José Figueres dominated Costa Rican politics for a quarter-century (1948-1974). He was a leading figure among the Latin American democratic left during this period and his influence extended through- out the hemisphere. His career has attracted the attention of many Costa Rican and a few foreign writers. We now have, however, the first full-scale biography of Don Pepe in English. Charles Ameringer had made an important contribution with this political biography, for he deals extensively with both Figueres’ career in Costa Rica and with his active influence abroad. Ameringer explains how Figueres’ Partido de Liberación Nacional continued political and social democracy at home while Don Pepe’s key role in the democratic left gave tiny Costa Rica a role out of proportion to her size in other Caribbean countries.
Don Pepe is a sequel to Ameringer’s The Democratic Left in Exile (1974), in which he described the activities of Figueres, Rómulo Betancourt, Victor Raul Haya de la Torre, Luis Muñoz Marín, and others against the dictators of the Caribbean basin, but this volume focuses on the Costa Rican. Ameringer chronicles Figueres’ youth in the United States, development of his “La Lucha” agricultural and industrial enterprise, and his entrance into the political arena against Rafael Angel Calderón García in 1942 and subsequent exile in Mexico, where he began his involvement with those who would later become the Caribbean Legion. Ameringer treats without overemphasis Figueres’ War of National Liberation in 1948. He spends more time on the lesser-known details of the junta that ruled following the revolution and Figueres’ two terms as president (1953-1958, 1970-1974), as well as his major role in domestic politics between those terms. He also details Don Pepe’s efforts to overthrow Anastasio Somoza and Rafael Trujillo, his initial support of and later break with Fidel Castro, his close relationship with U.S. political leaders, his involvement with the CIA, the 1965 U.S. intervention in the Dominican Republic, and, finally, his dealings with the infamous Robert Vesco and the Costa Rican Watergate.
The most revealing part of the work is that which deals with the period 1950-1970, for which Ameringer had access to Figueres’ personal archives. Essentially a chronicle, Ameringer also effectively utilizes oral and published sources, as well as his own observations. While Ameringer admires Figueres, especially through his first presidential administration, he makes no apologies for Figueres’ mistakes, and in his brief conclusion he criticizes Don Pepe for returning to the presidency in 1970, when “it was time to permit the party to stand on its own. His continued dominance,” Ameringer charges, “stifled new leaders and ideas” (p. 280). While analysis is limited, Ameringer makes his own views clear enough throughout the book, which appears likely to have long utility as a chronicle of one of the mid-twentieth century’s most colorful and influential political chieftains.