Oral History Interview with
President of Costa Rica, 1948-49, 1953-58.
Jose Figueres Ferrer
San Jose, Costa Rica
July 8, 1970
By Donald R. McCoy and Richard D. McKinzie
[Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | List of Subjects Discussed]
This is a transcript of a tape-recorded interview conducted for the Harry S. Truman Library. A draft of this transcript was edited by the interviewee but only minor emendations were made; therefore, the reader should remember that this is essentially a transcript of the spoken, rather than the written word.
Numbers appearing in square brackets (ex. ) within the transcript indicate
the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview.
Other interviews conducted in Costa Rica during the summer of 1970 are
on deposit at the University Archives, University Libraries, University
This oral history transcript may be read, quoted from, cited, and reproduced
for purposes of research. It may not be published in full except by permission
of the Harry S. Truman Library.
Opened July, 1970
Harry S. Truman Library
[Top of the Page | Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | List of Subjects Discussed]
Oral History Interview with
San Jose, Costa Rica
Jose Figueres Ferrer
July 8, 1970
By Donald R. McCoy and Richard D. McKinzie
MCCOY: Well, sir, our first question. And let me say that with any of
these questions, of course, any way you want to answer them, if you want
to add other things that aren't covered by the questions, please feel
free to do so. The first question, really I suppose would be two questions.
At the end of the Second World War, what did you believe were the chief
problems of Costa Rica in terms of economics, politics, international
relations, health, communications? And along this line, did you think
that the United States had a responsibility to cooperate in the solution
of these problems?
FIGUERES: At the end of World War II, our number one problem in Costa
Rica was the OPA, the Office of Price Administration in the United
States, which, at that time, was in the hands of one of my two friends,
either Galbraith, I think it was the first or the second, or who was the
one -- Bowles, either Bowles or Galbraith?
I don't know whom to blame, but we paid a very high price for it. We are
mainly exporters of coffee. At the beginning of World War II, coffee was
rather low. When war broke out the U.S. froze all prices, internal prices,
and established the OPA to handle the freezing. This included coffee because
it is consumed in the United States -- not produced. So we continued to
sell, I think, at about 18 cents a pound three or four crops, when actually
the free market price had gone up to 38 or 40. I believe that we contributed
at least one half the value of four coffee crops to the war effort. I've
been telling my friends in Latin America in the coffee countries that
maybe we paid the low price after all for fighting Nazism. But this was
our monetary contribution. The country was absolutely broke in this sense
at the end of World War II. And yet, it was a strange way of being broke,
because imports had been extremely difficult to obtain, and therefore,
although we had no merchandise, we had a relatively large amount of dollar
reserves, of foreign currency available. Of course, as soon as we could
import foreign goods all these reserves in Costa Rica, like in the rest
of Latin America, disappeared. You ask here [on
list of prepared questions] if I think or thought that the United States
had any responsibility in cooperating to the solutions of problems. This
involves a major question, really, to what extent are the most prosperous
nations in today's mankind responsible (if you want to use the word),
for the welfare of the whole of mankind. For those of us who believe that
the tendency is towards integration and that this is the end, for the
time being, of a very long revolutionary period, it is a responsibility
of those who are going ahead, to look back and wait and see, and not get
too far separated from those who fall -- among individuals, among families,
communities, and nations. And in this sense the United States and
Western Europe today, and the Soviet Union today, and Japan
today have a major responsibility towards the rest of the world. They
have partly inherited and partly built up in the industrial revolution;
and because of the industrial, which is a scientific revolution really,
they have gotten so far ahead. And now they have a tremendous bargaining
power which would make it possible for them, for the prosperous nations,
to keep the less prosperous nations back, farther and farther, if they
wanted to use this power, and if these weren't against
the rules of nature. It won't happen. Those of us who have fought for
ethical economic relations between rich and poor nations, now that a great
deal of headway is being made, and that the rich nations are more convinced
today than it appears of the necessity of bringing up to date, into the
20th century, the underdeveloped world. And this is not being done, largely
because of the war expenses. Then and today war continues to be our main
enemy. I know it is in the United States. I just recently learned some
details about how serious this is for the Soviet Union; how far the war
effort -- in things that appeared to me to be foolish and unjustified,
like their policy in the Middle East -- how much the expenses of this
are hindering their aid to underdeveloped countries and the betterment
of their own people. And, of course, we are much more familiar with the
internal problems of the United States where we cannot really meet the
big problems like pollution, or like parking, or like the shortage of
higher educational facilities, or housing -- housing is terrible in the
States now. We cannot meet the great problems of the people because we
have to devote an incredible proportion of our gross national product
to war. I think we are just
as barbaric as the primeval tribes, because they also lived in perpetual
warfare, and in a different way we are dedicating a tremendous amount
of our energies to warfare, whether it is a hot war or not; and this is,
really, keeping not only the underdeveloped world underdeveloped, but
the underdeveloped sections of the United States and of the rich nations
underdeveloped. I happen to keep track of these figures, and we are now
reaching the 200 billion a year amount for war expenses, which will be
looked upon in history as the doings of a dark age.
