"I am a maverick and always have been," says Jose Figueres of himself. "I am the product of a personal revolution against the Catholicism of my family."
Today a comfortable man in his mid-fifties, Figueres has travelled far from the career in medicine that his father had planned for him. Walking with him on a fall afternoon, he stops to examine and collect crab apples; he is a farmer. Chatting with him over coffee, he excuses himself to speak to Washington and Caracas; he is a statesman. Probing him on South American politics, he predicts violent change; he is a revolutionary.
As a visiting professor, Figueres seems bent on impressing Harvard with the immediacy of Latin America's problems. "Harvard," he confesses, "is a real challenge. While I've lectured a great deal, I've never actually taught a course at an American university." Prefacing his lectures with a word about the morning's news from Latin America, he gears his discussion to the moment. "The Alliance for Progress is not making the impression it should," he laments, "because it didn't come soon enough. Now the prices of our exports on the world market are depressed. The Alliance really failed when Stevenson lost in 1956."
Figueres' father, a Spanish physician, immigrated to Costa Rica at the turn of the century. The family decided early that young Jose would follow his father into the physical sciences. But reluctant to study medicine, the 18-year-old boy journeyed to Boston to get a taste of the United States. He attended courses at M.I.T., studying electricity and engineering, and worked on the side checking automatic scales for pocket money. Increasingly, however, the social sciences came to interest the young Costa Rican. "Herbert Spencer," he reminisces fondly, "taught me English and the Boston Public Library is my real alma mater."
For the better part of six years Figueres remained in the United States. Bent on a career of his own, he returned his family's checks and supported himself translating technical documents. In New York he continued his informal studies, reading Ruskin, the Fabians, and Laski with particular avidity.
At the age of 24, the maverick yielded to his family's demand that he return home. With him Figueres carried many new ideas. "I wanted to be a pioneer, so I went to the country, set up a farm, and read by candlelight for seven years." "The Struggle Without End," as he called his plantation, quickly became a model of successful and enlightened management. Not without a trace of pride he explains, "We introduced advanced social measures long before social legislation demanded them."
But it took two years of exile as the result of an over-energetic protest against the government to turn the farmer to politics. Returning to Costa Rica with a change of government in 1944, he became embroiled in local politics. In 1948 he led a revolt against President Teodoro Picado and set up "a republic to end the spectacle of the majority impoverished by inefficiency and social privilege." Serving as the nation's provisional president for 18 months in 1948 and 1949 and again as its elected president from 1953 to 1958, Figueres made Costa Rica a showcase of Latin American republicanism. Speaking "immodestly" (as he puts it) of his two administrations, he recalls, "I introduced the entrepreneurial aspect of the love for the knowledge of economy into our government." After a pause he confides, "The problem for Latin American presidents is that they don't have access to reliable advisers and researchers. The entrepreneur has the best chance for success. Betancourt has a chance. He's got a strong party and good technical assistants. But Bosch--Bosch was lucky to last as long as he did. He's a great man, but a writer and an intellectual. Can you imagine Hemingway governing the U.S.?"
In a hemisphere that abounds with ex-presidents Figueres has been anything but typical. When asked what he has been doing since the end of his last term, he replies humorously, "Minding my own business." But while minding his own business the ex-president has become a figure of international importance. As a member of the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization he has dealt extensively with hemispheric problems. As a founder of Costa Rica's Interamerican Institute for Political Education, he has influenced the emergence of social and Christian democratic governments in Latin America. "We are developing a democratic reply to international communism." And as a lecturer in the United States and Europe he presents to the world an alternative to the traditional extremism of Latin political movements.
Jose Figueres is a compassionate figure. He knows the plight of Spanish America today. "We are a depressed people and depression is worse than war because in war at least there is glory." Latin America, he insists, can not escape revolution. "The days of the Latin conservative are numbered. The democrat or the communist--one can't be sure which--holds the keys to the future of our countries."