Costa Rica’s Arias Surprises No One by Turning his Back on the Dalai Lama

Costa Rica’s President Oscar Arias once again has turned his back on an existing relationship and the obligations that went with it. He has done this in favor of a new one that is more self-serving to the nation as well as possibly his own self-interests. This pattern conforms to the spirit of opportunism, which has motivated so much of his public life. This time it is in regard to Costa Rica’s increasingly torrid relationship with the People’s Republic of China. Arias, whose unwarranted reputation for being a person of immense public rectitude and a strong human rights advocate often conflicts with his actual record, most recently exhibited the moral ambiguity of his nature by requesting that the Dalai Lama cancel—not postpone—his unofficial visit to Costa Rica scheduled for September 10th. The Costa Rican-Tibetan Cultural Association had organized the trip as a cultural and religious visit by the revered Tibetan spiritual leader, but San José feared that his appearance on Costa Rican soil would lead China’s President Hu Jintao to cancel his likely visit to the country in October. In addition, the visit would impair its ties to the golden goose that the Asian powerhouse has become for the Central American nation, since it switched its diplomatic ties from Taiwan to Beijing.

Arias ordered his foreign ministry to make the changeover in order to encourage the flow of Chinese investments into Costa Rica, a move that normally accompanies public and private gifts, of irresistible magnitude. In June of 2007, Arias announced Costa Rica would cease diplomatic ties with Taiwan in order to align itself with China, but at an undisclosed price. In August of 2007, China inaugurated its embassy in San José, making it the first Chinese embassy in Central America in six decades. Although Arias stated his decision was made only after “thinking of all Costa Ricans,” what he really meant to say was that China dangled a $50 million aid package before his eyes, which he could not refuse. Presumably his decision with regards to the Dalai Lama’s trip was equally well lubricated. Arias’ move served to once again significantly tarnish Costa Rica’s global reputation as a country whose leadership is more intrigued by pay-offs from major patron nations and the leadership of the day than by a reputation for probity. In October of 2007, Arias visited China in order to initiate an augmented dialogue with that country’s senior officials; Arias’ hope here was to implement a free trade pact between the two countries.

The cancellation of the Dalai Lama’s visit is intensely disheartening for proponents of human rights. Yet it is not unexpected from a man of Oscar Arias’ flexible definition of the concept of integrity. While he helped to broker the peace accords that ended the Central American civil wars in the late 1980s, and subsequently won the Nobel Peace Prize, many specialists all along have insisted that it was actually then-president Vinicio Cerezo of Guatemala who was the first to seek a negotiated settlement of the Central American civil wars, and it was he who deserved the Nobel distinction, which ultimately was denied him by Arias’ self-promotion.

President Arias is not doing any particular service to his already tattered reputation by committing an affront to such a highly respected human rights and religious figure as the Dalai Lama, solely to pursue economic ambitions for his nation, especially after the Dalai Lama specifically requested Arias’ help to arrange a private meeting with China in order to address factors relating to Tibet’s latest round of unrest, which dates back to March of this year.

No one can claim that Costa Rica does not have a well-established human rights record that puts many other Latin American countries to shame, but the fact that all of its recent presidents have left office under a cloud of scandals regarding bribery or pay-offs from foreign governments and multinational corporations seeking special considerations, or diplomatic concessions from local authorities, is not reassuring. Costa Rica’s leaders must do what they can to improve and preserve their strong past human rights record and reestablish itself as a reputable example for other Central American countries to emulate. After all, one would think that the plight of the Tibetans at the hands of Beijing might at some point attract Arias’ professed concern for human right observances.