MCCOY: May I ask you, do you think that the amount of international assistance
that has been developed by various countries since World War II would
have developed even without the stresses of the Cold War, that they might
even have been better? Do you think that's a possibility?
FIGUERES: This is a very intriguing question. We owe the whole concept
of international assistance to war, like we owe to war…like we owe
to war many scientific discoveries.
MCCOY: I was thinking about this because the other day you mentioned
FIGUERES: Yes. As I mentioned the other day, in my
opinion -- and this is just an observation on the part of history in which
I have lived -- international assistance was really born with Lend-Lease
arrangements during the Second World War. It was a revolutionary measure
under which all the nations, the allied nations, agreed to share available
reserves. The peacetime equivalent of this is contained, at least philosophically,
in President Truman's second inaugural, in that famous sentence in which
he says that "Knowledge is the patrimony of mankind." I don't
know whether those are his words or not, but I've been using it this way
for a long time. The knowledge belongs to mankind and not to the individual
or to the nation who happens to develop it or to possess it. This was
a very, very revolutionary idea on the part of a powerful nation. It would
have been all right if it had come from the "have-nots" but
coming from the United States' President, it was an incredible revolution
from the top.
Now, we owe all ideas of international assistance to Lend-Lease, and
therefore to war. We have had absolutely insufficient international assistance
ever since, especially in the last few years, because of war. But the
amount we have, in a way, is also due
to war because of the political competition between the Soviet Union and
the United States. After all, if it weren't for this competition, in which
sometimes the big powers give the appearance of being in a political campaign
competing for the votes of the poor countries, international assistance
would even be smaller. So, you have to blame war and be grateful to war
-- just like in scientific progress.
MCCOY: What were the difficulties in obtaining United States' cooperation,
generally speaking, in the postwar period.
FIGUERES: What were the difficulties? Always political.
MCCOY: But we're thinking here not only, you see, of Senor Picado's administration,
but the Junta and...
FIGUERES: Yes, the difficulties were political in the sense that there's
a great deal of government by public opinion in the U.S.; I know because
I've been there. A great portion of public opinion has never quite understood
international assistance. And incidentally, during Mr. Truman's administration
I toured the whole Northwest of the United States with Mr. Nelson Rockefeller
in a private plane, going from town to town explaining what point 4 was
(as we called it then, international assistance),
Mr. Rockefeller, speaking from the point of view of the United States,
as a personal representative of Mr. Truman, which he was at that moment,
and I, speaking as a member of the recipient nations. I was invited to
tour with him, and the surprise of the American peoples that we visited
was great when we told them the amounts involved, which were microscopic
by comparison to their ideas, and when we told them of the amount that
the receiving countries were contributing to these programs, which we
didn't know of. Everywhere we found the same surprise. And this continues
to be the case. We figure -- by "we" I mean those of us who
fought for the creation of UNTAA [United Nations Technical Assistance
Administration] this new agency of the United Nations for relations between
rich and poor countries -- we figure that something like two percent of
the gross national product of the rich nations devoted to international
aid would be a great push, and probably, in the average, it would be as
much as can be used, because you know, money is not all. You have to prepare
programs, you have to prepare people, and people's receptive minds, and
so on: So that in our opinion -- and I belong to sort of a little, private
club of people who have been
working for this -- in our opinion, and we have recommended this officially
to UNTAA, two percent should be devoted to aid to the less developed world
and probably could be used and would be enough, and would effect a miracle
in a quarter of a century, or half a century. Now, this has been extremely
difficult to obtain from the rich countries because of political reasons.
