In February of 2010 President Oscar Arias of Costa Rica attended his last summit as sitting president. For those of you who don’t know President Arias, he is a two time president of Costa Rica. The first time was in the late 1980s when he negotiated the Central American peace deal which led to the transition out of power of the Sandinista communists in Nicaragua (and for which he won a Nobel Peace Prize) and the second was in the late 2000s; when he watched the forces he had helped defeat two decades earlier return to seize a region where too little had changed.
Despite the speeches and the applause, the truth of the matter is our region has made little progress in recent decades. In certain areas, it has stepped back with resolve. Many want to climb aboard a rusted out railroad car headed toward the past, to the ideological trenches that divided the world during the Cold War. Latin America runs the risk of adding to its amazing collection of lost generations. It runs the risk of wasting, once again, its opportunity on this Earth. It is up to us, and those who come after us, to prevent that from happening.
At his farewell address, President Arias had good reason to be pessimistic. The Chavista hordes were pulverizing Venezuela’s institutions and ravaging its economy while spreading their poisonous ideas to Ecuador, Honduras, Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil and farther beyond. The Cuban specter had returned to ravage the land – using this time billions of dollars stolen from Venezuela – and were making inroads in virtually every country. Rule of law was breaking down; violence was escalating at the hands of narco-gangs who served leaders who no longer sought the consent of the governed; and poverty was growing at the hands of state-sponsored “plans” that can never work. Even Arias’s old nemesis – Daniel Ortega – had returned from the political hinterlands to take control of Nicaragua with the help of his new buddy Hugo.
Hate. A cold calculating hate fanned by misplaced fervor was quietly seeping under doorways and through windows left ajar.
It makes me sad to acknowledge that Arias was not wrong. From the beginning of the new millennium and continuing on today, this generation will be yet another lost generation for Latin America. Argentina is (finally) trying to dig out from more than a decade Peronism – with the outcome of that fight too soon to tell. Ecuador is struggling under 21st Century Socialism; as is Bolivia and Nicaragua. Brazil squandered their place among the newly emerging nations – choosing as Arias has so eloquently said, to “climb aboard a rusted out railroad car headed toward the past”. Venezuela has failed – becoming a narco-state with no food.
Ideology, pure in its simplicity and unashamed in its nakedness seized a continent. Not ideas – not debate; but simply the crushing prejudices of those who never fully emerged from the “ideological trenches” to look around at a world that had moved on.
I re-read this speech often – as I re-read other speeches by this great orator. It is not because I agree with “Don Oscar” on everything; as is my right. It’s not because he is free of errors – all politicians have to make difficult “deals” occasionally. He is particularly disliked by those who lived through the Reagan days; President Arias was the “good cop” to Reagan’s “bad cop” (much to the frustration of certain hawks in the Reagan administration – water under the bridge by men of good faith all). It is instead because I find “Don Oscar’s” nerdy tranquility to be refreshingly peaceful. He does not eloquently call for the destruction of one, or another, of the people he was elected to represent and defend. He does not use his golden tongue to injure. Instead he steadfastly makes the case for the principles of community and democracy and decency.
In Cancun, for his last speech, Arias was frustrated – that was apparent. A man of peace does not like to feel he has wasted his life. There he stood, in front of people like Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales and Rafael Correa; men who do great damage to what he called the “Latin American lineage”. But rather than railing against the injustice, singling them out by name he instead took the podium and said goodbye, reminding them in his calm voice that theirs was not – would never be the way:
I still hope for a new day for Latin America and the Caribbean. I hope for a future of greatness for our peoples. The day will come when democracy, development and peace will fill the saddlebags of the region. The day will come when the parade of lost generations will cease. It may be tomorrow, if we dare to make it so. It may be next year, in the next decade or in the next century. As for me, I will keep fighting. Regardless of the shadows, I will continue to wait for the light at the end of the rainbow. I will continue to fight until such day arrives.
I met Don Oscar once – at his residence in San Jose after he had left office. It was a private meeting so I won’t elaborate on the details. I found his sensitivity to the plight of those struggling to be free to be encouraging – so often political leaders don’t care beyond the sound bite during an election year. We did not agree on a few things; but that did not sour our interactions. People of good faith can disagree without injury – and in listening to him I can proudly say I learned a thing or two that I still take with me today.
Unfortunately, nobody has ever really listened to Don Oscar. His is a message that is not well-received among those who would be king. Nevertheless the truths do abide and I often find myself making common cause with Don Oscar – because I too will keep fighting until the parade of lost generations ceases.