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Costa Rica Counts Its Blessings : There's Benefit, and Some Peril, in Being the Keystone of Peace

IF PEACE BREAKS OUT: One in a series of articles examining prospects for a postwar Central America

October 28, 1987|MARC LINDENBERG | Marc Lindenberg is a lecturer in public policy at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. For the last six years he was the rector of the Central American Management Institute, a regional graduate school that was founded with the assistance of Harvard Business School, with campuses in both Costa Rica and Nicaragua.

SAN JOSE — The damsel kisses the ugly toad. It turns into a prince, and they live happily ever after.

Fairy tales instill optimism in the young, but they are poor preparation for the experiences that follow negotiated peace plans. Time and again since World War II, more often than not the princess got warts. (Of course, warts are rarely fatal.)

The agreement signed by the five Central American presidents on Aug. 7 merits applause for increasing the prospects of peace for more than 25 million inhabitants of this troubled region. But we must admit that, even under the best of circumstances, peace can have its problems.

In particular, how might Costa Rica benefit from the peace plan originated by its president, Oscar Arias Sanchez, and what complications are inevitable?

Costa Rica has scored some important immediate gains. Its stature in Latin America and Europe as a courageous, independent, democratic nation has increased substantially. There is less tension with its northern neighbor, Nicaragua. In fact, that country has withdrawn its lawsuit against Costa Rica in the World Court. No less important, Costa Rica now has more direct communication with Nicaragua's President Daniel Ortega to defuse any future bilateral disagreements and to influence the Nicaraguan internal political situation. And Costa Rica has broadened its support in the United States, which will be useful in the event of frictions with the Reagan Administration and will give Costa Rica more options should a Democrat be elected President in 1988.

The peace plan promises long-term gains as well. Most important, a successful agreement would eliminate pressures to militarize Costa Rica, which abolished its army in 1948. Not only would arming that country have heavy economic costs; it would also damage an essential feature of the national identity. Should peace actually be achieved, there may be more investment in Costa Rica and eventual reactivation of the regional common market. Finally, the peace plan is a Central American contribution to the institutionalizing of freedom of expression and nonviolent succession of power in a region unaccustomed to such practices.

Euphoria about potential gains should hardly blind anyone to the risks. By signing the peace plan, four Central American presidents acknowledge their willingness to live with a neighbor whose allies and ideology are radically different from their own. Other peace accords in the past 40 years have spawned refugees, border disputes, ideological infiltration, periodic violence and failure by one party or another to honor the substance of agreements. Occasionally these problems have been lethal for ill-prepared governments.

Some Costa Ricans fear reprisals from the Reagan Administration against their country because of its leadership in drafting the peace plan. The United States continues to be Costa Rica's largest bilateral donor, having provided more than $120 million this year. Reductions in such assistance or slowdowns in the disbursement of existing appropriations could provide a serious setback to Costa Rica's fragile but consistent four-year economic recovery from its crisis in 1982.

Even with unprecedented levels of foreign aid, the slow pace of the recovery is a threat to the country's stability, with or without a peace plan. The Central Bank president, Eduardo Lizano, has repeatedly lamented that growth, investment and job-creating ventures are not offsetting rising unemployment. Even with peace and a major effort to achieve economic recovery in Nicaragua, the refugee flow from that country would continue to strain Costa Rican social services and to create tensions among those who are competing for scarce new jobs.

Fortunately, there are measures that would reduce the risks. In the United States these include maintaining strong bipartisan support despite the reservations of some North Americans about Costa Rica's increasingly independent role in regional peace planning. This support, essentially a continuation of the economic recommendations of the Kissinger Commission, should provide breathing space.

Within Costa Rica, the private sector should accept the government's challenge to show more dynamism and creativity, investment and job creation. Similarly, the government must respond to the private sector's challenge to become more efficient and create a climate of greater confidence.

Externally, Costa Rica's president needs to maintain pressure on signatory countries to fulfill their commitments to the peace accords and to speak out forcefully should these commitments not be honored.

There are few happy endings to the tales of postwar peace agreements. But a strong, democratic, economically viable Costa Rica can be the keystone of stability for the whole region. Within both Costa Rica and the United States, this will require realism in the management of the inevitable problems as well as a willingness to agree to disagree when necessary without losing track of the substantial interests that, as allies, they share in a stable and democratic Central America.

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