If you figure that the U.S. is reaching now, what, a trillion dollars
or a billion billion, in a few years they're going to reach a billion
billion, I hope so. I'm very much concerned with what's going on at this
moment as we talk; and I just phoned to Washington and a lot of people
are concerned there. It will reach the figure of a billion billion, and
two percent, if I'm not mistaken, would mean for the United States alone
twenty billion. Twenty billion in foreign aid, from the U.S. alone. It
would probably mean forty or fifty billion for the world at large. Now,
the U.S. has been reducing foreign aid in every administration, or in
every Congressional session. We're now below three billion, when twenty
billion should be the figure. Now, this difference of seventeen billion
is strictly political. It is not a question of whether the U.S. economy
can afford it or not, it's
a question of whether there is a political way of making the American
people through their Congress accept a thing like this, when they are
systematically getting reductions. The same is true, I think, for internal
problems of the United States. I've been very agreeably surprised, because
it enhances my vanity, of which I do not have little, to see that some
people have come to the same conclusion that I came to long ago, that
what the U.S. needs internally is fifteen billion a year for development
during ten years. Somebody else came with the lump amount of a hundred
and fifty billion, which coincided precisely with my own estimates --
and don't ask me how I reached it. But the U.S. needs fifteen billion,
to mention any figure, a year; and if they would devote fifteen billion
to foreign aid at this moment, it would revolutionize the world. The fifteen
billion would probably be approximately two percent of the gross national
If the U.S. economy were devoting two percent of the gross national product,
or fifteen billion, to internal development, and two percent, or fifteen
billion, to international developments, we would in ten years clean out
the poverty areas of the United
States, and the major problems of American society today. The whole thing
would be thirty billion which is inconceivable politically, and yet, we're
spending a hundred billion in war. The inconsistencies of our society
are so numerous that we had better not think of them too much and if you
compare how much we're spending in nonsensical advertising with what we're
spending on higher education, you would come to the same conclusion. And
so, on and on. If it were a logical world and a logical family of nations,
I don't know where we'd be, but we're not. This is the problem.
Anyway, I consider the expense in armaments of today as something as
silly as the Crusades of say nine hundred or a thousand years ago, something
that will go down in history as the huge mistake of mankind in a relatively
MCCOY: I gather you feel this partly explains the modest appropriations
for point 4.
FIGUERES: This is exactly what I mean. It is easier to sell politically
to the people terrific expenses in war, because you cater to patriotism
and to emotions, and it is very difficult to get public opinion to agree
to something more constructive and less emotive.
MCCOY: Could you comment on the origins of United States
technical assistance missions? We would be interested in the opinion...
FIGUERES: Well, we were very fortunate in the history of international
assistance between the United States and Costa Rica, as in many other
things historical. For some reason, Costa Rica has been very lucky in
its history with the United States. It began with the Inter-American Assistance
Programs, or something of that kind...
MCKINZIE: Institute for Inter-American Affairs.
FIGUERES: Institute for Inter-American Affairs was highly successful
in Costa Rica, and one of the first directors here was Mr. Howard Gabbert,
with whom I became very friendly. I still remember him fondly. Now, he
was a man who was a model of down to earth realism, no illusions about
excessive foreign assistance, or anything. He would go down to the farmer
and find out what the real need was. He must have been an agricultural
man before, because he certainly knew. I like to tell a little story of
something that happened between him and me, I think he has forgotten.
He and I went to some area of small farming. I wanted him to get, personally,
the reactions of the peasant farmers. Since I speak peasant language
and I get along very well with them and they don't feel shy, I managed
to get hold of a man and told him, "If somebody could help you, Mr.
So-and-So, suppose we could help you, what would be your need, what do
you think we could do as a government or friends, or in any capacity,
to improve your little farm here? Would you speak of a tractor, or would
you speak of fertilizer, or what? Is there anything you think we could
The man said, "Well, look at those two oxen that are plowing?"
I said, "Yes."
"Do you see that one is older than the other?"
