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The Peacemaker and the Pragmatist

• October 03, 2009 • 12:00 PM

Oscar Arias and Bill Clinton on the burning issues of Latin America, from unrest in Honduras to charcoal in Haiti.

If Oscar Arias was slightly cranky behind the sermon-like melody of his words, it was probably because reasonable solutions to the Western Hemisphere’s greatest problems — like coups d’état and incredible poverty — had been developed a long time ago. People just keep failing to apply them.

Or, as he implied in the opening of his speech, people neglected the ancient wisdom of the Nordic god Odin, who received routine counsel from two ravens, one representing the power of memory, the other the power of reason.

“I like this story because it emphasizes the importance of memory in politics, while also warning us that memory is not enough if it is not accompanied by thought, by reason, which extracts from the past lessons for the present,” he intoned in Spanish to a lunchtime mass seated in a banquet hall the size of a small cathedral at the historic Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables on Sept. 29. The occasion was the Miami Herald’s annual Americas Conference.

“We are gathered here today to discuss the destiny of this region of light and shadow,” continued the 1987 Nobel Peace Prize winner, founder of the Fundación Arias Para La Paz y El Progreso Humano and current president of Costa Rica. But because Latin America faces so many afflictions there was not enough time to speak of them all. So he would talk “exclusively” about “the dramatic historical setback” otherwise known as the June 28 overthrow of the elected president of Honduras, Manuel Zelaya.

Of course, talking only about Honduras calls for a brief mention of John Adams.

“Democracy is a system that defends institutions, not people,” Arias said. “It is a system that cares about the rules of the game, not its protagonists. Or, according to the famous phrase of John Adams, it is the government of laws and not of men. It is very easy to respect the rights of those who think the same way we do. Defending the rights of those who think differently — that is the real challenge of democracy.”

That, and getting de facto President Roberto Micheletti to sign the San Jose Agreement, a compromise Arias hashed out in July and that only Zelaya has accepted. Under the plan, Micheletti would relinquish the presidency to Zelaya. Zelaya would drop his campaign to reform the constitution, an effort that Micheletti, the Honduran military, supreme court and most of its congress categorically opposed. Zelaya would serve out the rest of his term, which ends this coming January. Elections previously scheduled for November would be held in October.

But reason and memory took wing from Honduras several months ago and haven’t looked back. While Micheletti stalled, Zelaya snuck back into the country, taking refuge inside the Brazilian embassy. Zelaya supporters gathered; Micheletti imposed a decree that suspended individual rights, imposed a curfew, prohibited public meetings not authorized by the police or military and allowed authorities to shut down radio and TV stations — all of which created more and more unrest, as soldiers and rival groups of demonstrators roamed the streets of Honduran cities oblivious to Arias’ well-reasoned plan for reconciliation.

Maybe in Odin’s world, Arias would have arrived at the Biltmore with news of the first-ever negotiated coup reversal in Central America.

Instead, he had to resort to conjuring up two new entreaties to the hotheads in Tegucigalpa. One: Renounce the war of words. “A verbal escalation will translate, almost by necessity, into an escalation of violence. Everything has a solution, except death. Nothing is worth spilling blood among the people, not even the defense of the noblest ideals. If we are going to defend democracy, let us defend it with its own instruments: with dialogue and understanding, with respect and prudence, with peace and tolerance.”

The other entreaty: Micheletti must lift the decree. Otherwise, most governments will have difficulty accepting results of the upcoming presidential vote. “What kind of democratic elections are these in which public meetings cannot take place without the authorization of the army?” Arias asked. “What kind of democratic elections are these in which the media can be closed for opposing unspecified government resolutions? Only the most forgetful of people could read this decree without experiencing memories of a terrible Latin American past.”

Naturally, any peace laureate can’t speak of the part (Honduras) without referring to the whole (Latin America). Taking a step back, Arias cautioned against confusing the immediate causes of the coup with the “underlying, long-term” ones. Topping the list: the prevalence of strong armies in weak democracies, military authorities unrestricted by civil authorities, disdain for the legal process.

“Why are we surprised by a coup d’état in a region that, this year, will spend nearly $60 billion on its armies, despite the fact that 200 million Latin Americans live in poverty and the average amount of schooling of our students is barely seven years?” he wondered. “Why are we surprised by a coup d’état in a region where conventional arms flow from one end to the other, feeding disrespect for the most elemental norms of human coexistence, as passive governments look away? Why are we surprised by a coup d’état in a region where it seems to be more important to feed the belly of a cannon than the belly of a child, more important to give training to a soldier than education to a youngster, to fortify military barracks rather than fortify democratic institutions?”

