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José Figueres Ferrer Monument, Plaza de la Democracia, San José, Costa Rica
José Figueres Ferrer Monument, Plaza de la Democracia, San José, Costa Rica

The Happy Republic

What do we know about José Figueres Ferrer, Don Pepe, the Catalan-born president who decreed the abolition of the army in Costa Rica?

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In the United Nations ranking on happiness, Costa Rica always appears among the first places, only below countries like Iceland and other Scandinavian nations, and far above its Central American compatriots. Why is Costa Rica in this exceptional situation, a country located in one of the poorest and most violent areas of the world? 

One of the keys is the lack of an army, Jordi Soler Insa, a graduate in Pedagogy and Geography from the University of Barcelona and author of La República feliz, Un país sin ejército, recently pointed out in a talk at Casa América Catalunya. 

The book is a portrait of the Catalan-born former Costa Rican president José Figueres Ferrer (1906-1990), known in his country as 'Don Pepe,' who was head of state three times and decreed the abolition of the army in the small Central American country, also known as the Central American Switzerland.

Born in the municipality of San Ramón de Alajuela in 1906, Figueres grew up in a family of Catalan immigrants and his mother tongue was Catalan until he started elementary school.

"This is how I am going to integrate into the country," he told his parents, as the author explains in the book, which is based on an interview with the president himself published in 1984. 

In 1924 he left for Boston, United States, where he studied hydroelectric engineering at the prestigious MIT. When he returned to Costa Rica four years later, he acquired the farm 'La Lucha Sin Fin' and dedicated himself to various agricultural and industrial activities, including the production and sale of hemp sacks and ropes, until he began to get involved in pro-democratic political movements. 

Not yet a political figure, on July 8, 1942, he went on the radio to denounce irregular acts and corruption on the part of the government of the time, governed by Rafael Calderón Guardia.

"What the government has to do is to leave," he said during his radio speech.

His audacity forced him to go into exile for two years, first in Guatemala, then in Mexico. 

Upon his return in 1944, the civil war broke out and Figueres became fully involved. In 1948, he headed the revolutionary movement of National Liberation in protest against the oppression of the government of Teodoro Picado, which tried to override the people's decision of making Otilio Ulate Blanco the country's next president.

The war ended that same year with the Figueres-Ulate pact, and Figueres was proclaimed President for a year and a half as founder of the Founding Board of the Second Republic. In that period, prior to the convocation of constituent elections, Figueres made some of the most emblematic decisions — to declare official the lyrics of the National Anthem. He created the Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE), which ended the electric energy crisis the country was suffering under a nationalized the banking system. Most important of all, however, was the decision to dissolve the army. The act took place on Dec. 1, 1948, in the old Bellavista barracks. 

"When we won the civil war we had two armies — one, the official one, defeated, and ours, improvised. The army that had lost the war could not say anything, we sent them home, and so happy. And in ours, they were all volunteers, students and young intellectuals who also wanted to return home. It was precisely the abolition of the armed forces that has become one of the hallmarks of the Costa Rican republic," Don Pepe explained to the author of the book. "But it has not always been easy."

With the victory of the Sandinista revolution, along with pressure from the Reagan administration, the most conservative sectors had begun a campaign to spread the idea of a supposed Sandinista threat that would justify the recovery of the armed forces. However, the social response was formidable. On May 23, 1984, around 100,000 people filled San José's Second Avenue to the brim in a march for peace, making it one of the largest demonstrations in the country in living memory. 

Thirty-two years after the death of José Figueres, Costa Rica can still boast of being a country without armed forces. Not only that, along  with Uruguay, it is the only country in Latin America considered a "full democracy," according to the United Nations.  

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