Through the investigation of primary and secondary sources, students here will identify, understand and be able to explain the details of how Figueres came to power in Costa Rica in 1948, what changes to Costa Rican domestic society he instituted by executive decree or supervised through overseeing the writing of a new constitution, how he positioned Costa Rica as a powerbroker in international circles, and how the legacy of Don Pepe is seen by the people of Costa Ricans today as they move forward into the twenty-first century. For American students using this lesson in Spanish classes, there will be specific primary and secondary sources in Spanish, although most of the lesson plan will be in English.
Latin American History
The future of mankind cannot include armed forces. Police, yes, because people are imperfect.
Jose Figueres Ferrer, speech abolishing the Costa Rican military, 01 Dec 1948
Public officials are mere custodians of authority. They must carry out the duties entrusted to them by law and cannot usurp powers which the law has not conferred upon them.
Costa Rican Constitution of 1949, Article 11
The Army as a permanent institution is abolished. There shall be necessary police forces for surveillance and the preservation of public order.
Costa Rican Constitution of 1949, Article 12
All persons are equal before the law and no discrimination contrary to human dignity shall be practiced.
Costa Rican Constitution of 1949, Article 33
The State shall seek the greatest welfare for all inhabitants of the country, organizing and promoting production and the most appropriate distribution of wealth.
Costa Rican Constitution of 1949, Article 50
Every worker is entitled to a minimum wage, to be fixed periodically, for a normal working day, which will provide for his welfare and a decent living. Wages shall always be equal for equal work performed under identical conditions of efficiency.
Costa Rican Constitution of 1949, Article 57
A regular working day for daytime work may not exceed eight hours a day or forty-eight hours a week. The regular working day for night work may not exceed six hours a day or thirty-six hours a week. Overtime work shall be paid at a rate of fifty percent above the stipulated wages or salaries. However, these provisions shall not apply in well-defined exceptional cases, to be determined by law.
Costa Rican Constitution of 1949, Article 58
All workers shall be entitled to one day of rest after six consecutive workdays and to annual paid leave, the duration and time of which shall be regulated by law, but which shall not, in any case, be less than two weeks for every fifty weeks of continuous service, all without prejudice to the well-defined exceptions established by law.
Costa Rican Constitution of 1949, Article 59
The State shall promote the construction of low-cost housing and create a family homestead for workers.
Costa Rican Constitution of 1949, Article 65
On 08 Jun 1990, former Coast Rican President Jose Maria Hipolito Figurers Ferrer, known to the people affectionately as “Don Pepe,” passed away after a heart attack at his home in San Jose. He was 83 years old. Normally the passing of an elderly former head of state in a small Latin American country with neither economic nor military power would garner little international attention, but this case was different. Don Pepe had been an inspiration to millions of people both in Costa Rica, across Latin America and around the world.
Figueres had been born into an upper middle class family in Costa Rica. He was educated in the United States at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and was fluent in English. He was a successful farmer and businessman before World War II.
In 1948 a bloody civil war broke out in Costa Rica over a disputed presidential election. When it was over after 40 days, 2000 lay dead and Figueres had come to power at the head of the “Junta Fundadora” (Founding Council), a body charged with writing a new constitution. Although he had grown up with means, Figueres was popular among for the masses for his stances on political, economic and social issues. Politically, he leaned to the left, normally favoring the common people over business and government. As the head of the founding council, Figueres was able to exert a great deal of pull on the delegates writing the new constitution. In the meantime, Don Pepe ruled the country by executive decree, establishing a system that would be very difficult to change after he was gone. In essence, he turned Costa Rica into a socialist state, establishing such ideas and institutions such as basic welfare and the civil service. He also decreed the nationalization of the banking system, established universal suffrage for all citizens and set up a free public education system. He also abolished the armed forces (leaving in place only a national police force for ensuring the implementation of law and order), a decision apparently inspired by socialist books Don Pepe had read at MIT in the 1920s. During the Depression of the 1930s, he had been an admirer of many of FDR’s New Deal programs, but also felt that the American president had not gone far enough to promote the cause of the working class over business interests. He also took note that the American Supreme Court eventually declared much of the New Deal to be unconstitutional, a problem he would rectify when directing the writing of the Costa Rican constitution after he came to power.
The Costa Rican Constitution of 1949 took almost 18 months to finish. Unlike the US Constitution most students are used to reading, the Costa Rican one is a much longer document that incorporates and specifically spells out basic rights for all citizens such as nationalized healthcare, minimum wages, vacations and educational opportunities. It also officially abolished the military. Rather than being purposely vague on many points like the US version (which allows for interpretation over time), the Costa Rican Constitution specifies rights and responsibilities in a plain language specifically written so commoners could understand it. When it was complete, Figueres handed power over to Otilio Ulate Blanco, the candidate who had been denied victory in the 1948 election that precipitated the civil war. In stepping down peacefully, Don Pepe started a tradition not often seen in Latin America that has continued in Costa Rica to the present day (although it would be decades before another political party came to power).
Figueres would eventually serve three terms as president in Costa Rica (1948-49, 53-58 and 70-74). He was never without controversy and style. Although only 5’3” tall, he stood up to some of the biggest players in the Western Hemisphere, including the United States and Cuba, vowing throughout his life to keep Costa Rica independent during the cold war. That is not to say he favored total neutrality, but rather that he used his position to get the best deal for his country. He hated dictators, and chastised the US for supporting them. In 1971, the little president even stood on the tarmac at San Jose’s international airport and pointed a submachine gun towards the cockpit of a plane that had been seized by supporters of General Anastasio Somoza Debayle of Nicaragua. The hijackers eventually surrendered. Don Pepe had a way with people. When he finally retired from public life in the 1980s, Figueres was one of the most beloved leaders in Latin American history. In many ways, his legacy can be seen all over Costa Rica today. His face is even on the front of the Costa Rican 10,000 Colones bill (worth just short of $20 US today).
Through the investigation of primary and secondary sources, students here will identify, understand and be able to explain the details of how Figueres came to power in Costa Rica in 1948, what changes to Costa Rican domestic society he instituted by executive decree or supervised through overseeing the writing of a new constitution, how he positioned Costa Rica as a powerbroker in international circles, and how the legacy of Don Pepe is seen by the people of Costa Ricans today as they move forward into the twenty-first century.
For American students using this lesson in Spanish classes, there will be specific primary and secondary sources in Spanish, although most of the lesson plan will be in English.
To view resource web pages, download the lesson plan PDF above.
While on tour, students can visit the Plaza de la Democracia in downtown San Jose, where they can see for themselves where on 01 Dec 1948 then President Figueres demonstrated Costa Rica’s commitment to peace by smashing a wall of what was then the military barracks. In a fiery and impassioned speech, Figures declared to the world that he was abolishing the country’s military. The event is also set as the background image on the Costa Rican 10000 Colones bill, which has Don Pepe’s face on the front. Today, the site is home to the National Museum. While at the site, students should look for the bronze statue of Don Pepe overlooking San Jose’s downtown.
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