José Figueres Ferrer

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José Figueres Ferrer
José Figueres Ferrer 1.png
Figueres in 1973
32nd, 34th, and 38th
President of Costa Rica
In office
8 May 1948 – 8 November 1949
Preceded byTeodoro Picado
Succeeded byOtilio Ulate Blanco
In office
8 November 1953 – 8 May 1958
Vice PresidentRaúl Blanco Cervantes
Fernando Esquivel Bonilla
Preceded byOtilio Ulate Blanco
Succeeded byMario Echandi
In office
8 May 1970 – 8 May 1974
Vice PresidentManuel Aguilar Bonilla
Jorge Rossi Chavarría
Preceded byJosé Joaquín Trejos Fernández
Succeeded byDaniel Oduber
Personal details
José María Hipólito Figueres Ferrer

(1906-09-25)25 September 1906
San Ramón, Alajuela, Costa Rica
Died8 June 1990(1990-06-08) (aged 83)
San José, San José, Costa Rica
Political partyPLN
Spouse(s)Henrietta Boggs
Karen Olsen Beck
Alma materMassachusetts Institute of Technology
ProfessionLandowner, politician

José María Hipólito Figueres Ferrer (25 September 1906 – 8 June 1990) served as President of Costa Rica on three occasions: 1948–1949, 1953–1958 and 1970–1974.[1] During his first term in office he abolished the country's army, nationalized its banking sector, and granted women and Afro-Costa Ricans the right to vote, as well as access to Costa Rican nationality to people of African descent. He was a good friend of the Governor of Puerto Rico, Luis Muñoz Marín, praising his political achievements in one of his essays.

Early life[edit]

Figueres was born on 25 September 1906 in San Ramón in Alajuela province. The locations are significant, according to his best biographer, because his parents came from a world of wide ambition that most Costa Ricans envied, and he was born in a nation that put a high value on his impeccable Spanish background. Figueres was the eldest of the four children of a Catalan doctor and his wife, a teacher, who had recently immigrated from Catalonia to San Ramón in west-central Costa Rica.

Figueres' first language was Catalan, as he talked to his parents in this language.

Early business career[edit]

In 1924 he left for Boston, United States, on a work and study trip. There he studied hydroelectric engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.[2] Figueres returned to Costa Rica in 1928 and bought a farm in Tarrazú. He named the farm, with a certain degree of foresight, La Lucha sin Fin (the endless struggle).10

Figueres became a successful coffee grower and rope manufacturer, employing more than 1,000 sharecroppers and factory laborers. Describing himself as a "farmer-socialist", he built housing and provided medical care and recreation for his workers and established a community vegetable farm and a dairy with free milk for workers' children.3

His sharecroppers could either sell hemp grown on his plantation to him at market price for use in his rope factory, or sell it elsewhere if they were offered a better price.3

Political career[edit]

Return to Costa Rica, the Caribbean Legion, and the Costa Rica Civil War (1944–1948)[edit]

When Figueres returned to Costa Rica in 1944 from being exiled in Mexico, he established the Democratic Party, which a year later transformed into the Social Democratic Party. The party was intended to be a counterweight to the ruling National Republican Party (PRN), led by former President Calderón and his successor Teodoro Picado. The highly controversial Calderón had angered Costa Rican elites, enacting a large social security retirement program and implementing national healthcare. Calderón was accused of corruption by the elites, providing a rallying cry for Figueres and the Social Democratic Party.18

Figueres began training the Caribbean Legion, an irregular force of 700. Figueres launched a revolution along with other landowners and student agitators, hoping to overthrow the Costa Rican government. With plans of using Costa Rica as a base, the Legion planned next to remove the three Central American dictators. Washington officials closely watched the Legion's activities, especially after Figueres carried out a series of terrorist attacks inside Costa Rica during 1945 and 1946 that were supposed to climax in a general strike, but the people did not respond.1, 3, 8, 9

Former President Calderón supporters prevented and invalidated the 1 March 1948, presidential election in which Otilio Ulate had allegedly defeated Calderón in his second term bid with fraud. In March–April 1948, the protests over the election results mushroomed into armed conflict, then into revolution. Figueres defeated Communist-led guerrillas and the Costa Rican Army, which had joined forces with President Picado.4, 8

With more than 2,000 dead, the 44-day civil war was the bloodiest event in 20th-century Costa Rican history.

