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Jose Figueres, 82; Former Costa Rican President

June 09, 1990|MYRNA OLIVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

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. He was 82.

Don Pepe, as he was affectionately known, died at his home 10 miles east of San Jose, Costa Rica. Presidential spokesman Ana Lorena Vargas did not disclose the cause of death.

Funeral services will be private, but sources said the Costa Rican government will decree three days of mourning and that Figueres' body will lie in state at the National Assembly.

Figueres, the owner of a coffee plantation and rope factory, led a successful six-week revolution in 1948 overthrowing communist and rightists' control of Costa Rica.

In the 18 months he served as provisional president of the reorganizational junta, he outlawed the Communist Party, directed the writing of a new constitution and enacted a truly revolutionary plan: He dissolved the nation's army.

Forty-one years later, Costa Rica continues to maintain only a civil guard, although it is situated in the midst of warring neighbors.

"This small country made a contribution to mankind by outlawing the army," Figueres once said. "But we had to pay dearly. We killed 2,000 Communists."

During the reorganization, he also guaranteed public education for all, enabled women and illiterates to vote, built housing for the poor, gave citizenship to black immigrants' children and established civil service to eliminate the spoils system in government.

Figueres was officially elected president of his new republic July 27, 1953, promising that "this is going to be a pro-United States government." He served until 1958 and was returned to office from 1970 to 1974. As an acknowledged elder statesman, he became a roving ambassador for subsequent administrations.

"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."

Figueres despised dictators, but when opponents of Nicaragua's Gen. Anastasio Somoza seized a plane in San Jose in 1971, the 5-foot-3 Figueres stood on the runway and pointed a submachine gun at the cabin until the hijackers surrendered.

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 only one who's ever fought a war?"

Educated in the United States, Figueres continued to admire Americans and boasted of working with the CIA in the 1950s. But at the same time, he lambasted U.S. policy against neighboring Nicaragua's leftist Sandinista government, which was ousted in free elections last February.

Among his most controversial decisions was when he chose to harbor Robert Vesco, the fugitive U.S. financier. He made it clear, however, that he would not hesitate to extradite Vesco if the United States requested it. Vesco fled Costa Rica in 1978.

Jose (Pepe) Figueres Ferrer was born in 1908, the son of a Spanish immigrant doctor and his wife. He was sent to the United States as a youth to study engineering at MIT in Cambridge, Mass.

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.

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.

Figueres spent two years in exile in Mexico after he criticized the regime of Rafael Angel Calderon Guardia on a radio broadcast in 1942, claiming that the right-wing president was collaborating with Communists.

He returned to Costa Rica when Licenciado Teodore Picado Michalski became president, but launched the revolution along with other landowners and student agitators when that regime invalidated the March 1, 1948, presidential election.

Married and divorced twice from American women, Figueres was the father of five children.

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