MEN of vision have often been ridiculed for their idealistic conviction that things could be better than they are. Skeptics have long said that the Arias peace plan for Central America will not work, that the Sandinistas will renege on their promises and pull the plug. Costa Rican President Oscar Arias S'anchez stubbornly insists that with 25 million Central Americans wanting an end to armed conflict in the region as badly as they do, ``we just cannot fail.'' That kind of courageous optimism, in the face of strong odds, this week earned Mr. Arias his richly deserved Nobel Peace Prize. Basking in the shared glory, and rightly so, are the other Central American nations and Costa Rica itself, a democracy with free, compulsory education, no death penalty, and no standing army.
Early in 1987, when he was only one year into his term as Costa Rica's President and it would have been safer to tend to national business, Arias took a considerable risk. This lawyer and economist of quiet demeanor crafted a regional peace plan and began persistently promoting it before almost any audience that would listen. On Aug. 7 four other Central American Presidents signed aboard; they did so despite strong criticism of the pact's ``loopholes'' by the Reagan administration, the latter's preference for the tougher Reagan-Wright plan, and their own heavy dependence on United States aid. It took courage on their part and forceful pressure from Arias, who, at one point, kept the talks going by ordering, instead of a break for dinner, dinner brought to the negotiating room.
Arias is correct in pointing to the many others who should share in the Nobel honor. His plan built upon the proposals made by the Contadora group which preceded it. The Reagan-Wright plan also added to an atmosphere of renewed hope in diplomacy at a critical moment before the Arias plan was signed.
The plan has not yet achieved its goals. Critics say the award was thus premature. We disagree. As the chairman of the Nobel Committee notes, the prize should not just recognize those who serve peace but should contribute to the process. The award gives the plan a decided boost. Arias is now pushing hard to persuade the Sandinistas to accept the idea of a negotiated cease-fire, with someone such as Miguel Cardinal Obando y Bravo serving as an intermediary for the contras. House Speaker Jim Wright says the award ensures that Congress will not approve new contra aid; this despite the fact that on the very day of the award Secretary of State George Shultz made a strong pitch in hearings on Capitol Hill for Congress's approval of the administration's $270 million aid request to help the contras politically if not militarily.
The award is one more reminder that moves toward peace, and conversely war, in one part of the world affect us all. Arias views the award less as achievement than as incentive for peacemakers in the region to ``redouble'' their efforts. He is on the mark.