Figueres as the provisional president (1948–1949)[edit]

Board exhibited at the Museo Nacional de Costa Rica showing the symbolic act of the army's abolition on December 1st, 1948
Monument to José Figueres Ferrer commemorating his abolishing of Costa Rica's army in 1948, Plaza de la Democracia, San José

After the civil war Figueres became President at the head of a provisional junta known as the "Junta Fundadora" (Founding Council) that held power for 18 months. During that time he took several actions:

  • abolishing the army (as a precaution against the militarism that has perennially thwarted or undercut democracy in Central America)4 Figueres said he was inspired to disarm Costa Rica by H.G. Wells "Outline of History", which he read in 1920 while at MIT. "The future of mankind cannot include armed forces. Police, yes, because people are imperfect.", he declared. Ever since, Costa Rica has had no army and has maintained a 7,500-member national police force for a population of over five million.6
  • enabled women and illiterates to vote3,
  • put into effect basic welfare legislation1,
  • nationalised banks1,
  • outlawed the Communist Party3,
  • directed the writing of a new constitution3,
  • guaranteed public education for all3,
  • gave citizenship to black immigrants' children3,
  • established civil service to eliminate the spoils system in government3, and

"In a short time, we decreed 834 reforms that completely changed the physiognomy of the country and brought a deeper and more human revolution than that of Cuba", Figueres said in a 1981 interview.4

Once Figueres gained control, the legislation he passed regarding social reform for his Second Republic of Costa Rica was not that much different from Calderón's proposals. In fact, it is believed by some historians (such as David LaWare) that Figueres' social reforms were more or less the same as Calderón's Labor Code of 1943, only Figueres had gained the power with which to enact the laws upon the whole country with the complete support of virtually all the country. Both of these leaders' programs were in many cases exactly like the ones Franklin D. Roosevelt passed during the Great Depression that helped lift the US out of its own economic slump and social decline it had faced in the 1930s. Figueres admired what president Franklin D. Roosevelt did, however he noted that "the price he had to pay to get his programs through was to leave the business community free overseas to set up dictatorships and do whatever they liked...What we need now is an international New Deal, to change the relations between North and South."614

Figueres stepped down after 18 months, handing his power over to Otilio Ulate, and ever since Costa Ricans have settled their arguments constitutionally.1

"Your hands are not clean to fight communism when you don't fight dictatorships", Figueres told American interviewers in 1951. "It seems that the United States is not interested in honest government down here, as long as a government is not communist and pays lip service to democracy."6

Second term as President (1953–1958)[edit]

In 1953, Figueres created the Partido Liberación Nacional (PLN), the most successful party in Costa Rican political history, and was returned to power in the 1953.4, 10 He has been considered to be the most important political figure in Costa Rica's history.

During his various terms in office he nationalized the banking system and contributed to the construction of the Panamerican Highway that goes across Central America. He promoted the private industry sector and stimulated the national industry sector. He succeeded in energizing the country's middle class creating a strong buffer between the upper and lower classes.

What most alarmed U.S. officials was Figueres's material and moral support for the Caribbean Legion, even though Figueres had obviously lost interest in the Legion after he gained power. But Figueres still criticized U.S. support for the dictators, going so far as to boycott the 1954 inter-American meeting because it was held in Caracas, where President Marcos Pérez of Venezuela held sway.8, 9

Figueres happily cooperated with North American military plans. After the United States established the School of the Americas in the Panama Canal Zone to train Latin American officers in Anti-Communist techniques, more Costa Rican "police" graduated from the School between 1950 and 1965 than did officers of any other hemispheric nation except Nicaragua.8

The Republic of China awarded him the "Shining Star" in 1955.

In 1957, an assassination plot by dictator Rafael Trujillo (Dominican Republic) was uncovered.

Border war with Somoza's Nicaragua (1954–1955)[edit]

Figueres's support for the Caribbean Legion nearly cost him his job during this second presidency. Implicated in an invasion of Nicaragua in April 1954 by anti-Somoza exiles linked to the Caribbean Legion, Anastasio Somoza García launched a counter-attack, allowing the exiled former Costa Rica president Rafael Calderón to invade Costa Rica in January 1955.

