Arias Inaugurated, Vows to Keep Costa Rica Out of Region’s Warfare
As nine other Latin American leaders watched, Oscar Arias Sanchez was sworn in Thursday as president of Costa Rica. He vowed to keep the country out of armed conflict in Central America.
Arias, 45, of the ruling National Liberation Party, called for a negotiated solution to conflicts in neighboring Nicaragua and nearby El Salvador, and he urged that a proposed regional peace treaty be signed by June 6.
The turnout of Central and South American presidents was seen as a push for the peace effort undertaken by the Contadora Group, four Latin nations that have been seeking peace in Central America through mediation for more than three years.
“We will keep Costa Rica out of the armed conflicts of Central America and we will endeavor, through diplomatic and political means, to prevent Central American brothers from killing each other,” Arias said in his inaugural speech.
“We confirm here our support for the efforts of the Contadora Group in our willingness to sign the (proposed) Act for Peace and Cooperation in Central America, the result of long negotiations.”
At a meeting in Panama last month, four of the five Central American nations agreed to sign a pledge to try to wind up negotiations on the still-unfinished draft peace accord and be ready to sign it June 6.
But the fifth nation, Nicaragua, refused, holding to its longstanding position that it cannot sign a peace treaty until the United States quits backing guerrillas trying to bring down the Sandinista government. The United States, which says it backs the Contadora process but is not a formal part of it, refuses to negotiate bilaterally with the Marxist-led government.
The Contadora Group--Mexico, Colombia, Panama and Venezuela--is pressing Nicaragua to sign the pledge to conclude the treaty by June 6, before the American Congress can vote again on President Reagan’s proposed $100-million aid package for the Nicaraguan contras, as the rebels are called.
The treaty would commit the Central American nations to discussions with guerrilla forces, to democratic pluralism and free elections, to arms control, limitations on the size of their fighting forces and the removal of foreign advisers and bases. Specifics have not yet been agreed on, however.
“The 6th of June is a crucial date,” Arias said. “That is the day we must sign the Contadora act.”
Among those on hand for Thursday’s ceremony were Presidents Raul Alfonsin of Argentina, Alan Garcia of Peru, Julio Maria Sanguinetti of Uruguay, Belisario Betancour of Colombia, Leon Febres Cordero of Ecuador, Vinicio Cerezo of Guatemala, Jose Napoleon Duarte of El Salvador, Jose Azcona Hoyo of Honduras and Eric A. Delvalle of Panama. Argentina, Peru, Uruguay and Brazil joined together last year as a support group for the Contadora effort.
Vice President George Bush led the delegation from Washington, which includes Philip C. Habib, Reagan’s special envoy to Central America, and Elliott Abrams, assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs.
No high-ranking official was present from Nicaragua, which was represented by its ambassador here, Claudia Chamorro. Nicaraguan sources said the Costa Rican government sent President Daniel Ortega a message that his “security and dignity could not be guaranteed” if he attended the inauguration.
Costa Ricans historically have been anti-Nicaragua, and this democratic country of about 2.5 million people is opposed to the Sandinista regime in Managua. Most of the Latin leaders were greeted at the ceremony with standing ovations, but Chamorro drew whistles of disapproval.
Arias, who campaigned for the presidency on a platform that stressed the Contadora peace initiative, must now deal both with the anti-Sandinista feelings of his countrymen and their desire to stay out of war--a sentiment some observers say is even stronger than their disdain for the Sandinistas.
Costa Rica has no standing army, although the United States gave training last year to 700 members of its Rural Guard, a police force.
After his election in February, Arias repeatedly criticized Reagan’s policy of assisting the contras. He said the proposed $100 million in aid for the contras would be better spent on economic aid to U.S.-allied governments in Central America.
U.S. and other Western diplomats have said privately that the United States began to put pressure on Arias after his statement. They said that U.S. Ambassador Lewis Tambs, Gen. John Galvin, who commands the U.S. Southern Command, Abrams and Habib all spoke to Arias about his comments, which were cited in the U.S. congressional debate over the aid package.
The aid proposal, narrowly defeated by the House, was approved by the Senate, and the Administration is seeking a second House vote.
U.S. officials insist that no pressure has been put on Arias. In a press conference on the eve of his inauguration, Arias said that he “categorically denies” that any U.S. pressure was put on him to get him to change his views. His comments on the contras, however, appeared to have been toned down.
Some observers say Arias is vulnerable to economic pressure from the United States. Costa Rica has a foreign debt of about $4 billion--high in per capita terms--and more than 30% of its exports go to the United States. The government now must renegotiate interest payments on its debts to commercial banks and international lending institutions.
Costa Rica also depends on government-to-government U.S. aid, which is expected to total about $187 million this year.
Some U.S. officials are nervous with Arias, not only because of his comments about the contras but because he is young and relatively untested as a politician. Like most of his countrymen, he is anti-Sandinista, but observers say he is also concerned about his country’s image in Latin America.
“He is very conscious of Latin American and European opinion,” a Western diplomat said. “He is very put out with any suggestion that Costa Rica is the same as Honduras,” where the contras have their principal bases.
“He wants to settle with the Sandinistas without appearing to like them or to be out-negotiated by them. He wants to get the contras out, while watching the (political) right and the Americans.”