The former president of Costa Rica turned last night to his personal experience and political past to give an extraordinary account of events in Cuba just after Fidel Castro acceded to power.
"We'd had a Communist government in Costa Rica for six years" said Jose Figueres, "and there's something in the atmosphere of a pro-Communist country... It was the air when I arrived in Havana."
"Castro was the first to reach Havana" related Figueres, but several Latin American groups had cooperated to overthrow the Batista dictatorship. The Costa Rican had been an active leader among these and came to Havana in March 1959 as an honored guest of the new regime.
He described how he spent several days trying to reach the revolutionary so that the two could coordinate the speeches they were to give at a massive celebration. "But Friday he sent word that he was fighting someone somewhere," and so Figueres and Castro met again only on the day of the rally.
Figueres in his Havana speech told Cubans that the United States could be trusted and the business community of North America would be vital to Cuba's future. He tried to describe "the dangers of our American revolutions... The dictators have kept the demagogues under control, and now lets' hope the demagogues are not the deer eating our political crop...in spite of your very fine leadership. This made Fidel angry...he got the hint."
Castro in his turn rose and gave his first major political speech, encouraged by Figueres. "For two-and-a-quarter hours I encouraged him," the former president continued. "I was told later that this was the first time he really told what was on his mind."
This was the speech that revealed Castro's distrust of the U.S. and his view that the transform of social conditions could be effected only by force, on the Comunist pattern. But Figueres, for his concern with Cuba's future and his willingness to hear Castro, got a grateful reception from the Cuban people. Though their views already diverged, Castro's trust dissolved slowly, and Figueres still appeared on Cuban television the following two nights.
When he left Havana, Figueres said last night, he invited the Cuban leader to "visit Costa Rica and there we will continue this dialogue. These were the last words I spoke with him."
"There were many who could then respond to reason," said Figueres last night. "Nobody with a conscience had these attitudes in March 1959. But now the Latin American move toward democracy has been terribly set back."