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 of Kansas.
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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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
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Oral History Interview with
Jose Figueres Ferrer
San Jose, Costa Rica
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 Lend-Lease.
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 product.
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 civilized society.
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 langua