Three-time head of state José “Pepe” Figueres Ferrer, who died in 1990, would have turned 100 on Monday – and the country took the chance to celebrate the life of the man who abolished the army in 1948 and created the framework for modern Costa Rican democracy.
Events to honor the man fondly referred to as “don Pepe” this week included a gathering at La Lucha Sin Fin (The Endless Struggle), his farm in San Ramón, northwest of San José, and a photo exhibit and roundtable at the Legislative Assembly in the capital. A gala event Monday night at the National Theater downtown featured speakers including the presidents of the Legislative Assembly, National Elections Tribunal (TSE) and Supreme Court, along with President Oscar Arias.
Figueres’ second wife, former U.S. citizen Karen Olsen, along with children José Martí and Muni Figueres, unveiled a plaque and attended mass during Monday morning’s celebration at don Pepe’s childhood home, now the José Figueres Ferrer Cultural and HistoricalCenter, according to the daily La Nación.
Later that day, Muni Figueres spoke at the National Theater event, highlighting her father’s love of public life.
She said that no matter where they are, all of Figueres’ six children – Muni and José Martí, both his children with first wife and U.S. citizen Henrietta Boggs, and José María, Mariano, Karen and Kirsten, his children with Olsen – are grateful for the centennial celebrations. (José María Figueres, President from 1994-1998, has not returned to Costa Rica since national media published allegations that he’d accepted questionable funds related to a public contract in Costa Rica, despite legislators’ calls for his return.) Arias, Pepe Figueres’ Planning Minister during his third term and lifelong stalwart of the National Liberation Party (PLN), which Figueres founded, said “that little, gigantic figure” – a reference to the ex-President’s diminutive stature – is written on the pages of Costa Rican history.
Figueres led the country from 1948-1949, 1953-1958 and 1970-1974. He came to power after the Legislative Assembly, then controlled by ex-President Rafael Angel Calderón Guardia, annulled the results of a March 1948 election in which the opposition received 52% of the vote. Figueres had returned to Costa Rica the year before after a period of exile in Mexico, brought about by a 1943 radio address in which he criticized Calderón. After the election was annulled, he led his National Liberation Army in a successful uprising against the government.
As the provisional President, Figueres oversaw the writing of a new Constitution and the abolition of both the government army and the National Liberation Army. On Dec. 1, 1948, Figueres symbolically bludgeoned a rampart of the Bellavista Fort in San José, now the NationalMuseum.
Eighteen months after taking power, a period during which Figueres also nationalized the banks and enabled women to vote, among other reforms, he stepped down and handed the reins to the opposition candidate who had received a majority of votes in the election, Otilio Ulate.
He founded the National Liberation Party in 1953, and was elected President on the PLN ticket that year and again in 1970.As Elections Tribunal president Oscar Fonseca and Supreme Court president Luis Paulino Mora said Monday, Figueres’ dominance of politics during the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s caused changes in many areas of Costa Rican life, from the court system to the elections process to the country’s cultural scene. He founded the National Youth Symphony, which played at the National Theater Monday, in 1973, and is known for his comment, “Why tractors without violins?” uttered when he was criticized for spending government funds on music.
Also in 1973, when questioned about the destination of a $60,000 donation to the Youth Symphony, Figueres told investigators that “I spent it on candy.”
During his final term in office, his reputation took a turn for the worse when he welcomed U.S. fugitive financier Robert Vesco to Costa Rica. He argued Vesco’s millions would help Costa Rica and that the country shouldn’t question where his money came from.
He also ignored laws requiring that the President get legislative permission for trips outside the country, visiting a U.S. space launch and Disney World without an assembly nod, and once posed for pictures with U.S. evangelist con men before a gold mine later used to swindle U.S. investors.
A recently published book, “The World Was Going Our Way: The KGB and the Battle for the Third World,” claims Figueres met regularly with Russian secret police officials, published their propaganda and accepted a $300,000 campaign contribution from the KGB in 1970 (TT, Oct. 7, 2005).
In his last interview with The Tico Times four years before his death, the champion of democracy called for ending divisions between North and South America (TT, July 25, 1986).
He died of cardiac arrest June 8, 1990, at the age of 83.
Upcoming events to continue the celebration of Figueres’ life include an exhibit featuring cartoons and caricatures of Figueres Oct. 2 starting at 9 a.m., and a forum on Costa Rica’s more than half a century without an army Oct. 31 at 9 a.m., both at the Legislative Assembly.