The Nobel Peace Prize-winning former President of Costa Rica Oscar Arias was in Seattle the other day and said in a gentle voice to a roomful of nicely dressed folks gathered downtown at the refined Washington Athletic Club that “your government is the most dangerous government on Earth.”
Humanosphere caught up with him to do a video and Q & A, posted below.
Arias — in town to do a commencement speech for UW Bothell, among other speaking events — had plenty of praise for the United States, for the generous and enterprising spirit of Americans.
But he also couldn’t help noting our country’s history of “supporting military dictatorships,” of only doing foreign aid when we can see how it helps us and, as the world’s leading arms dealer and military power, of exporting violence. Recalling his long and successful struggle to bring peace decades ago to a war-torn Central America, he said:
“I used to say that the world’s superpowers supply the weapons and we in Latin America supply the bodies.”
He actually still says that, or something like it. I caught up with Arias when he spoke at the WAC, at an event on Friday sponsored by the Seattle International Foundation (one of my sponsors as well) that was co-hosted by the World Affairs Council.
One curious moment came after Arias spoke and posed for photos. One of those photo poses is shown up top right, with Arias standing next to Arnold Candray, a former military intelligence man for the Reagan Administration who said his job was focused on undermining leaders like Arias who — from the US government’s perspective at the time — were putting the hemisphere at risk of infiltration by the Soviet Union.
“Yeah, we didn’t like him at the time,” acknowledged Candray.
But times change. Arias – who was criticized during his efforts to end the civil wars raging across Central America by the right wing as a tool for the Soviet-backed commies and also by the left as a proxy for US-backed imperialists – was willing to sit down and talk about what has been accomplished, and what more needs to be done to further progress in Latin America:
Q: When you were introduced at the event by Mauricio Vivero of the Seattle International Foundation, he said that Latin America is largely neglected these days when it comes to US foreign policy, foreign aid and development. Do you agree with that?
Arias: Yes of course. With the end of the Cold War everything changed for us…. The fear of communism made Washington very generous toward America. Now that there is no threat, all that was cut. We are middle income countries but we have huge amounts of poverty. We’ve been relatively successful in reducing poverty but it’s not enough…. It seems to me it would be in the interest of the US government have more prosperous countries to the south. Poverty needs no passport to travel.
Q You succeeded in ending many civil wars in Central America. But there appears to still be a serious problem, throughout much of Latin America, with violence. Why is that?
Arias: Is quite true quite that Gautemala, Honduras and El Salvador are perhaps the three most violent countries on Earth. This is because of the lack of opportunity for young people. They find themselves miserable today. Then you have the drug traffickers. We are unable to fight the drug traffickers … We just don’t have the resources. And as long as there is demand in (your) country there will be an illegal drug trade in our countries.
Q: I noticed that one of the persons you posed for photos with here in Seattle is a former member of the Reagan administration. When you were president, some in the US governement thought you are too friendly with communists; others thought you were too friendly with US government and corporations. How would you respond?
Arias: When Vice-President George (HW) Bush visited me for my inauguration, I told I wanted him to know we were good friends. But sometimes good friends can disagree. I strongly disagreed with the Reagan Administration’s approach to conflict in Central America. I campaigned on the need for a negotiated solution to the conflicts. But I knew Reagan was so committed to a military solution that I had to do something.
That’s why I drafted the peace plan in the 1980s. A small country like mine is insignificant. But we had to confront the two superpowers. It was not just the US. It was also the Soviet Union that. It was David against two Goliaths.
Twenty years later I become president again and again there’s a Republican again in the White House. Bush Junior. I was in favor of CAFTA (Central America Free Trade Agreement). We needed to be able to export without paying taxes to the US market so I asked my friends, the Democrats, for support. But the same Democrats who supported my peace plan would not support me on CAFTA … Politics.
Q: You talked today quite a bit about inequality. We’re seeing inequality in the United States Senate record levels. What would you suggest we do?
Arias: Inequality is increasing almost everywhere. One exception might be the northern countries. Scandinavia. There are two ways to combat inequality – through public spending and taxes. Taxes need to be progressive. The wealthy need to pay more. It’s very simple … You need to spend more on poor people. If you don’t have the money, cut military spending.