I said, "I happen to know about them, because I have bought hundreds
of teams of oxen in my life, and I'm sure that the one to the left side
is older. I'm sure the one is older, Mr. So-and-So."
He said, "You know what follows?"
"Yes, I know, you have to change him."
"Well, if you could finance the change of that ox for a younger
one, this farm would be transformed." [Figueres laughed].
That's the farmer's real need. Change the older ox for a younger
Well, Mr. Gabbert exercised a great influence in this country. He even
left a coined word, STICA, which we're now still using for agricultural
extension. And I don't know what happened, but he was removed, as I remember,
just out of political decisions, which was very lamentable for Costa Rica.
I know if he won or lost, or although if he won, because I imagine a man
like him, wherever he goes he is welcome. But we certainly lost by having
him removed from Costa Rica. There was nothing specifically against him,
I think, it must have been some party politics, the way it goes on in
all democracies. Anyway, if you see him or you know of him please tell
him that I remember him with great fondness.
MCCOY: By all means. Would you say that the United States Technical Assistance
missions developed in a way that was realistic in terms of the needs of
Costa Rica, and that Costa Rican interests were consulted?
FIGUERES: Yes, by all means. Not only that, it left a school here. A
great number of agricultural engineers were formed in that period. Now,
this is no comment on missions that have come later, because at this particular
moment, AID has excellent people here, maybe because they're Jewish, but
they're damned good.
They are helping us in overall programs for improving agriculture with
a great deal of money injected from AID funds in the United States --
very well planned. There may have been deficiencies in the assistance
of the United States since the Second World War in Costa Rica, but by
and large, if all the programs in the world had gone half as well as they
have gone in Costa Rica, the world would be definitely better.
MCCOY: I was wondering, did you see great problems in the changeover
from STICA programs to an emphasis on point 4 in Costa Rica?
FIGUERES: Well, as far as I can remember, the main problem was financial,
because the U.S. contribution to it was withdrawn. It was one of those
theoretical things, well inspired, but not always realistic. Somebody
prepared the idea that if something was started in Costa Rica with money
contributions from the United States, then Costa Rica could and should
take over. Then Costa Rice either could or did not, or low coffee prices
came, or what-have-you, and the contributions, the money that went into
agricultural extension from then on was a great deal less, and probably
also coupled with the lack of warmth and friendship of someone like Mr.
Gabbert, the extension practically went
to pieces. At this moment it is very bad in Costa Rica. One of my worst
discoveries during the recent campaign in which I traveled throughout
the country (I visited 884 communities), one of my worst discoveries was
how little, how nonexistent, agricultural extension is. It's terrifically
lamentable. Then people complain of inflation, that one problem is not
related to the other. It is, because if you don't produce food you have
high prices, and high prices and inflation seem to me to go hand in hand.
MCCOY: Had there been any signs of deterioration in this between the
time when you left office under the Junta and the time you were elected
FIGUERES: Well, that's a very precise thing. Probably there were, but
I wouldn't swear to it. No. I would say that at this moment we're going
to greatly increase agricultural assistance, partly because we are doubling
our budget for the ministry, and partly because of this program, this
AID, under Mr. Harrison's leadership, has been developing. His name is
quite Nordic, but he is Jewish.
MCCOY: He's a very interesting gentleman.
FIGUERES: Oh, you know him?
FIGUERES: Oh, I like him, he's a very good guy. Harrison -- he's a very
MISS HERZFELD: A young person, too.
FIGUERES: Young fellow, yes. He knows the economy of the country very
MCKINZIE: Mr. President, of the three types of outside, exterior money,
or exterior aid of various sorts -- technical assistance or foreign investment
or direct payments of a sort, after the war, would it be fair to say that
one of those was, more important than the other, or are they all a part
of the same package, so to speak, for the development of Costa Rica?
FIGUERES: I would say that there are, as you say, three main ways or
channels for injecting savings or resources of money into a new economy
like this. The more desirable one is the natural one of paying higher
prices for our products, paying for our national work. This is the most
desirable one because we don't have to return it. It automatically becomes
our patrimony, where part of it is spent and part saved, but it is our
money. So this is the most desirable one. The second one is loans, as
easy as possible, especially soft loans these days are very favorable.
And the third one is direct investment.