Figueres had played a dangerous game, but he had also abolished the Costa Rican army, which forced him to appeal to the Organization of American States to protect his country from Somoza's aggression. The OAS, with the concurrence of the U.S. representative, ordered a cease-fire and sent a delegation to Costa Rica for an on-site investigation.

At that point, Somoza realized that he had to act quickly. He called in his IOU from the CIA. He had permitted the CIA to use Las Mercedes Airport, outside Managua, as a base for its P-47s during the Guatemalan intervention. Now he wanted the planes that were parked there to help him in his feud with Figueres.

On 15 January, three days after the OAS action, a P-47 Thunderbolt violated Costa Rican airspace and bombed and strafed a number of Costa Rican towns.

Figueres, alarmed by this escalation, pointed out that Costa Rica had no defense against "modern weapons" of this kind and again appealed to the OAS. The council of the organization immediately authorized the United States to sell four P-51 Mustang fighters to Costa Rica for a dollar apiece.

The State Department, responding to pressure from certain U.S. congressmen and sensing an opportunity to improve America's image in Latin America after Guatemala, came to the rescue and preserved the Caribbean's "lone democrat." Its gesture ended the "invasion", and the State Department scored one over the CIA. The Nicaraguan dictator withdrew, but not before extracting a commitment from Figueres that he would sever links with the exiles. 4, 10, 11

1958 testimony before U.S. Congress[edit]

In 1958, during a visit to Caracas, Venezuela, U.S. Vice President Richard Nixon was spat at by anti-American protesters who also disrupted and assaulted Nixon's motorcade, pelting his limousine with rocks, shattering windows, and injuring Venezuela's foreign minister.[3] The event prompted the US Congress to create a special committee to investigate the reasons behind it. Many people were invited to speak before it, including Figueres, who testified as follows (in part) on 9 June 1958:

"As a citizen of the hemisphere, as a man who has dedicated his public life to promote inter-American comprehension, as an educated man who knows and appreciates the United States and who has never tried to hide that appreciation to anyone, no matter how hostile he was, I deplore that the people of the Latin America, represented by a fistful of overexcited Venezuelans, have spit upon a worthy public officer who represents the greatest nation of our time. But I must speak frankly and even rudely, because I am convinced that the situation demands it: the people cannot spit at a foreign policy, which was what they tried to do. But when they have exhausted all other means of trying to make themselves understood, the only thing left to do is spitting.
"With all due respect to Vice-President Nixon, and with all my admiration towards his conduct, which was, during the events, heroic and later noble, I have no choice but to say that the act of spitting, however vulgar it is, lacks a substitute in our language to express certain emotions.... If you’re going to speak of human dignity in Russia, why is it so hard to speak of human dignity in the Dominican Republic? Where is intervention and where is non-intervention? Is it that a simple threat, a potential one, to your liberties, is, essentially, more serious than the kidnapping of our liberties?
"Of course you have made certain investments in the (Latin) American dictatorships. The aluminum companies extract bauxite almost for free. Your generals, your admirals, your public officers and your businessmen are treated there like royalty.
"Like your Senate verified yesterday, there are people who bribe the reigning dynasties with millions, to enjoy the privilege of hunting in their lands. They deduct the money from the taxes they pay in the US, but it returns to the country and, when it arrives in Hollywood, becomes extravagant furs and cars that bring down the fragile virtue of female stars. And, meanwhile, our women are kidnapped by gangsters, our men are castrated in the torture chambers and our illustrious professors disappear, lugubriously, from the halls of the University of Columbia, in New York. When one of your lawmakers calls this a "collaboration to fight communism", 180 million Latin Americans feel the need to spit.
"Spitting is a despicable custom, if done physically. But what about moral spitting? When your government invited Pedro Estrada [es], the Himmler of the Western Hemisphere, to be honored in Washington, didn’t you spit upon the face of all democrats in (Latin) America? … I can assure you that, when it comes to international economic policy, the United States seems to be willing to repeat certain errors of domestic policy that inflicted much damage in the past, including, of course, the ones that led to the great crisis of 1929.
"We, the Latin Americans, are tired of pointing at these mistakes; especially, the lack of interest in the prices of our products. Every time we suggest a plan to stabilize prices at a fair level you answer with economy slogans, like "the law of supply and demand" or "the free market system", or with insults like "Aren’t we paying you enough money now?" We don’t beg, except in emergencies. We’re not people who will spit about merely money. We’ve inherited all the flaws of the Spanish character, but also some of its virtues.
"Our poverty does not diminish our pride. We have our dignity. What we want is to be paid a fair price for the sweat of our people, for the impoverishment of our land when we provide a product needed by another country. That would be enough to live, to raise our own capital and to carry on with our own development."

