SAN JOSE, Costa Rica — Margarita Penon de Arias is fond of a photograph of her husband taken during his campaign for president. It shows a serious-looking young man standing on a speaker's platform between two aides, their hands clasped and arms raised in a gesture of expectant triumph.
The first lady of Costa Rica laughs when she looks at that picture now, because she remembers how awkward the pose was for Oscar Arias Sanchez. "He was not exactly your image of a fiery Latino politician," she says. "Those two men were there to lift his arms for him. He just wouldn't do it on his own."
Her story is revealing of the character of her husband, this year's Nobel Peace Prize laureate. A bookish man who had studiously prepared since his privileged boyhood for the presidency he won last year, Arias forced himself to overcome a painful shyness to sell himself to the voters.
It was that same stubborn determination, those who know him say, that helped him win the Nobel for achieving what was considered an impossibility a year ago, an agreement with fellow Central American presidents to end their guerrilla wars through democratic reforms.
Whether or not the accord signed Aug. 7 is fulfilled, Arias will enter history as a statesman who not only opposed the Sandinista rulers in neighboring Nicaragua but also resisted U.S. pressure to ally his tiny pacifist nation with the \o7 contras\f7 fighting to topple them.
Who is this would-be peacemaker and what drives him? How does the leader of a country without an army believe he can pacify a region plagued by warfare, repression and economic destruction for most of its history?
Vulnerable to Asthma Attacks
Physically, Arias, 46, is an unimposing man with a boyish face and a slouching posture that makes him seem shorter than his 5 feet, 8 inches. He is so vulnerable to severe attacks of asthma that he carries a bottle of oxygen with him everywhere.
But he is propelled by an infectious idealism, workaholic energy and a sense of urgency imposed by the constitutional limit of a single four-year term. Convinced that little of his domestic program can succeed without peace in the region, he has endeavored to sell his nation's brand of pluralist democracy to its embattled neighbors, particularly Nicaragua, before their wars spill across the Costa Rican border.
Arias' conservative critics at home accuse him of aloofness. Indeed, the president prefers to let his ministers manage conflicts over domestic policy and, after 18 months in office, he still seems uneasy with crowds. But in private or with small groups, he can be charming and forceful, especially in defense of his peace mission.
"Politicians have an obligation to be dreamers, to be idealists, to be Quixotes," he said in a recent interview. "It is our obligation to want to change things. Nobody in Central America can be satisfied with the status quo. There is too much poverty, violence, hunger and misery."
Sitting in his library, dressed informally in a black sweater and surrounded by walls stuffed with books, Arias called himself "a timid intellectual" who has learned through politics to "enjoy speaking with the people."
But the ideals that guide him, he said, come mostly from the thinkers and poets he has read and the statesmen he has read about: Churchill, Roosevelt, DeGaulle, Kennedy and the 19th-Century founders of his own nation. "I am a man of books," he explained.
His love of books, instilled early in life by a father who read to him, cuts his sleep to four or five hours a night, according to his wife. Among the duties of his ambassadors abroad is to mail him new volumes he chooses after reading reviews in the New York Review of Books and other periodicals.
The elder son of a wealthy coffee-growing family, Arias grew up with a tradition of public service. His grandfather served in two presidential cabinets, and his father headed the Central Bank.
Oscar Arias entered Harvard in 1960 as a premed student, but his distaste for dissecting frogs led him instead to law and economics. He eventually dropped out of Harvard. Later, he later took degrees in both law and economics at the University of Costa Rica and received a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Essex in England, after writing a dissertation on his country's leadership.
John Biehl, a Chilean-born economist, was struck by Arias' personality when they were classmates at Essex in the late 1960s. The two became friends, spending long evenings talking politics, singing and reading poetry with other Latin American students at Biehl's home.
"Oscar was nicknamed El Presidente for his ambition," Biehl recalled. "But he was so tense, so introverted and studious. It took a lot of good wine to get him to relax and laugh a little.