“Unfortunately, we’re not alone in this madness,” he added, noting that the nations of the world spend $3.5 billion daily on weapons and soldiers, or 10 times more than they spend on nonmilitary aid.

Perhaps Arias was too modest to remind his audience that Costa Rica abolished its army in 1948 and hasn’t had a coup since. But if he had, he could have asked one more rhetorical question: If Honduras had abolished its army 60 years ago, how could it have deported Zelaya to Costa Rica on June 28, and what would be transpiring in that country right now?

Apparently the ravens have also been counseling former U.S. President Bill Clinton, who arrived at a Biltmore ballroom several hours later to give a speech. Clinton, who is currently a U.N. special envoy to Haiti, talked almost exclusively about the island nation, the poorest nation in the hemisphere. He was due in Port-au-Prince for an Oct. 1 meeting the Inter-American Development Bank had organized to bring together business executives from around the world.

“We finally, I think, have a broad consensus, at least here in the Americas, [that] we are totally interdependent,” Clinton announced. “We’re going up or down together. We have to act like friends and neighbors. We have to find solutions where we all win and not where some of us win at the expense of others. And I can see that in the work that I am doing in Haiti.”

People who follow Haiti know that hopeful talk about ending poverty there is as old as the island’s deforested hills. But Clinton presented some anecdotal evidence that times really have changed.

He recalled October 1994, when he ordered the U.S. military to return Haiti’s deposed president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, to office. “The only genuinely enthusiastic Latin American ally I had then was Argentina, although there were others who participated,” Clinton remembered. “Now there is a determination that sweeps right through Latin America and the Caribbean to do what can be done to bring Haiti into the family of Latin America, to bring Haiti into our hemisphere’s future, not to have it isolated out there as the poorest country.”

He noted that more executives from Latin American countries had signed up for the IADB meeting than from the United States, Canada and Europe. “That never would have happened two years ago,” he said. “And that is a very good piece of news not only for Haiti but for what it says about our having our heads screwed on straight about what we have to do together in the future.”

One such collaboration, according to Clinton, has to be the reconstruction of Haiti’s notorious, and in many places nonexistent, road system. “We can’t rebuild the agriculture without the roads — or the tourism,” he said, adding that new and improved roads will make agriculture more attractive. If that agriculture involves growing trees, especially mango and jatropha orchards, people will be less inclined to cut down trees for charcoal — the cooking fuel of choice for millions of Haitians. More trees would also mean less flooding, a chronic problem in Haiti, especially during hurricane season, owing to deforestation.

Road improvement would also make it feasible to start road tours to the Citadel, a fortress on Haiti’s north coast that was built in the early 1800s and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. But it’s almost impossible to reach without a helicopter or ocean craft.

“We have to make [the Citadel] user-friendly. If we do, then we can have 2, 3, maybe 4 million tourists a year in Haiti, which would create huge numbers of jobs,” Clinton said. A hotel project in Liberia spearheaded by BET founder (and Clinton Global Initiative collaborator) Robert Johnson has created 1,800 jobs, the ex-president added.

Clinton also shared with the audience his discovery of a group of young people in a Port-au-Prince slum who are collecting trash, then converting waste paper (and sawdust) into beige briquettes shaped like large hockey pucks. The disks are 20 times cheaper than an equivalent amount of charcoal. The idea is that if every neighborhood had such a factory a lot of trees could be saved. And, since 10 to 20 times more people are needed to produce and distribute the disks than for charcoal operations, a lot of jobs could be created.

“It’s the kind of thing that has the potential to sweep the world,” Clinton said. “This could be done in Bombay, in Calcutta, in New Delhi and everyplace else, because a 29-year-old in Haiti and his colleagues figured out what to do to put people to work.”

He held up one of the pucks for all in the ballroom to see. No one knew if it would enter American mythology one day, but it was already one of the newest symbols of hope for Haiti.

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Kirk Nielsen
Kirk Nielsen is an independent journalist based in Miami Beach. For the past decade, he has tracked presidential and congressional candidates through the political swamps of southern Florida and written extensively on the persistent Cold War conundrum known as Cuban politics. His articles have also appeared in The Progressive, The Village Voice, and Poder magazine and on Salon.com. As a staff writer for Miami New Times, he and his colleagues won the John Bartlow Martin Award for Public Interest Magazine Journalism for a series on poverty in glamorous greater Miami in 2002. In the 1990s, Nielsen filed radio and print reportage from all over the Caribbean region and southern United States for Monitor Radio and The Christian Science Monitor.

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