Costa Rica coasts on wave of President's international acclaim. But critics say it's time Arias turned attention to domestic problems

Costa Rica continues to bask in the glow of President Oscar Arias S'anchez's Nobel Peace Prize award. The country is enjoying a boom in international tourism, a demilitarization of its northern border area, and dramatically reduced tensions with Nicaragua, political leaders here say.

And it was partly as a result of President Arias's August 1987 regional peace plan that Nicaragua's leaders and contra rebels last week reached a temporary cease-fire. His plan paved the way for the direct negotiations.

But, at the same time, President Arias's high-profile diplomacy has been criticized by the conservative national press, the opposition, and many middle-class Costa Ricans who say he is neglecting mounting economic problems at home.

``Naturally we're proud that we won the Nobel Prize,'' says a local taxi driver, ``but now it's time for the President to pay attention to what's happening here.''

Perhaps the most significant impact of Costa Rica's leadership role in drafting last August's peace plan, says Prof. Danilo Camacho, has been the trend toward demilitarization - more precisely, the ousting of Nicaraguan contra rebels from Costa Rican territory.

Likewise, says the professor, the possibility of Costa Rican involvement in a regional war has been reversed.

Minister of the Presidency Rodrigo Arias agrees that the Nobel prize and peace initiative provisions have given the Arias administration the moral authority to stop aiding the several thousand contras who operated from here. That involvement began under a previous administration, in 1983.

Although Arias began cracking down on contra activity in northern Costa Rica in 1987, the first year of his rule, efforts have intensified since August. Arias closed rebel airstrips; demanded that rebel leaders based in San Jos'e leave the country; opened a dialogue with Nicaragua's Sandinista government; and criticized United States aid to the contras.

Determined to reinforce Costa Rica's civilian tradition - it does not have an army - Arias issued a decree in August requiring the Rural and Civil Guards to exchange their khaki and olive-green uniforms for more civilian-looking navy blue-and-gray attire.

It was a symbolic move, and such symbolism has become more evident in recent months. The Civil Guard headquarters in the port city of Lim'on, for example, is painted with a dove carrying an olive branch. Bus drivers in the capital turn to themes such as ``Costa Rica, Oasis of Peace'' when they decorate their ornate windows. And hundreds of Costa Ricans took part in the Abolition of the Army Day parade Dec. 1, to commemorate the 1948 dismantling of the military.

``I think the identity of Costa Rica is much clearer today, both internally and externally, than it was two years ago,'' says V'ictor Ram'irez, director of the Institute of Tourism. ``People know that we're not Nicaragua. We're not Panama. We don't have an Army.''

Costa Rica's new peace-promoting image has helped spark a tourism boom in recent months, says Institute of Tourism official Eddy Seguro. San Jos'e's major hotels report 90 percent to 100 percent occupancy in January and February. And English-language shop owners say they can't keep enough guidebooks in stock.

Since the contra war began in the early 1980s, tourism here was static at roughly 200,000-250,000 visitors a year, Mr. Seguro says. He predicts a leap this year.

Meanwhile, Costa Rican peace organizations and some left-of-center political groups say they are enjoying government cooperation for the first time. The Friends Peace Center in San Jos'e, a network of groups working for peace in Central America, reports that the ministries of justice and culture are co-sponsoring events with the center this year. Left-of-center Congressman Javier Sol'is of the People United Party says his education and housing bills introduced to the National Assembly have been backed by the Arias administration. ``Never before has a People United bill been backed by an administration,'' says Mr. Solis.

But the dove of peace has been an elusive creature to the opposition Social Christian Unity Party, which says Arias's National Liberation Party is making the peace issue its exclusive property.

Rodolfo Mendez, social party general-secretary, says the free publicity around the peace process has put his party at a disadvantage. Presidency Minister Arias admits the effect of ``the peace prize is probably the equivalent of our national campaign budget for 20 years.''

But Mr. Mendez suggests the President's credibility is diminishing because of growing economic problems, his frequent travels abroad, and inaccessibility to business, civic, and other groups. As one Social Christian newspaper advertisement put it: ``Peace is not sufficient, if we become impoverished in peace.''

In recent months, disgruntled citizens have held street protests on the recent 6 percent currency devaluation, a highly unpopular tax package, and a hike in food, transport, and utility costs. Taxi drivers went on strike in January to protest increased license fees.

According to incoming Minister of Information Guido Fern'andez, Arias recognizes he must deal with domestic issues, such as housing, land tenure, and employment. ``Those are the promises of his campaign that he has to fulfill.''

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