Direct investment has a favorable effect in the development, but it has
real and potential disadvantages. The real ones are that if you increase
too much you're really making a country dependent on another, you're establishing
a modern type of colonialism -- if you increase it out of proportion to
the growth of local wealth. And it brings about political problems, eventually,
for both countries, the investing company and the recipient country. Probably
this is the main disadvantage.
Now, we don't have a uniform policy, a policy towards foreign investment.
We like to analyze case by case on what will it do for the country, what
are the prospects of their being prosperous -- because we don't want anybody
to invest here and lose money -- how will it affect Costa Rican society
by and large. So that the only thing we have is an open mind to study
propositions and to welcome foreign capital. But when they want special
conditions, we have to study case by case.
MCCOY: This has been a fairly traditional policy since the end of World
FIGURES: Yes, yes, because the end of World War II almost coincided with
our party coming to maturity. We really
became responsible for the country in 1948. Until we overthrew the previous
regime, which was a regime . And, more or less, we established a regime,
although the opposition to us has been the executive branch of government
three or four times since then. There isn't much that they have been able
to undo, so that we're really responsible for good and evil for the last
twenty-two or twenty-three years in this country.
MCCOY: In terms of your mentioning the possibility of the colonial relationship
between a large power and a small power, a question happened to come to
mind. And that is, in the period -- I guess one could see it as early
as 1951, but by 1953, '54 and '55, obviously, the thing has grown, and
that is in terms of greater cooperation among the Central American States;
I'm thinking, for example, of ODECA [Organization de Estados Centroamericanosl
and some earlier cooperative attempts in the early 1950s among the Central
American nations -- would you say that this is an attempt at what we call
"self-help" or is it an attempt -- or maybe at the same time
-- is an attempt to perhaps increase the bargaining power of the Central
American States vis-a-vis a large country like the United States or Great
Britain. Or am I completely
off the track in asking this?
FIGUERES: Yes, I can see. I would think that the Number One objective
of all our efforts in Central American integration is economic, and it's
a question of having larger markets at the time when production methods
are becoming more and more adapted to large markets.
MCCOY: Why did there seem to be a stimulus for this in that particular
FIGUERES: At that time.
MCCOY: Yes, in 1950, it seems that...
FIGUERES: That there was a particular stimulus?
FIGUERES: I don't think that the five Central American countries together
could have much bargaining power vis-a-vis the United States. However,
I was responsible for great efforts to get several countries together
in the struggle with the United Fruit Company, which is a different thing.
One thing is dealing with United Fruit, and one thing is dealing with
the United States of America. One is a little larger than the other. In
this it would have been desirable to get the different banana countries
of Central America to renegotiate contracts simultaneously. We never succeeded
in this, because of the varying points of view.
For example: In Guatemala the parties in power were not interested in
renegotiating, but in destroying the United Fruit or the banana business,
which seemed to our group in Costa Rica to be suicidal for Guatemala.
In Honduras, they were horrified that of United Fruit and identified it
too much with "Uncle Sam." They wouldn't think of anything that
might look rebellious. In Panama, they were under chronic negotiations
about the Panama Canal -- still are, and will be I don't know for how
long. And those are the three banana countries aside from Costa Rica.
So, we never could get together. Our party fought alone. Eventually, we
found a powerful ally, in some aspects, which was the U.S. State Department,
in our contention with the Treasury Department of the United States, that
certain taxes which really belonged to the Costa Rican treasury, were
being paid to the American treasury. When the U.S. State Department was
convinced of this, they exercised their pressure in our favor. They did
much more as allies than any other Central American country.
MCCOY: About what time was this?
FIGUERES: I think, yes.
MCCOY: Mr. Acheson would have been Secretary by then.
FIGUERES: Yes. Oh, yes, if it hadn't been for the State Department under
Mr. Acheson, I don't think we would have been able to renegotiate. Beginning
with the fact that the word itself, "renegotiation," stinks
to most lawyers...They would put their hands over their heads and say:
"the sanctity of the contract," and I'd say, "Well, I've
seen things equally sanct go to pieces." We are pioneers in this
thesis that contracts are contracts as long as basic circumstances do
not change. In economic matters -- not to go into human affairs, which
are even more complicated -- in economic matters, the example we used
was the city of Paris, which in 1902 or '03 contracted for a hundred years
of gas lighting for the city -- gas: In the last five years, I think,
because of the progress of electricity, the sanctity of the contracts
couldn't have been less sanct, less holy. Now it has become a juridical
theory or juridical doctrine, which has a name in Latin, to the effect
that even contracts should be reconsidered when conditions under which
the parties involved, incurred in those contracts, have changed.
