José Figueres Ferrer is arguably the most important political figure in the history of Costa Rica.
Figueres was born in 1906 in San Ramón, Costa Rica, to a cultured family that had just immigrated to Central America from Spain, which put them in something of an elite class in Costa Rica. He showed great academic promise and was sent to the United States to further his education, spending the bulk of his time reading voraciously in the Boston Public Library, and taking classes at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. After returning to Costa Rica, he became a successful coffee grower and rope manufacturer. Priding himself on his socialist sentiments, Figueres sought to improve the lives of his workers, building housing for them, supplying them with health care, and providing free milk for their children.
Figueres first moved onto the national stage in 1942, when he took to the radio to denounce President Rafael Calderón, for which he was pressured into leaving the country.
Calderón had been elected president in 1940. As had been the case with the previous Costa Rican presidents, though he was democratically elected, he was picked by the oligarchy of coffee growers to safeguard their interests and keep them in power. However, unlike his predecessors, once in office he took many actions contrary to the class interests of those whom the government had always served. Calderón focused on alleviating the terrible poverty of much of the working class, establishing a minimum wage, a national health care program, a social security-type retirement program, and other social justice reforms.
Legally barred from serving consecutive terms, Calderón could not run in 1944, but his handpicked successor Teodoro Picado ran and won, continuing Calderón’s policies, and paving the way for Calderón to run again in 1948 to try to regain the presidency.
Meanwhile, Figueres in exile became one of the founders of the Caribbean Legion, a group dedicated to removing from power certain of the region’s dictators and others of whom they disapproved, by revolution if necessary.
In the 1948 Costa Rican presidential election, the vote count was announced as a 10,000 vote defeat for Calderón. With his National Republican Party still in control of the legislature, Calderón refused to concede defeat to the nominal winner Otilio Ulate. He was installed as president despite the election results, with the Communist Party also throwing its weight behind his claim to the office.
Figueres, having returned to Costa Rica, denounced Calderón’s actions as electoral fraud, put together a small rebel army, and with help from his partners in the Caribbean Legion was able to oust Calderón from office in a six week war that cost Costa Rica 2,000 dead. In May 1948, Figueres was named President of the Founding Junta of the Second Republic of Costa Rica.
Figueres’s political career defined the term “maverick.” Was he a figure of the Right? A figure of the Left? Something else entirely?
On the one hand, he was a wealthy member of the coffee grower elite, and he’d overthrown the controversial Calderón who had championed the cause of the poor and allied himself with the Communists. That would seemingly mark him as more a man of the Right. On the other hand, he had always shown considerable sympathy for the poor and actively attempted to better their lot, and the regimes his Caribbean Legion was formed to oust were primarily right wing dictatorships. That is more what one would expect from a man of the Left.
He became no easier to pigeonhole after that. Once in office, he enacted the kind of progressive social reforms that might have been expected from Calderón. His government nationalized the banking system, instituted a 10% wealth tax, instituted universal public education, gave women the vote, established a professional civil service system, granted citizenship to black immigrants’ children, and oversaw the writing of a new democratic constitution.
Most remarkably, he abolished the Costa Rican army. Inspired by the ideas of H.G. Wells, and influenced by his own observations of the tendencies of standing armies in Latin America to meddle in domestic affairs and oppress the people, Figueres simply eliminated the military, relying on the police to maintain order internally. To this day, Costa Rica has no military.
Also amazing is that having accomplished what he’d set out to accomplish, and confident he’d put Costa Rica on a firm democratic footing, Figueres voluntarily relinquished power after just eighteen months, turning the office of the presidency over to Ulate, whom he considered the rightful victor of the country’s 1948 election.
Figueres remained an important figure on the political scene however, and in 1953 he ran for President and won, serving a second term in office from 1953 to 1958.
Once again he pursued a mostly progressive agenda, much to the chagrin of the United States and its oligarchic allies in Central America. Making matters worse, he continued supporting the Caribbean League’s plotting against the most oppressive of the right wing dictators of the region, including Anastasio Somoza in neighboring Nicaragua, and Fulgencio Batista in Cuba, two of the figures most heavily favored by the United States. Figueres was an early supporter of Fidel Castro’s efforts to overthrow the Batista regime.
So the United States mostly regarded him with distrust as a figure who was thwarting their anti-Communist efforts in the region.
But again things aren’t so simple. Figueres had in fact abolished the Communist Party in Costa Rica. He turned against Castro when he felt Castro betrayed the revolution by allying himself too closely with the Soviet Union. He secretly worked with the CIA in the 1960s, among other things joining forces to oppose the Dominican Republic’s left wing dictator Omar Trujillo, who was assassinated in a CIA-sponsored coup in 1961. Figueres later described himself as a “good friend of (CIA Director) Allen Dulles.”
Later in life, Figueres served yet another term as President from 1970 to 1974. Among the notable controversies of this final term was his establishing of trade and diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union, perhaps surprising in light of his earlier break with Castro over Soviet influence in the region. He also became embroiled in scandal when he welcomed exiled American fugitive financier Robert Vesco into the country, amidst rumors of bribes and crooked business deals between the two.
Following his third term as President, elder statesman Figueres traveled as a roving representative for subsequent Costa Rican administrations, and for his maverick, progressive non-Communist political ideals. He supported the Sandinistas’ revolution overthrowing the Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua, and denounced the subsequent counter revolution launched by the United States and its “Contra” allies. He died of a heart attack in 1990.
Figueres can be credited with stabilizing Costa Rican democracy, pursuing policies of social justice and poverty relief, opposing dictatorships, and taking the bold step of abolishing his country’s army. It is no wonder he is considered a giant of Costa Rican, and Latin American, history.
Eric Pace, “Jose Figueres Ferrer Is Dead at 83: Led Costa Ricans to Democracy.” New York Times.
Claire Saylor, “Two Ticos Listed in Latin America’s 100 Most Influential.” Costa Rica Pages.
“José Figueres Ferrer.” Answers.com.