Third presidential term (1970–1974)[edit]

The termination of Alliance for Progress funds as well as the collapse of the Central American Common Market, threatened to cripple the country's economy until Figueres discovered a new market by selling 30,000 tons of coffee to the Soviet Union in 1972. Costa Rica then became the only Central American nation to establish diplomatic relations with Moscow. The World Bank and International Monetary Fund also delivered millions of dollars to keep the economy afloat.10, 13

When opponents of Nicaragua's Gen. Anastasio Somoza Debayle seized a plane in San José in 1971, the 5'3" Figueres stood on the runway and aimed a submachine gun at the cabin until the hijackers surrendered.3

He claimed that he almost ruined a 1973 Central American summit when he twitted five army generals: "Isn't it odd that all you bastards are generals, and I'm the only civilian, but I'm the only one who's ever fought a war?"3

Political connections[edit]

Figueres' connection with the CIA[edit]

The CIA gave Figueres money to publish a political journal, Combate, and to sponsor the founding meeting of the Institute of Political Education in Costa Rica in November 1959. The institute was organized as a training school and a center for political collaboration for political parties of the democratic left, principally from Costa Rica, Cuba (in exile), the Dominican Republic (in exile), Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua (in exile), Panama, Peru, and Venezuela. The CIA concealed its role from most of the participants except Figueres. Its funds passed first to a shell foundation, then to the Kaplan Fund of New York, next to the Institute for International Labor Research (IILR) located in New York, and finally to San José. Socialist leader Norman Thomas headed the IILR. After the CIA connection was revealed, Thomas maintained that he had been unaware of it, but the IILR's treasurer, Sacha Volman, who also became treasurer of the institute in San José, was a CIA agent. The CIA used Volman to monitor the institute, and Cord Meyer[1][better source needed] collaborated directly with Figueres.11

Mr. Figueres himself acknowledged in 1981 that he had received help from the Central Intelligence Agency.

"At the time, I was conspiring against the Latin American dictatorships and wanted help from the United States", he recalled. "I was a good friend of Allen Dulles."

"Anyway", Mr. Figueres went on, "the C.I.A.'s Cultural Department helped me finance a magazine and some youth conferences here. But I never participated in espionage. I did beg them not to carry out the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, which was madness, but they ignored me." 4

Cord Meyer came to San José sometime in the summer of 1960. He and Figueres created the Inter-American Democratic Social Movement (INADESMO), which was nothing more than a front. A flier describing the idealistic purpose of INADESMO carried the same post office box as Figueres's personal letterhead. The INADESMO setup enabled Meyer to disburse funds more directly, without having to bother with conduits or the accounting procedures of the institute. For example, INADESMO contributed $10,000 to help finance the First Conference of Popular Parties of Latin America in Lima, Peru, in August 1960.

The following May, Meyer returned to San José for a more urgent purpose. In the wake of the Bay of Pigs failure, he provided Figueres with INADESMO funds to sponsor a meeting at his estate, 'La Lucha', (12–20 May) between the leaders of the principal Dominican exile movements, Juan Bosch and Horacio Ornes. With Figueres as sponsor, Bosch and Ornes agreed to form a coalition government in anticipation of the overthrow of dictator Rafael Trujillo. As the United States moved to rally the hemisphere against Fidel Castro, Trujillo had become expendable, because the United States needed to demonstrate that it opposed all dictators, not just those on the left.

