This year celebrates the centennial of the birth of José Figueres Ferrer, Costa Rica’s 20th-century hero, still remembered by those who shared his passion for resurrecting the country from political chaos, poverty and inequality. Figueres first served as head of a provisional government for 18 months following the civil war of 1948 and was twice elected President, in 1953 and in 1970.
“Don Pepe,” who is still known by this affectionate nickname, was born in San Ramón de Alajuela, northwest of San José, on Sept. 26, 1906, in the house across from the church that is now the José Figueres Ferrer Cultural Center. His father, Mariano, was a doctor, and his mother, Paquita, a teacher. They emigrated from Catalonia, Spain, to Costa Rica just two months before Figueres’ birth.
“At the time, San Ramón was a dusty little village, isolated from everything for lack of roads,” don Pepe himself described, “but even then it was known for culture.”
San Ramón attracted poets and literary artists in the latter part of the 1800s and is still known as the city of poets.
In the Figueres home, young Pepe absorbed the utopian ideas of social and economic justice, the popular thinking of Europe at the time. But it was not until he reached middle age that he could put his ideas into practice.
Around the time Pepe was growing up, Costa Rica suffered reverses. In 1917, a coup d’état put at the head of the government Federico Tinoco, a dictator inept at governing and managing a sinking economy when World War I cut off European markets for coffee and bananas. The 1930s brought their own problems with strikes in the banana fields, and World War II cut off all imports and exports. Public protests against hard times met with repression on the part of the government.
Unexpectedly, don Pepe’s public career began in 1942 with a radio speech criticizing the harsh acts of the government. He was promptly detained and deported. He lived in several countries but finally settled in Mexico, where he met disillusioned expatriates from other countries who were attracted to post-revolutionary Mexico. While the world was fighting dictators in Europe and Asia, Latin American dictators freely oppressed their people.
In May 1944, don Pepe returned home and was received by cheering crowds when he arrived at the La Sabana airfield, now La Sabana Park. But changes in the government were still in the future. Don Pepe retired to his farm, La Lucha Sin Fin (The Struggle Without End) near Cartago, east of the capital, and prepared for a possible fight with the government in power.
That opportunity came in March 1948, when civil war broke out after the National Assembly refused to recognize the election of Otilio Ulate over former President Rafael Calderón Guardia, and a leading supporter of Ulate was slain in San José. Don Pepe led a “people’s army” against poorly equipped and demoralized government troops, and in six weeks an agreement was reached. The government capitulated and don Pepe became head of a provisional government to write a new constitution and set the groundwork for a modern and unique state.
Most notable among the changes were the abolition of the army, women’s suffrage, an end to official discrimination of minorities and the “social guarantees” including labor laws and family rights. Other achievements were the civil service for government workers, the elections tribunal to ensure fair elections, national banks, the Costa Rican Electricity Institute, better known as ICE, the National Production Board to regulate fair prices for farm products and the National Institute for Housing and Urban Development (INVU) to help poor and working families buy housing.
After 18 months, the provisional government stepped down and Ulate was sworn in as President on Nov. 8, 1949. Don Pepe refused to accept a salary for his term, and went on to serve two future presidencies.
“Why tractors without violins?” is an often repeated quote of don Pepe, who believed that music, the arts and culture are also important. He created the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sports, officially adopted the national anthem and promoted education and culture in the new Costa Rica.
Don Pepe died June 8, 1990, and is buried at his farm, La Lucha Sin Fin. He was married twice, first to Henrietta Boggs and then to Karen Olsen, both North Americans. In tribute to don Pepe’s memory, the cultural center in Sam Ramón is offering monthly programs open to the public and free on the first Saturday of each month at 4 p.m., in the very home where he was born.
The programs center around don Pepe’s ideas: the Aug. 5 program will highlight youth; Sept. 2, independence, peace and freedom; Oct. 7, the eradication of poverty; Nov. 4, peace and nonviolence; and Dec. 2, Costa Rica, a country without an army. A special anniversary program will be held Sept. 25 at 6 p.m. (no details yet). Each monthly program will include an exhibit of art, ceramics or photos and a musical recital. For more info, call the cultural center at 447-2178.