Arias Sánchez Receives the Nobel Peace Prize Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Oscar Arias Sánchez received the 1987 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to achieve peace in Central America, specifically for the peace plan he devised, which was signed by the five Central American presidents.

Summary of Event

The violence that gripped Central America in the 1980’s was focused on two national tragedies: the war in Nicaragua between the Sandinista Sandinistas government and the United States-backed “Contras,” Contras and the civil war in El Salvador between government and insurgent forces. Guatemala, too, experienced widespread political violence during the period. Only Costa Rica, with its tradition of peaceful democracy, seemed to avoid the bloodshed of the decade; even there, however, the turmoil of Central America took its toll in the form of incoming refugees. Nobel Peace Prize;Oscar Arias Sánchez[Arias Sanchez] Arias Peace Plan Esquipulas II Accord [kw]Arias Sánchez Receives the Nobel Peace Prize (Dec. 10, 1987) [kw]Sánchez Receives the Nobel Peace Prize, Arias (Dec. 10, 1987) [kw]Nobel Peace Prize, Arias Sánchez Receives the (Dec. 10, 1987) [kw]Peace Prize, Arias Sánchez Receives the Nobel (Dec. 10, 1987) [kw]Prize, Arias Sánchez Receives the Nobel Peace (Dec. 10, 1987) Nobel Peace Prize;Oscar Arias Sánchez[Arias Sanchez] Arias Peace Plan Esquipulas II Accord [g]Europe;Dec. 10, 1987: Arias Sánchez Receives the Nobel Peace Prize[06620] [g]Norway;Dec. 10, 1987: Arias Sánchez Receives the Nobel Peace Prize[06620] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;Dec. 10, 1987: Arias Sánchez Receives the Nobel Peace Prize[06620] [c]Human rights;Dec. 10, 1987: Arias Sánchez Receives the Nobel Peace Prize[06620] Arias Sánchez, Oscar Ortega Saavedra, Daniel Reagan, Ronald [p]Reagan, Ronald;Nicaragua Duarte, José Napoleon

All of these conflicts were rooted in the poverty and repression that plagued the region throughout the twentieth century. The 1980’s, however, proved to be particularly tragic for the people of the region. It was a decade in which war and repression increased their toll on human life and produced a stream of refugees to countries both within and outside the region.

The immediate sparks to these events occurred in 1979, when Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle Somoza Debayle, Anastasio was deposed and a reformist civilian-military coup in El Salvador ended a long period of military rule. Revolutions and coups;Nicaragua In both cases, many observers hoped that the repression of the previous governments would give way to regimes more respectful of human rights. Whether the post-1979 government in either El Salvador or Nicaragua fulfilled such promise remained controversial. In both countries, the violence of war severely jeopardized the human rights environment.

When Ronald Reagan assumed the presidency of the United States in 1981, the Marxist Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) in Nicaragua, which had overthrown the Somoza dictatorship, was firmly in control (under the leadership of Daniel Ortega Saavedra) and was bitterly opposed by the Reagan administration. The centerpiece of Reagan’s anti-Sandinista policy became the training and funding of the Contras, a guerrilla army composed of Nicaraguan exiles dedicated to removing the FSLN from power.

In El Salvador, Reagan sought to bolster the civilian government led eventually by José Napoleon Duarte, the Christian Democrat and winner of direct presidential elections in 1984. Increased numbers of U.S. military advisers were sent to El Salvador to sustain that government’s efforts against the rebel Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), as were other forms of military and economic assistance. Given its pro-U.S. government and borders with both El Salvador and Nicaragua, Honduras became the recipient of a significant U.S. military presence and increased military and economic assistance. In general, Central America became a central focus of the Reagan administration’s foreign policy, and the United States became a key participant in the struggles in both El Salvador and Nicaragua.

By the mid-1980’s, Central America had also become the focus for several international peace initiatives. In 1983 and 1984, the “Contadora Group” Contadora Group —composed of Mexico, Panama, Colombia, and Venezuela, and named for the Panamanian island on which representatives from these nations initially met—proposed a twenty-one-point peace plan to demilitarize and democratize Central America. By 1986, the Contadora process had come to an unsuccessful end, in part, it was argued, because of the opposition of the United States and some Central American governments.

For its part, the Reagan administration appointed a bipartisan commission, chaired by former U.S. secretary of state Henry Kissinger, Kissinger, Henry to study the conflicts in Central America and to propose policy directions for the United States. The report of the Kissinger Commission, Kissinger Commission released in 1984, emphasized the interests of the United States in promoting economic development and regional security. Both the Contadora plan and the Kissinger Commission report stressed the need for greater attention to human rights throughout the region.

Indeed, human rights vied with security concerns as the yardstick by which to measure policies within and toward the region. Governments and rebels in both El Salvador and Nicaragua were accused (by different groups with different political objectives) of violating the human rights of innocent civilians throughout the 1980’s. The United States accused the Sandinista government in Nicaragua of violating civil and political rights. The Contras fighting that government, as well as Salvadoran government forces and paramilitary “death squads,” received widespread criticism from human rights groups for such alleged acts as torture and assassination.