For over a year, the CIA had been in contact also with dissidents inside the Dominican Republic who argued that assassination was the only certain way to remove Trujillo. The CIA station in Ciudad Trujillo (now Santo Domingo) had encouraged the dissidents and actually delivered to them three pistols and three carbines "attendant to their projected efforts to neutralize Trujillo." Because the Bay of Pigs failure created an uncertain situation, the United States tried to put the brakes on this operation and refused to pass along additional weapons to the dissidents which the Dominican station already had, specifically M-3 machine guns. The U.S. National Security Council, meeting on 5 May, "noted the President's view that the United States should not initiate the overthrow of Trujillo before [knowing] what government would succeed him."

On 30 May, Trujillo was ambushed and assassinated. The same "action group" with whom the CIA had been in contact and to whom it had delivered pistols and carbines carried out the attack. According to the 1975 report of the Church Committee, there was "no direct evidence" that CIA weapons had been used in the assassinations and the effect of the Bosch-Ornes pact upon the events that transpired remains a matter for speculation. Nonetheless, the CIA described its role in "changing" the government of the Dominican Republic "as a 'success' in that it assisted in moving the Dominican Republic from a totalitarian dictatorship to a Western-style democracy." Bosch himself was elected president of the Dominican Republic. Sacha Volman followed him there, establishing a new "research and publication center" and taking with him the CIA funding that used to go to Figueres in Costa Rica. Though one cannot prove that there was a coordinated link between the external and internal opposition groups, Cord Meyer[better source needed] was in a position to know what both elements were doing.11

Relationship with Cuba[edit]

Figueres also opposed the dictatorial regime in pre-Castro Cuba and went so far as to dispatch a planeload of weapons for Cuban insurgents led by the young Fidel Castro, a member of Caribbean Legion. But soon after the 1959 success of the Cuban Revolution, he and Mr. Figueres had a falling out over the growth of Communist influence on the island.4 In March, 1959, Figueres was invited to Havana, and during a public speech, he warned Castro about the ideological deviations he had observed in Cuba, and immediately the microphone was taken from him. Figueres supported John F. Kennedy's Alliance for Progress but not the C.I.A.'s clandestine wars with Cuba.1

Robert Vesco, fugitive U.S. financier[edit]

Figueres was stubborn about his blunders, most notably his most controversial decision to grant asylum to Robert Vesco, the fugitive U.S. financier, accused of looting millions of dollars from the Investors Overseas Service, Ltd. (IOS) mutual funds in the 1970s. Mr. Vesco not only had a personal and business relationship with Mr. Figueres but he also made contributions to the campaign coffers of both leading political parties in the 1974 elections. Figueres made it clear, however, that he would not hesitate to extradite Vesco if the United States requested it. Figueres tried to intervene with president Jimmy Carter on Vesco's behalf. In the resulting political uproar in Costa Rica, Figueres' party lost the 1978 presidential election. Mr. Vesco fled Costa Rica after the Presidential elections of 1978 were won by Rodrigo Carazo, who had vowed to expel him. 1, 3, 4, 6

In an interview in 1981, Figueres said that Vesco had "committed many stupidities" but added:

"I have always defended asylum and would protect him again if I could because I never abandon my friends. The only thing that pains me is that some friends thought I personally benefitted from Vesco."

Earlier, in a 1973 interview, Figueres said that he had been introduced to Vesco in Costa Rica in 1972 and that Vesco had then arranged for the investment of $2.15 million in Sociedad Agricola Industrial San Cristobal, S.A.

The financially troubled company was founded by Figueres and owned by him and others. It had diverse operations in agriculture and its 3,000 employees made it the fourth largest employer in Costa Rica.4

Career after presidency[edit]

Figueres was well liked and received in many Latin American countries for his center-left ideals. He has been called one of the greatest contributors to the social democratic ideology.

After the presidency, as an acknowledged elder statesman, Figueres became a roving ambassador for subsequent administrations.3

Americans were shocked by that series of hostile demonstrations during U.S. Vice-President Richard Nixon's "goodwill" tour of Latin America in 1958. They climaxed in May in Caracas, Venezuela, where a mob stoned and spat upon the vice president's motorcade and threatened his life. At the invitation of U.S. Representative Charles Porter of Oregon, Figueres (at the time, just out of office) came to Washington to explain what had caused these events.

"People cannot spit on a foreign policy", Figueres told a House committee, "which is what they meant to do." Figueres insisted that Latin America supported the United States in the cold war, but he asked, "If you talk human dignity to Russia, why do you hesitate so much to talk human dignity to the Dominican Republic?" He testified that the United States must change its policy in Latin America and that it could not sacrifice human rights for "investments."

