Costa Rican President Oscar Arias S'anchez won this year's Nobel Peace Prize on the strength of a stubborn belief: In the face of all the odds, Central America's future is brighter than its current panorama of strife and bloodshed. That dream has yet to be fulfilled, and the regional peace plan that President Arias has pushed relentlessly for the past 18 months is still a long way from reality. But the cachet of the prize gives the plan another bulwark of support. It also offers Mr. Arias international recognition for his balancing act between the United States and Nicaragua.
Key to that diplomatic tightrope walk has been the President's insistence on Costa Rica's neutrality. Arias's impeccable anticommunist credentials have protected him from charges of being soft on the leftist Nicaraguan government. At the same time, he has shown a surprising independence from Washington.
Braving US wrath, and risking the massive US economic aid on which Costa Rica depends, Arias has set his face firmly against the Nicaraguan contra rebels, and thus against President Reagan's policy in Central America. Most strikingly, within weeks of taking office in May 1986, he closed down an airstrip in northern Costa Rica that the semiofficial, semiprivate US support network had built for the contras the year before.
Arias, 46, was born into one of Costa Rica's wealthiest coffee-growing families. He initially set out to become a doctor, studying at Boston University. But his interests soon turned to politics, and he returned home to work for the social democratic National Liberation Party (PLN), to which he has belonged ever since.
With a master's degree from the London School of Economics and five years of experience as planning minister, Arias had a reputation before assuming the presidency of being a somewhat colorless, intellectual technocrat.
The youngest President in Costa Rica's history, Arias faced stiff opposition from the PLN old guard in his campaign for the party nomination. Many critics said he took himself too seriously and was too dismissive of others' opinions to maintain Costa Rica's peaceful tradition of consensus rule.
But as soon as he took power, Arias seized on a theme that has enjoyed almost universal backing from his countrymen.
``We will keep Costa Rica out of the armed conflicts of Central America,'' Arias said in his inaugural speech, ``and we will endeavor through diplomatic and political means to prevent our Central American brothers from killing each other.''
His single-mindedness in pursuing that goal has catapulted Arias onto the international stage, reminding the world that Costa Rica has a 40-year tradition of democratic government without an Army.
That experience, unique in Latin America, has given Arias a credibility in regional affairs that no other Central American President can match.
Bolstering that credibility with support from Western Europe and from democrats in the US Congress, Arias has held fast to his peace plan despite President Reagan's opposition.
The US leader recently called the peace pact - signed Aug. 7 by five Central American leaders - ``fatally flawed.'' Disregarding the treaty's call for an end to all outside aid to guerrilla forces, Mr. Reagan has said he will ask Congress for a further $270 million in funding for the contras this fall.
Diplomats here say the prize gives more impetus to the plan, and could further endanger the aid. ``This puts the US government in a bad position if it opposes the plan,'' said Peru's ambassador to Nicaragua, Armando Lecaros.
[Monitor correspondent Peter Osterlund reports from Washington that the award of the prize to Arias is certain to have political repercussions: It is likely to strengthen the hand of those seeking to stymie Reagan's Central American policy. But Rep. Tony Coelho (D) of California said the award essentially eliminated already-meager prospects of congressional approval for new contra military aid.
Republican praise was muted. Robert Michel (R) of Illinois called the award ``premature,'' given the tenuous nature of Central American peace. In a statement, Reagan congratulated Arias, saying the award ``should inspire all of us to renew our efforts to ensure that enduring peace and democracy eventually come to the region.'']