More than six thousand political prisoners, mostly peasants, were in Nicaraguan jails by 1986, according to some reports. There were also reports of disappearances and torture. Amnesty International criticized the Nicaraguan government for its policies of prolonged detention and keeping prisoners incommunicado, although it later noted that Sandinistas were actively pursuing investigation and prosecution of those responsible for human rights abuses. On the other hand, Amnesty International accused the opposition Contras of a continuous pattern of abuse toward prisoners, kidnappings of noncombatants, and assassination attempts.

In El Salvador, political killings had abated somewhat by 1987 in comparison with the early 1980’s. The most prominent victim of the death squads had been the Roman Catholic archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero, Romero, Oscar Arnulfo a moderate reformist who was assassinated during a mass in March, 1980. The violence of that period produced tens of thousands of deaths and hundreds of thousands of refugees. Most of the deaths of this time were presumed to be the result of the armed forces and the death squads, although the Left was not immune from such charges later in the decade, notably in the 1987 assassination of the president of the Salvadoran Human Rights Commission.

Fleeing El Salvador proved to be no panacea for refugees. Refugees;Salvadorans The United States routinely deported Salvadorans because many failed to meet the test of an individually well-founded fear of persecution as required for refugee status under U.S. law. Although Salvadorans might find meaningful refuge in Canada, the distance and difficulties—not to mention the profound cultural and climatic differences—they would face limited the numbers that pursued that option.

In February, 1987, following the end of the Contadora process and a lack of meaningful progress toward resolution of the conflicts, Costa Rican president Oscar Arias Sánchez proposed a peace plan to other Central American presidents. After lengthy negotiations and several modifications, the document, officially named the Esquipulas II Accord (for the Guatemalan city in which initial meetings took place) but widely known as the Arias Peace Plan, was signed by all five presidents on August 7, 1987, in Guatemala City, Guatemala.

Costa Ricans had been troubled throughout the 1980’s by events elsewhere in Central America, particularly in neighboring Nicaragua. One observer estimated the number of refugees in Costa Rica in 1986 at 250,000. Costa Rica had actively opposed the Somoza dynasty and supported its overthrow but had come to oppose the Sandinista regime as well. Arias himself argued that the Sandinistas had betrayed the democratic principles of their own revolution. He was equally distressed by the Reagan administration’s support of the Contras and its use of Costa Rican territory as a base of operations. Arias later noted that whereas Reagan saw the Contras as part of the solution, Arias saw them as part of the problem. Arias thus had profound domestic political and economic reasons for pursuing a workable peace plan in addition to the historical Costa Rican support of peaceful democratic processes.

The Arias Peace Plan contained eleven points calling for a cessation of hostilities, the democratization of governments throughout the region, and the cessation of assistance—whether from other Central American governments or from governments outside the region—to insurgent forces seeking to overthrow established governments. Under the plan, the signatories also committed themselves to resolving the educational, health, employment, and security problems of the refugees and displaced persons created by the regional crisis. In addition, the agreement emphasized that the achievement of peace and democracy in the region would require economic development and a significant lessening of inequality and poverty.

In October of 1987, in a decision considered a surprise by some, the Norwegian Nobel Committee announced its decision to award the Nobel Peace Prize to President Arias in recognition of his role in designing the peace plan and achieving the compromise agreement. The committee’s chair stated that the award to Arias was also intended to encourage the peace process in Central America.

Presidents Ortega of Nicaragua and Duarte of El Salvador welcomed the news and communicated their congratulations to Arias. President Reagan, whose administration had opposed the plan (in large part because of the provisions regarding foreign assistance to insurgent forces), congratulated the recipient but renewed his commitment to the Contra forces seeking to overthrow the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. Just two days before the Nobel Committee’s announcement, Arias had visited Washington to lobby for a postponement in any consideration of aid to the Contras. Arias received the award in ceremonies held in Oslo, Norway, on December 10, 1987.


The Arias Peace Plan did not end violence and repression in Central America, nor did it end, over the short term, the Central American refugee problem. Nevertheless, in the years following the initial agreement, progress was achieved in the Central American human rights situation, most notably in Nicaragua.

In 1989, the Central American governments reached several follow-up agreements to clarify and enforce further the principles of the Arias plan. The governments presented a plan to deal with the region’s estimated 1.8 million refugees and displaced persons, committed Nicaragua to presidential and legislative elections in 1990, developed plans to dismantle the Contras, and sought to demobilize the FMLN in El Salvador.

On February 25, 1990, Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, Chamorro, Violeta Barrios de leader of the United Nicaraguan Opposition, defeated Ortega in a presidential election. The peaceful transition of power to the opposition demonstrated Nicaragua’s commitment to the principles of democracy articulated by the Arias Peace Plan. The Chamorro government initiated a series of measures that effectively demobilized the Contras and reduced the size of the Nicaraguan army. Backed by the United States, Chamorro succeeded in restoring peace and stability to Nicaragua.

