Former Costa Rican President Figueres Dead at 83
SAN JOSE, Costa Rica (AP) _ Former President Jose Figueres, who guided Costa Rica through a revolution to democracy and then abolished the country’s army, died Friday. He was 83.
He was widely credited with starting this Central American nation of 2.8 million people on the road to 42 years of peace and relative prosperity in a region not known for stability or economic success.
Figueres died at his home outside San Jose, presidential spokeswoman Ana Lorena Vargas said. The medical report said he died of natural causes, a family spokesman said. He had been in poor health in recent years.
His body will remain at his home Friday night and lie in state at the National Museum beginning Saturday morning, a statement from the family said.
Funeral services were scheduled for Tuesday at the National Cathedral with burial at his ranch in San Marcos de Tarrazu, 50 miles from San Jose.
President Rafael Angel Calderon Guardia called a three-day mourning period. He described Figueres as ″one of the most valient men our country had who contributed enormously to the development of democracy in Costa Rica. He is one of the protagonists of our history and one of those who contributed most to peace.″
The charismatic and combative Figueres, known affectionately as Don Pepe, took to the hills in 1948 to lead a brief but bloody revolt against the late President Rafael Angel Calderon, father of the present chief of state.
The elder Calderon was a strongman who allied himself with the Communists and was trying to return to power by canceling the presidential election of Otilio Ulate.
During an 18-month interim presidency, Figueres abolished the army in 1949 and restored honest elections. The new constitution written by his government also increased social services.
The Communist Party was banned, but has since been legalized.
Figueres later was elected to two terms, serving from 1953-58 and 1970-74.
A civil and rural guard continues to be Costa Rica’s only defense in a region wracked by wars. The country invested in education instead, and has a literacy level of about 90 percent, one of the highest in the hemisphere.
Born Sept. 25, 1906, soon after his parents arrived in Costa Rica from Spain, he attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and studied hydroelectric engineering.
He established a ranch in Costa Rica where he carried out innovative agricultural and forestry projects.
Even as president, the 5-foot-3-inch Figueres traveled without bodyguards, although he often carried a pistol.
A fierce anti-Communist, he came to sympathize with the left. He visited Cuba numerous times, allowed establishment of a Soviet Embassy over widespread objections, and backed the leftist Sandinista revolution in neighboring Nicaragua that overthrew dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979.
He boasted of having worked closely with the CIA in his earlier days, but railed against U.S. policy when the United States supported Nicaragua’s Contra guerrillas.
″Times change and only the rivers don’t return,″ he once retorted to critics of contradictions in his politics.
He went against public opinion and granted fugitive American financier Robert Vesco refuge here in 1972. Vesco was expelled in 1978.
During the 1971 hijacking of a Costa Rican airliner, Figueres took matters into his own hands.
Figueres grabbed a submachine gun and took off for San Jose airport after being told that the three Nicaraguans demanding to go to Cuba were refusing to cooperate in efforts to free the passengers.
″I’ll end all this,″ he said as he moved toward the plane. Shots came from the plane, and police fired machine guns. The incident concluded with two hijackers wounded and the passengers leaving the plane unharmed.
In his later years before his health failed, he traveled the world on behalf of Costa Rica and to many was the personification of his country.
Costa Rica is one of the few countries in the region with a substantial middle class. Much of this is due to Costa Rica’s possessing little mineral wealth. It was not settled by Spaniards seeking gold or silver but by European farmers who tended to work their own land.
However, much of the country’s prosperity was achieved on credit, and Costa Rica spends a high percentage of its export earnings paying off the debt. This has led to unpopular austerity measures in recent years.
Figueres married Henrietta Boggs of Alabama in 1942. They had two children, Muni and Jose Marti, before the marriage ended in divorce in 1952.
He later married Karen Olsen, a naturalized American citizen of Danish birth. They had three children, Jose Maria, Mariano and Cristiana. His wife now is a member of the National Assembly, the country’s congress.
He also is survived by 17 grandchildren.