SAN JOSE, Costa Rica — He was the Nobel laureate who stood up to Ronald Reagan and drafted the peace plan that ended Central America's civil wars. Now, two decades later, former President Oscar Arias is looking to retake Costa Rica's highest office.
Thinner, grayer and not quite the superhero he was when he won the Peace Prize in 1987 during his first term in office, Arias leads the pack heading into today's elections.
A recent poll projects that the 65-year-old will emerge the winner with about 43% of the vote in a field of six main contenders. That's 17 points ahead of his closest rival. Although Arias' lead appears to have slipped in recent days, that would still put him above the 40% threshold needed to avoid a runoff with the second-place finisher.
Many Costa Ricans are weary of the corruption scandals that have plagued the conservative Social Christian Unity Party, which has held the presidency for eight years. They are worried about the stagnant economy, rising violence and the fraying of their cherished social safety net.
For some, Arias represents a time when their leader was respected on the world stage, and their country's relative peace, stability and prosperity made it the envy of the region.
"We are living in the middle of a hurricane, but Oscar will lead us out," said Wilma Calvo Soto, 64, sporting the green and white of the Arias campaign at a recent rally in the capital's tough Leon XIII neighborhood. "He will be the salvation of this nation."
If Arias wins, the presidency will return to the left-of-center National Liberation Party, making Costa Rica the latest in a string of Latin American nations to elect a leftist leader. But analysts caution against lumping the bookish, temperate Arias with firebrands such as Venezuela's Hugo Chavez or Bolivia's new president, Evo Morales, an indigenous ex-coca farmer who has described himself as the Bush administration's "worst nightmare."
Arias is a critic of U.S. foreign policy, but he has also chastised Fidel Castro for squelching democracy in Cuba, and he is disdainful of Chavez's polemics against free trade. He is popular among Costa Rica's poor for championing higher taxes for the rich and social spending, yet he has gained favor among elites and the business community for his support of market economics. That includes backing the Central American Free Trade Agreement, known as CAFTA.
"Arias is not easily pigeonholed," said Peter Hakim, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a think tank based in Washington. He said that if Arias was elected, Costa Rica's relationship with the U.S. was "going to be a mix, depending on the issue."
After finishing his four-year term in 1990, the former president focused on the Arias Foundation for Peace and Human Progress, roaming the globe promoting democracy and human rights. But like other former Latin American leaders, including Argentina's Carlos Menem, Arias couldn't resist another run at the presidency.
He backed a number of legal attempts to overturn Costa Rica's ban on reelection, an effort that bore fruit in 2003 when the Supreme Court declared the restriction unconstitutional.
The maneuvering earned him the enmity of some former admirers dismayed by the peacemaker's move to return to power. Indeed, his ego is formidable. Arias takes credit for putting Costa Rica on the map and sparking its tourist boom, a claim that might surprise the surfers and backpackers who flock here to see nature, not his Nobel medal.
His comfortable home in San Jose, the capital, is a photographic tribute to himself, adorned with framed shots of him posing with notables such as the Dalai Lama and Whoopi Goldberg.
But at a time when Costa Ricans worry that their country is adrift, the supremely confident Arias represents for many the veteran captain who will right the ship. His election slogans are Clintonesque in their upbeat tone. One billboard features the smiling candidate with a loosened tie and rolled-up sleeves promising voters that "Costa Rica's best days are still ahead."
But voters such as Yessenia Melendez Mendez are looking back. She was only 3 when Arias took office in 1986, and she acknowledges that she knows little about his current platform. But Melendez says she remembers her grandmother telling her what a good man Arias was, which is good enough for her.
"I hope that he creates more jobs," said Melendez, 23, an unemployed single mother.
Arias, who is a trained lawyer and an economist, has made it clear that economic development would be the main focus of his administration if voters return him to office.
Costa Rica abolished its army in 1949 and directed those resources into education, universal healthcare and other programs that have paid huge dividends over the decades, earning the nation its nickname as the "Switzerland of Latin America."