“Do not fear the future because you are the future.” Former President of Costa Rica and Nobel Laureate Oscar Arias Sánchez has spent a lifetime working for the future of Central America by seeking peace, empowering the weak and encouraging nations to work together. Since leaving elected office, his Arias Foundation has adopted this quote and is working toward a future without fear for all people around the world.
Arias was born into a family of politically active coffee producers on Sept. 13, 1940, in Heredia, Costa Rica. He studied economics, law and politics in Costa Rica and the United States, eventually earning a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Essex in England. In the 1960s, he began working for the National Liberation Party in Costa Rica. He served as Minister of National Planning and Economic Policy under presidents José Figueres Ferrer and Daniel Oduber Quiros from 1972 to 1977. He was elected secretary-general of the party in 1979 and was then successful in his run for the nation’s presidency in 1986.
His presidency came at a time of unrest in Central America. A civil war between the Contras and Sandinistas in Nicaragua was destabilizing the region. The United States and USSR were getting involved. From 1986 to 1987, Arias worked with Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua to structure the Esquipulas II Peace Agreement, which was signed on Aug. 7, 1987. The plan, named for the area in Guatemala where the negotiators met, called for free elections, human rights guarantees and the end of foreign interference in the region. However, the plan was never fully implemented due to continued tensions. Arias also successfully shifted his country’s struggling economy by cutting spending, raising taxes and arranging new deals with creditors. Arias finished his first term in 1990 and was unable to run for a second consecutive term due to a decades-old law. In 2005, a court decision allowed him to run for president again and he served a second term from 2006 to 2010. His second term focused on expanding educational opportunities and also featured the nation’s first electoral referendum, which led to Costa Rica joining the Central America-Dominican Republic Free Trade Agreement.
Arias was the sole recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in October 1987 for his efforts on the Esquipulas peace plan. He used the Nobel Prize monies to establish the Arias Foundation for Peace & Human Rights. The Foundation works worldwide to promote demilitarization, democratic governance and gender equality. It worked successfully to improve land right laws for women in Central America, for example. The foundation’s future goals include a research center on the best practices for resolving conflict and a center to offer conflict mediation services. Arias has won multiple international awards, received more than 50 honorary degrees, authored several books and taught at universities in the U.S. and Europe. He continues to work with the Arias Foundation and other international peace organizations.