By Aleff Leff
Tico Times Staff
Sixty years after abolishing its military, Costa Rica is promoting an ideology abroad that governments should funnel the billions spent on defense to social programs instead. But the country is not doing enough at home to keep the peace, according to Karen Olsen de Figueres, second wife of the man who famously disbanded Costa Rica’s armed forces in 1948, President José “Pepe” Figueres. “I say with great sadness that we are not doing what we’ve been capable of doing,” the former first lady told The Tico Times. “I think that while we have violence in our streets, while we have in-fighting amongst us, this is not maintaining a culture of peace,” said Olsen, 78, born in Westchester, New York, to Danish immigrants. Olsen spoke Monday following an official gathering to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the abolition of the military in the garden of San José’s National Museum – which once served as military barracks known as the Cuartel Bellavista.
Attended by flag-waving schoolchildren, war veterans and politicians, the event was a forum in which the nation’s leaders gave impassioned speeches praising the modernizing force of Figueres, who died in June 1990 after leading the country from 1948-1949, 1953-1958 and 1970-1974. Known affectionately as don Pepe, Figueres rose to power after leading a victorious 44-day rebel uprising against President Teodoro Picado, only later to disband the military and oversee the drafting of a new constitution.
Francisco Antonio Pacheco, acting president while Oscar Arias is in Asia, underscored the importance of the international need to pass Figueres’ peace torch, citing contemporary campaigns such as the Costa Rica Consensus, which, he said, “encourages countries to spend on the people rather than the military.”
In his speech, Acting Foreign Minister Edgar Ugalde linked Figueres’ legacy to that of other leaders of the Americas. “We are supporters,” said Ugalde, quoting Figueres, “of the ideal of the New World of America … of Washington, Lincoln, Bolívar and Martí.”
Several speakers also applauded Arias’ efforts abroad to push for stricter controls in the weapons trade. Still, other peace-lovers sat with little ease during the annual commemoration. Members of the nonprofit Center for Peace are protesting a government move to send Tico police to train at the U.S. military school Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, at Fort Benning, Georgia. The institute took the place of the controversial School of the Americas (SOA), whose student body included the likes of Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega.
“Here we are talking about peace and we’re sending (police officers) to Fort Benning. It’s shocking; it’s a disrespect for the people who have died” at the hands of SOA alumni, said San José-based Center for Peace’s director Isabel MacDonald.