US Critic Set to Return to Power in Costa Rica

By Howard Williams | July 7, 2008 | 8:17 PM EDT

San Jose, Costa Rica ( - Former Costa Rican president Oscar Arias, a vocal critic of U.S. foreign policy, is expected to win a second term as president in the Feb. 5 general election, polls show.

Arias won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987 for brokering an end to civil wars in central America, but voters expect the U.S.- and British-educated politician to look closer to home for his next project, which will be to stop the gradual economic decline of what once was considered among the best-run nations in Latin America.

According to various opinion polls here, the only question is whether Arias will be elected in the first round or be forced into a runoff with the second-place candidate. Even if forced into a second round, polls show, Arias is likely to emerge as the clear winner.

But polls also show that the new legislative assembly, to be elected Feb. 5, will be divided with no party having an overall majority, forcing Arias to develop ad-hoc coalitions on different issues.

While foreign policy is considered Arias' forte and he has a long tradition of being critical of U.S. foreign policy issues, he also is seen as a pragmatist.

By the time he is sworn in as president, Costa Rica is expected to have ratified the Central American Free Trade Agreement with the U.S. and other Central American nations. Although opposed by many Costa Ricans, the deal is expected to plough hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars into the troubled Costa Rican economy.

It also will force Costa Rica to liberalize its internal economy with the introduction of competition in the lucrative telecommunications and Internet sectors.

Often criticized at home during his first presidency (1986-1990) for an authoritarian style of governing, Arias' appeal for voters this time, according to analysts, is for his ability to make decisions and push ahead with reforms.

After eight years of lethargic leadership, many Costa Ricans believe Arias' previously disliked authoritarian approach is now exactly what the country needs.

Relations with the United States - CAFTA aside - are expected to be low on Arias' agenda.

He is, however, expected to continue to be a critic of U.S. foreign policy and a supporter of leftist governments in South America such as those in Bolivia and Venezuela.

Because of his success in bringing internal peace to neighboring countries, his influence in Central America that will be closely watched - especially in Nicaragua, Guatemala and Honduras and El Salvador, all of which are struggling with political and economic turmoil.

Costa Rica's is among a string of elections in South and Central America this year - a dozen in the period between Nov. 2005 and Nov. 2006.

In many of those elections, leftist or left-leaning candidates are popular. Two have already won -- Evo Morales in Bolivia and Michelle Bachelet in Chile.

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