Discussion question: Does Costa Rica have a culture of peace?

This discussion question applies to the article Film: Costa Rica Abolished its Military, Never Regretted it.

Here is the point of view on this question of Oscar Arias who was President of Costa Rica from 1985 to . These are excerpts from his recent speech to the Rotary Symposum “Partnering For Peace: Today’s Challenges, Tomorrow’s Successes” held at the Anhembi Palace, Sao Paulo, Brazil. Click here to read the full speech

. . . The truth is that in history’s darkest moments, we can find unexpected light. It was true with both of our World Wars, one of which generated the League of Nations, the other the United Nations. It was true of the violence that swept my own country, Costa Rica, in 1948, and led us to become the first country on earth to voluntarily abolish its armed forces.

. . . I am here to tell you that reduction in military spending can change a country and region forever. I know this, not because of my career or my studies. I know this because I am a Costa Rican.

As I mentioned earlier, Costa Rica abolished its army when I was just eight years old. By doing this, my country promised me, and all its children, that we would never see tanks or troops in our streets. My country promised me, and all its children, that it would invest, not in the weapons of our past, but in the tools of our future; not in barracks, but in schools, hospitals, and national parks; not in soldiers, but in teachers, doctors, and park guards. My country promised to dismantle the institutions of violence, and invest in the progress that makes violence unnecessary. In other words: My country decided that it had devoted its resources to war long enough, and that it wanted to devote the genius of its people to the science of averting war.
This resulted not only in a healthy, educated, and free society. It resulted in concrete gains for national and regional security.

When conflicts and civil wars swept our region in the 1980s, Costa Rica was able to maintain its stability and freedom from violence. What’s more, this enabled my little country to become the platform for the peace accords that gradually ended the unrest in our part of the world. And today, while the terrible consequences of drug trafficking in our region and consumption in the developed world are posing serious challenges to our government, Costa Rica continues to maintain its foothold in the world of peace.

The rest of the world can gain just as much. With tiny fractions of the funds currently spent on weapons and war, we could abolish preventable diseases such as malaria, or achieve basic primary schooling for all our children. Steps such as these would do much more for international security than any battle or bombing. I do not have to tell a room full of Peace Fellows that violence feeds off of illiteracy and desperation. If we can change the numbers of our military spending, we will shift the balance towards peace. . .

I have been asked many times since 1987, the year when Central America achieved the Peace Accords that ended the pervasive armed conflicts in our region, what the secret was to our success. All of you are far too expert in conflict resolution to believe that there was just one secret – but, of course, it is important to examine past successes for best practices, especially when history affords us so few examples of conflicts solved entirely through negotiation. Many factors aligned that allowed the presidents of Central America to come together in support of the Peace Plan I had drafted. However, one key element in the process was my decision to follow the example of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and lock my fellow presidents into the negotiating room with me until we reached an agreement. Only by closing that back door, and with it, the easy way out to war, could we manage to cross the threshold of peace that had escaped us. We had to recognize that peace was the only acceptable outcome before we could rise above the status quo. We closed the door to war; we opened our hearts to peace. And our region was never the same. . .

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Finally, there is often a misconception that a peaceful solution can come from outside the region at war. Another lesson from Central America was that nations in conflict must create their own solutions, no matter how hard that might be. External players can help a troubled region reach a temporary truce, but lasting peace depends on the capacity of the governments involved to maintain their democratic institutions, deliver justice, protect human rights and ensure human development. Because of this, those governments must be the authors of their own plans for the future.

As the great French philosopher Guizot once said, “Pessimists are nothing more than spectators; it is the optimists who transform the world.” History is not written by those who predict failure for every new opportunity, or those who surrender before their greatest challenge. It is written by those who dare to dream. It is written by those who dare to sit down at the negotiating table, without preconditions. It is written by those who understand that the end of violence is the product of dialogue, not a prerequisite. It is written by those who dare to speak words of agreement in the face of terrible discord. It is written by those who realize that the ultimate act of courage is not to take up arms, but to lay them down – and those who find the strength to make that powerful choice. . .

I began my remarks in the dark, but I end them in the light. I end them in the light of reason that each of the Peace Fellows is ready to bring into the world. I end them in the light of hope – hope for a world where the numbers of lives and dollars wasted in pursuit of war march down towards zero. I end them in the light that shines forth when we cast off the bonds of violence; when we close the door to suffering; when we open the door, at long last, to peace in our time.

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