Figueres backed the leftist Sandinista revolution in neighboring Nicaragua that overthrew dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle in 1979. He railed against U.S. policy when the United States supported Nicaragua's Contra guerrillas.2, 3

A proposal by his supporters for a fourth presidential term in the 1980s was quickly crushed.10

"This is an exemplary little country. We are the example for Latin America", Figueres told the Los Angeles Times in a 1986 interview. "In the next century, maybe everyone will be like us."3

Private life[edit]

Figueres married Henrietta Boggs of Alabama in 1941. They had two children, Muni and José Martí, before the marriage ended in divorce in 1954. He later married Karen Olsen Beck of New York. They had four children, José María, Karen Christiana, Mariano and Kirsten. His wife was a member of the country's Legislative Assembly.

His son, José María Figueres, also served as president from 1994 to 1998. His daughter, Muni Figueres Boggs, is the current Ambassador from Costa Rica to the United States. His other daughter, Christiana Figueres, is a Costa Rican diplomat who served from 2010 to 2016 as the Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), and is widely considered to be the architect of the Paris Agreement.


Tributes to José Figueres[edit]

New York Times:
If Costa Rica has eluded the familiar afflictions of Central America – war, poverty and repression – much of the credit belongs to Jose Figueres Ferrer, a fighter for democracy who died recently at the age of 83.
It was he who took the bold step of dissolving Costa Rica's army nearly 40 years ago. He later remarked with justifiable pride that such reforms gave Costa Rica a deeper and more human revolution than that of Cuba.
That it was: Costa Rica has shown by example how a farewell to arms can make practical as well as moral sense.1
Los Angeles Times:
Former Costa Rican President Jose Figueres, considered the father of peaceful modern democracy in his country and one of the most colorful elder statesmen of the Western Hemisphere, died Friday.3
New York Times:
Mr. Figueres was 5 feet 3 inches tall and was given to airy philosophizing. I am what you might call a farmer-philosopher, he said to an interviewer in 1973, during his last term. But repeatedly, in times of crisis, he stood out as a man of action. It has been said in Costa Rica that once while President he appeared at an airport carrying a submachine gun to put a stop to a hijacking.4
Newsday (New York):
Once there was a very tiny country, surrounded by war and killing, blessed with a good leader who decided his best legacy, after winning a civil war, would be to abolish the army, and – breaking the mold created by despots in the other small countries around him – let the people vote.
Meet Costa Rica and its visionary former president, Jose Figueres, who, 40 years later, has earned the right to philosophize on man and government and war – and to do so without a touch of irony.5


  1. ^ El Tribunal Supremo de Elecciones: Presidentes de la República de Costa Rica
  2. ^ MIT’s Costa Rican President
  3. ^ "Hate Running Loose Hits Out at Nixons". Life: 32–38. 26 May 1958.
  4. ^ 嚴家淦訪問中南美洲各國. Ministry of Culture (in Chinese). Retrieved 4 April 2020. 嚴副總統於八月廿三日以特種大綬卿雲勳章頒贈哥國總統費蓋萊斯,感謝其對促進中哥兩國友誼所作貢獻。{...}創作日期:1973-09-01
Bell, John Patrick (1971). Crisis in Costa Rica: The 1948 Revolution. University of Texas Press. ISBN 0-292-70147-0.
Ameringer, Charles D. (1978). Don Pepe: A political biography of José Figueres of Costa Ricas. University of New Mexico Press. ISBN 0-8263-0480-X.
Longley, Kyle (1997). The Sparrow and the Hawk: Costa Rica and the United States During the Rise of Jose Figueres. University of Alabama Press. ISBN 0-8173-0831-8. p. 21-22
LaWare, David, "Labor and the Costa Rican Revolution of 1948", p. 2-3. In his essay, LaWare argues that both Calderón's and Figueres' policies on social development were virtually identical, and differed really only the subjects of Communism and labor parties, and proper implementation.

External links[edit]

Further reading[edit]

See also[edit]

Political offices
Preceded by President of Costa Rica
Succeeded by
Preceded by President of Costa Rica
Succeeded by
Preceded by President of Costa Rica
Succeeded by