Figueres Ferrer, José (1906–1990)

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Figueres Ferrer, José (1906–1990)

José Figueres Ferrer (b. 25 September 1906; d. 8 June 1990), president of Costa Rica. José Figueres, "Don Pepe," presided over the Costa Rican nation on three separate occasions: once as head of a junta government (8 May 1948 to 8 November 1949) and twice as constitutional president (1953–1958 and 1970–1974). He was one of Costa Rica's most important political figures, setting the economic and social course of his country following the 1948 civil war and creating the National Liberation Party (PLN), Costa Rica's dominant political party after 1953. Moreover, during the 1950s and 1960s, he stood almost alone as the champion of democracy and economic and social reform in Central America and the Spanish-speaking Caribbean.

Born in rural San Ramón shortly after his parents had emigrated from Spain, Figueres had little formal education beyond the secondary level. He went to the United States in 1924 intending to study electrical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but he never matriculated. Instead, with the Boston Public Library as his classroom, he acquired the social democratic philosophy that guided his future political career. In 1928, he returned to Costa Rica to become a farmer-entrepreneur on a finca (ranch) he named La Lucha Sin Fin (The Endless Struggle), where he raised cabuya (a Central American agave) and built a factory to manufacture rope and bags from the homegrown fiber. La Lucha was the model for Figueres Ferrer's later national programs, wherein he developed the region, creating new jobs and skills and providing an array of benefits and social services. In 1942, Figueres Ferrer's life changed abruptly when he was expelled from the country in a dispute with President Rafael Ángel Calderón Guardia.

Figueres criticized Calderón publicly for failing to prevent a riot in San José after an Axis submarine had attacked Puerto Limón. Calderón Guardia, for his part, accused Figueres of revealing military secrets and of participating in a scheme to shelter the properties of German and Italian residents of Costa Rica. When Figueres returned from exile in Mexico two years later, he was greeted as a hero who had opposed the authoritarian Calderón.

During his exile, Figueres and other Caribbean exiles developed the Caribbean Legion, a plan to rid Costa Rica (and the entire region) of tyranny. Figueres put his plan into operation in March 1948, when Calderón tried to steal the presidential election from the clear winner, Otilio Ulate Blanco. Though most politicians hoped for a peaceful solution to the crisis, Figueres and Calderón were on a collision course. With a citizen-volunteer army and the help of his Caribbean allies, Figueres waged a successful six-week "war of national liberation," and took control of the nation as head of the Founding Junta of the Second Republic in May.

During the eighteen months that the junta governed, Figueres made fundamental changes in the life of the nation. He abolished the army, nationalized the banking system, imposed a 10 percent tax on wealth, and held elections for a constituent assembly to draft a constitution. The new constitution (1949) embraced Figueres's socialist tendencies, providing for government regulation of the private sector and creating "autonomous institutions" to perform the economic and social functions of the public sector. With the constitution in place, Figueres turned over the presidency to Ulate.

In 1953, Figueres became constitutional president himself and resumed where he left off four years earlier. Figueres expanded the role of government through the creation of additional autonomous institutions to provide such services as the production and distribution of electrical energy, banking, health care, insurance, and telephones. He established the National Council of Production to stimulate agriculture and business through credits, price supports, and marketing facilities.

Despite the economic growth and social progress that Costa Rica experienced under Figueres, his presidency was not tranquil. The Figueres era was particularly troubled by foreign policy. Costa Rica's safe democracy attracted political exiles from throughout the region, and Figueres openly opposed the dictatorships of Anastasio Somoza in Nicaragua, Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, Fulgencio Batista in Cuba, and Marcos Pérez Jiménez in Venezuela. Though he made promises of military support to his Caribbean allies that he could not keep, he collaborated closely with Venezuelan exile Rómulo Betancourt and sought to influence U.S. policy against the dictators.

In 1954, Costa Rica was the only country to boycott the inter-American conference in Caracas, and in the same year Figueres aided Nicaraguan exiles in an attempt to overthrow Somoza. Figueres supplied arms to Fidel Castro after 1956. On two occasions, the dictators retaliated. In 1948, while Figueres was heading the junta, and again in 1955, Somoza sponsored "exile" invasions of Costa Rica. Both times, Figueres, with no army, appealed to the Organization of American States for help. Though the OAS came to his rescue, it pressured him to expel the so-called Caribbean Legion from Costa Rica and to enter into agreements to reduce tensions in the region.

The U.S. State Department labeled Figueres a "troublemaker" in the 1950s, but during the 1960s, in the context of the Cuban Revolution, the attitude changed. The Central Intelligence Agency sought his assistance in covert action against Trujillo and secretly funded his efforts to strengthen the democratic Left. Figueres had criticized Castro in April 1959, advising him to remain on the side of the United States in the cold war, and he became an avid supporter of President John F. Kennedy and the Alliance for Progress. After Kennedy's assassination, Figueres's role in international affairs diminished. His decline was especially steep after 1967, when it became known that he had collaborated with the CIA.

With Figueres barred by the constitution from succeeding himself in 1959, and the party badly split in choosing a candidate, the PLN lost the presidential election. It did manage to reunite for victory in 1962, but lost again four years later, convincing Figueres to run in 1970.

Figueres's second presidency was no less controversial than his first, but had fewer accomplishments to claim. Needing to recharge the economy, Figueres established trade and diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union and proposed the creation of an international financial district in Costa Rica. Both measures bedeviled his presidency. There were street demonstrations against any sort of relations with the Soviet Union, and militant right-wing groups used the situation to agitate. The plan for the international financial district brought Robert Vesco to Costa Rica. Though Figueres argued that Costa Rica needed capital, Vesco's reputation as a swindler and his holdings in Figueres's La Lucha caused a crippling scandal. Figueres believed that he was acting in the best interests of his country, but the principal achievement of his second presidency was that its shortcomings paved the way for a new generation of PLN leaders to take charge.

During the remaining years of his life, Figueres permitted the institutions and party that he had created to take shape without him. Because of a near-even division in Costa Rica between pro-Liberation and anti-Liberation sentiment, an informal two-party system evolved through the process of coalition politics. Figueres himself enhanced his country's democratic traditions and formalized the nation's general commitment to economic and social well-being, which enabled Costa Rica to avoid the bloodshed of Central America in the 1980s.

See alsoCalderón Guardia, Rafael Ángel; Caribbean Legion; Costa Rica, National Liberation Party; Organization of American States (OAS).


Arturo Castro Esquivel, José Figueres Ferrer: El hombre y su obra (1955).

Alberto Baeza Flores, La lucha sin fin (1969).

John Patrick Bell, Crisis in Costa Rica: The 1948 Revolution (1971).

Bert H. English, Liberación Nacional in Costa Rica: The Development of a Political Party in a Transitional Society (1971).

Charles D. Ameringer, Don Pepe: A Political Biography of José Figueres of Costa Rica (1978).

Additional Bibliography

Gámez Solano, Uladislao. José Figueres Ferrer: El hombre y su destino: semblanza. San José, Costa Rica: EUNA, 2001.

Guerra, Tomás. José Figueres y la justicia social. San José, Costa Rica: EDUCA, 1997.

Longley, Kyle. The Sparrow and the Hawk: Costa Rica and the United States during the Rise of José Figueres. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1997.

                       Charles D. Ameringer

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Figueres Ferrer, José (1906–1990)

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