony Hall or go miles to find somebody with whom he could talk in Spanish.
He found the 1960 United States Presidential election very fascinating and watched the debate with interest. He was taken by J. F. Kenney’s new vision of America and afterwards wrote a letter to the new president explaining what Central America expected from his leadership.
Meanwhile, he attended a summer school where he took a course on economics. It strengthened his interest in politics as well as governance. Therefore by the end of 1961, he abandoned his medical studies and returned home to enroll at the University of Costa Rica.
He now took up economics and law. This was also the time when he entered active politics, joining the country’s main social democratic party, Partido Liberación Nacional (PLN, National Liberation Party).
In 1967, Sanchez graduated from the University of Costa Rica and then traveled to the UK to study at the London School of Economics. Later he earned his PhD from the University of Essex in 1971.
His doctoral thesis was titled, ‘Quien gobierna en Costa Rica?’ (Who Governs Costa Rica?). Actually the paper was a sequel to his earlier work, ‘Grupos de presión en Costa Rica’ (Pressure Groups in Costa Rica), which he had written while studying in Costa Rica.
In England, he also studied the British political system and admired how the country stood up to the United States of America, despite being dependent on the latter in many ways. Here he also learned the value of diplomacy and realized that negotiation is a very important tool in achieving one’s goals.
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On returning home, Oscar Arias Sanchez began his career as a professor of political science at the University of Costa Rica. At the same time, he resumed his political involvement with National Liberation Party (PLN) and became an assistant to former president José Figueres Ferrer, who was seeking re-election.
When in 1972, Figueres was re-elected as the President, Arias was appointed as the Minister of National Planning and Political Economy, a position he held until 1977. Given the then lack of infrastructure in Costa Rica, it was indeed a challenging post for so young a person.
During this period, he distinguished himself for his open-mindedness as well as for his impartiality. This led to his quick rise within the party hierarchy. In 1975, he was elected the International Secretary and in 1979, the General Secretary of the PLN, representing the party at several Socialist International congresses.
Meanwhile in 1977, he published ‘Costa Rica in the Year 2000.’ In it, he declared that in future both farmers and factory workers would have better earnings. Moreover, there would be a more equitable distribution of wealth, more justice and a more accessible government.
In 1978, although PLN lost the election, Oscar Arias was elected to the national legislature. Sitting in the opposition, he brought out a legislation that made the government more accessible to the common people.
In 1981, he left his position at the national legislature to lead the campaign for PLN standard-bearer Luis A. Monge in his bid to be the president. He was successful in this and Monge was elected president in 1982.
First Term as the President
Two years later, in around 1984, Oscar Arias gained the party’s nomination for the 1986 Presidential election. He therefore relinquished his duties as party general secretary to concentrate on the campaign.
At that time, the country’s economy was hit with a severe recession and the whole continent was badly torn by insurgencies in neighboring Nicaragua and El Salvador. At a time like this, Arias came out with his slogan, "Roofs, jobs, and peace."
The election was closely fought. Nonetheless, Arias won 52.3% of the votes against 45.8% for the Christian Social Unity candidate and was sworn in as the President of Costa Rica on May 8, 1986.
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Immediately, he started working on the goals he had set in his 1977 book, ‘Costa Rica in the Year 2000.’ So far the economy of the country was mainly based on the production of coffee and banana. His government now focused on non-traditional items like exotic flowers and fruits.
In addition, he tried to develop tourism as one of the pillars of the country’s economy. He also brought about reforms in education sector and reintroduced standardized academic tests at the end of primary and secondary levels.
However, it was in the realm of foreign affairs that he was most successful. It was mainly because of his endeavor that the Esquipulas Nicaraguan Peace Agreement was signed and peace returned to the continent. For his efforts, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987.
According to a constitutional amendment brought about in 1969, former presidents could not seek re-election in Costa Rica. Therefore, when his term ended in May 1990, Oscar Arias decided to accept a visiting professorship at Harvard and to write on international affairs and crisis resolution.
Earlier, he had decided to establish the Arias Foundation using the money he had received as a Nobel laureate. He now began working on it, founding three programs: the ‘Center for Human Progress’ and ‘Center for Peace and Reconciliation’, both founded in 1990, and the ‘Center for Organized Participation’, founded in 1993.
Second Term as the President
Sometime during this period, Oscar Arias also challenged the 1969 amendment at the Sala IV, the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court of Justice of Costa Rica. Unfortunately, his application was rejected in September 2000.
Later in 2003, some of his supporters challenged the constitutionality of the said amendment. This time, the ruling came in their favor. In April 2003, the amendment was struck down, paving the way for his re-election.
Subsequently, he ran for the next general election held in February 2006, making the fight against poverty and corruption the main issues of his campaign. To prevent school dropouts, he also promised to provide educational scholarships to children of the poor families.
Oscar Arias won the election, albeit at a low margin. He took the oath of office on 8 May 2006 at the National Stadium. One of his first steps was to provide scholarships for children of economically backward families, thus fulfilling his election promise.
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He remained in office till 2010, undertaking various measures. In 2007, he held a referendum on joining the Central America–Dominican Republic Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA–DR). When the country voted in its favor, he signed the pact, and the CAFTA-DR came into effect in January 2009. Incidentally, it was the first referendum to be held in the country. Mediating in the 2009 Honduran Constitutional Crisis was another feat during his presidency.
Oscar Arias Sanchez is best known for the peace initiatives he took in the middle of the 1980s to solve Central America’s long standing military problems. At the time, the US-backed right-wing Contras were wedging a guerilla war against Marxist governments in Nicaragua, and the whole of Central America faced uncertainty because of that.
Although he had little sympathy for the left-wing philosophy, Arias resisted US pressure to aid and abet the Contras on Costa Rican soil. Instead, he first negotiated with the rebel group and then met the Presidents of Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua in May 1986 to discuss the Contadora Peace Plan.
Since it did not bear fruit, he chalked out his own plan, altering the Contadora Plan to some extent. By early 1987, he had called another meeting where he submitted his own peace plan. The Esquipulas Nicaraguan Peace Agreement, based on the plan Arias had submitted, was approved by the five presidents in Guatemala on August 7, thus ending the conflict.
Awards & Achievements
In 1987, Oscar Arias Sanchez was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace "for his work for peace in Central America, efforts which led to the accord signed in Guatemala on August 7 this year."
In 2003, he was elected to the Board of Directors of the International Criminal Court's Trust Fund for Victims. He has also been elected a trustee of Economists for Peace and Security.
Arias holds fifty honorary degrees, including doctorates from Harvard University, Princeton University, Dartmouth College, Oberlin College, Wake Forest University, Ithaca College and Washington University.
Personal Life & Legacy
In 1973, Oscar Arias married Margarita Peñón Góngora, a biochemist trained at Vassar College, New York. All along, she has been working closely with her husband in turning Costa Rica into a prosperous country. The couple has two children: a son, Óscar Felipe Arias Penón and a daughter, Silvia Eugenia Arias Penón.