In El Salvador, talks between the government of Alfredo Cristiani Cristiani, Alfredo and the FMLN were initiated, although fighting continued amid the dialogue. The murder of six Jesuit priests at a university in San Salvador in November, 1989, was followed by the government’s stated resolve to bring to justice those accused of the crime within the military. Eventually, in July of 1990, Cristiani and the FMLN came to peaceful terms, a U.N. observer group was deployed, and successful elections, won by Cristiani’s ARENA party, took place in 1994 as El Salvador also gradually traveled the road to greater peace and stability, even as it grappled with its violent recent past through the work of a truth commission.

In both countries, and indeed throughout the region, the Arias plan’s call for reduction in poverty levels—as a necessary prerequisite of durable democracy and peace—was a more ambitious and less attainable goal, even with the establishment of peace. The Central American governments sought greater economic cooperation and a stronger Central American Common Market, but in general the prospects for dramatically reducing regional poverty levels did not appear promising.

From the perspective of human rights, one of the most significant outcomes of the Nobel award to Arias was that it drew attention to the Central American nation most respectful of human rights, Costa Rica. The absence of military forces and the presence of a highly participatory democratic political system, as well as modest success in addressing poverty levels, made Costa Rica a model for its neighbors. The role of its president as a mediator in the region’s vexing political conflicts enhanced the nation’s international image.

The ending of the Contra war, however, proved a somewhat mixed blessing for those Costa Ricans living near the Nicaraguan border. In May, 1991, The Washington Post reported that a father and his four young children had been killed, allegedly by former Contras involved in cattle rustling. Throughout the border region, killings, kidnappings, and robberies continued to rise more than a year after the end of the guerrilla war. Blame was placed on former Contras, unwilling to return to Nicaragua, who had no work or money but did have weapons with which to engage in criminal violence long after their political struggle had ended.

With the monetary award from the Nobel Peace Prize, Arias created the Arias Foundation for Peace and Human Progress, Arias Foundation for Peace and Human Progress based in San Jose, Costa Rica. The foundation’s mission was to support projects and workshops that would promote peace, development, and democracy, with special attention to the needs of the poor and oppressed. Nobel Peace Prize;Oscar Arias Sánchez[Arias Sanchez] Arias Peace Plan Esquipulas II Accord

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Booth, John A. The End and the Beginning: The Nicaraguan Revolution. 2d ed. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1985. Examines the 1979 Sandinista revolution and its aftermath in the context of prevailing social science theory concerning the causes and dynamics of revolution. Provides historical background on Nicaraguan politics, surveying developments from the nineteenth century to the 1980’s. Accessible to the general reader. Includes figures, tables, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gutman, Roy. Banana Diplomacy: The Making of American Policy in Nicaragua, 1981-1987. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988. Meticulously researched piece of investigative journalism presents a critical examination of Reagan administration policy in Nicaragua in the years leading up to the Arias Peace Plan. Focuses on U.S. policy making but also provides extensive description of the actions of key Central American participants, including Arias. Includes bibliographic notes and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">LaFeber, Walter. Inevitable Revolutions: The United States in Central America. 2d ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 1993. Presents a critical interpretation of the involvement and intervention of the United States in the Central American region since the nineteenth century. Useful background for those with a specific interest in U.S. foreign policy toward this region. LaFeber is a prominent historian and critic of this policy. Includes bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lowenthal, Abraham F. Partners in Conflict: The United States and Latin America in the 1990’s. Rev. ed. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990. Covers U.S. policy toward the entire Latin American region and offers numerous insights into the problems of that region and suggestions for a more constructive role for the United States in regional affairs. Presents sober reflections on the prospects for Central America, even in light of the Arias initiative. Includes bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Montgomery, Tommie Sue. Revolution in El Salvador: From Civil Strife to Civil Peace. 2d ed. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1995. Traces the origins of the Salvadoran civil war, with special attention to the historical legacy of inequality dating to the sixteenth century. Supportive of the efforts of revolutionary groups and critical of the oligarchy, the armed forces, and both Salvadoran and U.S. government policies. Includes illustrations, tables, bibliographic references, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">United States. National Bipartisan Commission on Central America. The Report of the President’s National Bipartisan Commission on Central America. New York: Macmillan, 1984. The so-called Kissinger Report seeks to provide an analysis of the social, economic, and political conditions of Central America and suggests a framework for U.S. policy toward the region. Emphasizes the link between economic development and regional security, and may be usefully contrasted with the Arias plan.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Woodward, Ralph Lee, Jr. Central America: A Nation Divided. 3d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Classic survey of the history of the region since colonial times provides informative background on the key participants in the crises of the late twentieth century. Particularly helpful is an extensive guide to the literature on the region. Includes charts, tables, and index.

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Categories: History