An MIT Alumni Association Publication
José Figueres Ferrer ’26 was Costa Rica's president three times.
José Figueres Ferrer '26 was Costa Rica's president three times.

Planning a trip to Costa Rica, I stumbled on the fact one of that country’s most important political figures was MIT alumnus José Figueres Ferrer.  Figueres, 1906-1990, was president three times and is credited with leading governments that transformed a coffee and banana outpost into a thriving country with widespread prosperity, progressive social benefits, and no army.

Don Pepe, as Ticos call him, studied hydroelectric engineering at MIT in the early 1920s while he worked in a tea company as a translator but he also spent a lot of time reading in the Boston Public Library. When he returned to Costa Rica in 1928, he became a successful coffee grower and rope manufacturer. His 1,000 sharecroppers and factory laborers benefited from his self described role as a farmer-socialist: he built housing, provided medical care and recreation for his workers, and allowed his workers to sell hemp to him or others.

Dodging dictators, he became president the first time in 1948 as head of a junta that aimed to restore the democratically elected president. He founded the National Liberation Party and, during the 18 months he and his government were in office, they abolished the country's army, wrote a constitution, nationalized its banking sector, outlawed the Communist Party, and granted women and blacks the right to vote. And that was just the first go-round as president.

His Wikipedia entry has lots more facts, but here are few highlights:

• Figueres was elected president by a landslide in 1953; he governed as a moderate socialist, adopting a pro-U.S. policy and promoting private industry.

• Between his second and third presidencies, Figueres worked in UN agencies, served as a visiting professor at Harvard University, and testified before the U.S. Congress about U.S.-Latin American relations.

• Elected president again 1970, he is credited for Costa Rica's enduring stability and democracy. However Figueres granted asylum to U.S. financial fugitive Robert Vesco and that cost his party the next national election.

• When hijackers seized a plane in San José in 1971, the 5-foot-3 Figueres stood on the runway and pointed a submachine gun at the cabin until the hijackers surrendered.

• Since he had abolished the military, he needed strong friends for defense. He developed a series of interesting alliances—ranging from the CIA to the Organization of American States.

• Both of Figueres's wives were Americans (from Alabama and New York). One of his six children, José María Figueres, served as president in 1994-98.

The younger Figueres, who established the Costa Rican Foundation for Sustainable Development, worked with the MIT Media Lab to develop the Little Intelligent Communities project that built mobile community centers featuring telemedicine, a computer classroom, banking, and modern telecommunications for undeveloped regions.


Sam Adams

Sat, 10/05/2013 2:45pm

Don Pepe life's history has been a myth created to promote democracy in Latin America- Some of the facts which brought him fame included the abolishment of the 300 man ill equipped Costa Rican army which was replaced by a much larger and costly paramilitary police force- His Caribean Legion and CIA became his closest allies and Costa Rica became the base for launching terror against people who were not his friends - Among were the Trujillo assasination which was orchestrated at his home with CIA money -many other people died including inocent bystanders while these terror bases operated including the assasination of CR guardia Civil Director Col Monge in Guanacaste- Once someone looks at all the facts surrounding Mr. Figueres life its easy to discern that his primary motives were personal fame and fortune as he followed anyone who offered money including the Soviets and american criminals-
Costa Rica has existed as a democracy only by way of hand outs from foreign interests for many years - they are currently courting the PR of China as others compete for her attention

Bryan Mascio

Sun, 09/26/2010 4:01pm

I am very excited to have come across this post. I was looking for information on Pepe Figueres as part of a class that I'm teaching at an alternative high school in NH. The students are reading a book about Costa Rica and are working to take a trip there next spring. The book talks about the vital influence that this leader had on the development of Costa Rica after its Civil War. I can't wait to tell the students that there's an additional connection to this historic figure - he went to college so close by. The students would be thrilled if readers checked out their blogs - they can be accessed through mine