MCKINZIE: Mr. President, I don't mean to be presumptuous
here, but did the American aid programs during the Junta fit your program
for reform in Costa Rica? I realize you had many things you wanted to
do during those years; and were these programs compatible, or were they
FIGUERES: My recollection is that the people in the U.S. Embassy were
very sympathetic, but the people in the World Bank were horrible. They
were horrible. The people in the World Bank were extreme reactionaries
who came to Costa Rica and listened to what the oligarchy here, which
we had just overthrown, was saying, and repeated all the arguments for
us. They were against the nationalization of the banks. They were against
taxing capital after the war. They were against anything that meant social
progress. They were European functionaries sent by the World Bank. I have
had many dealings with the World Bank in the University of Stanford in
San Francisco. I had my first quarrel in the very early fifties about
prices, stability international, the founders of the World Bank said it
was heresy, that prices should be allowed to get established by offer
and demand. They discovered something new, you see; they told me it came
from Adam Smith. Although it came from Adam Smith, it was quite recent
to them. It only took eight
years for a new president Black to repeat exactly my thesis in Chicago.
Now, this has become so evident that even as an immovable monument as
the International Monetary Fund has discovered that prices are important.
It's a gigantic stride forward for the International Monetary Fund to
realize that the world is not made of currency. It's made of goods and
people, you see. But it's too revolutionary for the bankers.
MCCOY: I gather, then, that through the Embassy, that whatever...
FIGUERES: The Ambassador was fine, Mr. Davis, an. old man, very lovable
MCCOY: I gather though that through the Embassy or through, perhaps something
like STICA, that you found that they were willing to listen to your suggestions?
FIGURES: Yes, very much. They were interested in social progress, very
sympathetic. The Ambassador himself was a very kind man. He is retired
now, I think it was Mr. Davis. He risked his life in one of the peace
negotiations. He went through the lines, and I think was shot at, and
stayed here. But at that time, I remember that we had the Berlin airlift
and that he and I were day by day watching events and hoping
that nothing weird would happen.
MCCOY: So, basically, his position during the revolution itself, was...
FIGUERES: Very good. Very fair. We have no complaint. Very recently before,
what was happening was, that because of the military alliance between
the United States and Russia, many people in the U.S. and in the foreign
embassies, were not only pro-Russia, but pro-Communist. Since we were
fighting the Communists in power here, we were really their contenders
or their enemies, their opponents to the embassies, before '48. But in
'48 the Cold War was really beginning already, but before that when I
was in the underground, for example, the Communists in the Embassy were
very close allies in persecution. We were the troublemakers and the Communists
were the good guys. This doesn't mean that the functionaires of the U.S.
Embassy here were Communists, it's just that they were war allies. We
were war allies of the U.S. I was pro-French in the First World War, and
we were pro-allies in the First World War, so we were very passionate
in the Second World War. But here we had a Communist in power helping
in the violation of the electoral rights. Our war was about the
electoral rights, and the Communists, of course, don't believe in the
MCCOY: I was wondering, you commented on the positions of the Embassy
during the revolution, were private American interests aloof, or did they
FIGUERES: No, they did not take sides. Shortly after we won, there was
a booklet printed by the Communists in which the map of Costa Rica was
portrayed full of oil rigs, of which we had some, and then chains going
from the top of the oil rig, around the country, under the ocean, tying
it to the oil industry; and proving that we had financed our revolution
through the oil companies. It's too bad, it wasn't true. If I had known
we had the oil companies with us, we wouldn't have starved so much. No,
the American businesses did not interfere in anything. When we nationalized
the banks we had an unfavorable reaction from most American banks. The
most liberal minded was Chase. Chase Manhattan was very liberal and never
closed. The very limited amount of credit we had with them was never closed,
but the rest of the banks did try to sabotage. And they made another attempt
three years ago here in which they paid a