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.