SAN JOSÉ, Costa Rica — A psychiatrist and antinuclear activist has accused Óscar Arias Sánchez, the Nobel laureate and former Costa Rica president, of sexually assaulting her four years ago, bringing the #MeToo movement to one of Latin America’s most revered statesmen.
Mr. Arias won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987 for having brokered a plan to end civil wars in Central America. He remains the most powerful figure in Costa Rica, which he led twice and where he continues to run a foundation that promotes peace and democracy.
The sexual assault allegation could deliver a serious blow to his legacy.
The accuser, Alexandra Arce von Herold, filed a criminal complaint with federal prosecutors on Monday and gave a statement under penalty of perjury asking them to charge Mr. Arias with sexual assault. She provided a copy of the 10-page complaint to The New York Times, which shows she had met with prosecutors for nearly three hours. Dr. Arce did not seek civil damages.
A nuclear disarmament activist, Dr. Arce often met with the former president, who was an important supporter of the cause. She said she was at Mr. Arias’ home in late 2014 to discuss an upcoming event in Vienna when he came up behind her, touched her breasts and shoved his hands up her skirt, penetrating her with his fingers.
She left, distraught, and told a number of people what had happened, at times in tears. Among them were colleagues and her brother, who said that for weeks afterward, “it was like she had PTSD. She didn’t feel safe.”
In a statement emailed by his lawyer, Rodolfo Brenes, Mr. Arias said he was innocent and would defend himself in court.
“I deny categorically the accusations made against me,” he said. “I have never acted in a way that disrespected the will of any woman.”
Mr. Arias is also facing unrelated accusations of criminal malfeasance in connection with his 2008 decision to approve a Canadian company’s gold mining project in an ecological corridor before environmental studies had been completed. The case has been through a preliminary hearing and Mr. Arias is waiting for the court to determine whether he will stand trial.
“Politics today is a conspiracy of insinuations,” Mr. Arias wrote in an op-ed column last month in response to the malfeasance charge.
Thinking back to the afternoon when she said Mr. Arias had grabbed her, Dr. Arce said she regretted not having fought back. She was in shock, she said. She had first met Mr. Arias through her mother, a former legislator in his party, and had visited his house with her mother in the past.
“I just froze, and I didn’t know what to do,” she said in an interview. “I was so much in shock. That had never happened to me before.”
Dr. Arce said the only thing that occurred to her at the time was to cry out: “You’re married!”
She said she made up an excuse about having an appointment at the National Assembly and hurried out. She was in such a panic, she said, that she actually went to the National Assembly, even though she had no meeting scheduled.
There, Dr. Arce met a member of Congress she knew and told her what had just happened, she said.
That legislator’s aide, who did not want his name published because he did not wish to get entangled in a scandal involving such an influential person, confirmed the account to The Times. The aide said Dr. Arce had been teary-eyed and nervous.
That same day, Dr. Arce also called her boyfriend, who lives in France, and told him.
“I immediately trusted Alex,” the boyfriend, Jean Marie Collin, said in an interview. “I never had a doubt about what she told me.”
Dr. Arce also said she told her brother, her father, and several other people in the nuclear disarmament movement. Her complaint says she spoke to 15 people. One of those people, with whom Dr. Arce shared the story during the meeting in Vienna, told The Times that Dr. Arce had been in tears when she spoke about it.
“She didn’t go into details about what exactly happened, and we didn’t ask her,” Dr. Arce’s brother, Manuel Arce, said in an interview.
Her father died shortly afterward and she fell into a depression. Mr. Collin said Dr. Arce often did not want to be touched, even by him.
Dr. Arce said she did not go public earlier because, before the #metoo movement led to a period of reckoning in the United States, where famous men suddenly found themselves having to answer for allegations of sexual harassment and assaults that took place even decades earlier, the notion of making such a serious allegation against someone so powerful seemed unimaginable.
She said that seeing women accuse powerful men like Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby of sexual harassment and sexual assault was inspiring. But it was watching the young gymnasts testify one after the other about sexual assault by a United States Olympic team doctor, Larry Nassar, that clinched her decision to come forward, she said.
“All the other women, that did, that helped me,” said Dr. Arce, who works at a state hospital in San José, Costa Rica’s capital. “So I thought maybe, maybe, I can help other people too.”
One year ago, she wrote Facebook and Instagram posts detailing her accusation against Dr. Arias, she said, adding that a Costa Rican journalist who saw the posts encouraged her to delete them, saying they would have negative repercussions for her. She deleted the posts.
Trying to hold powerful men accountable is even more difficult in Latin America, because of “machismo, corruption and high levels of impunity,” said Teresa Ulloa Ziaurriz, a women’s rights activist in Mexico.
In a region where violence against women is escalating, activists often focus on more extreme gender-based violence. It is more common to see the hashtag #NiUnaMenos — not one less — than #metoo.
Montserrat Sagot Rodríguez, a women’s studies specialist at the University of Costa Rica, said a law against sexual harassment was approved in 1995, but there have been few cases brought against powerful people — and only one politician was ever forced out over such a complaint.
Despite the societal challenges, a number of women have made denunciations across the region. The Mexican actress, Karla Souza, told CNN en Español last year that she had been raped by a director early in her career.
Several actresses have come forward to accuse a fellow actor in Argentina of sexual assault and harassment. In Brazil, João Teixeira de Faria, a spiritual healer known as John of God — made famous outside the country by an appearance on Oprah Winfrey’s talk show — was accused of sexual assault by more than 200 women. He was arrested in December.
The accusation against Mr. Arias is the highest-profile one in the region to date.
Dr. Arce said she had hesitated to come forward also out of fear of alienating Mr. Arias, an important contact in the disarmament crusade.
“The cause was more important than anything else,” she said.
But she finally decided that other young activists who work with Mr. Arias could be at risk.
“It’s the right thing to do,” she said, “even if it destroys me.”
Orignially published in NYT.