Rafael Angel Calderón
Rafael Angel Calderón, a staunch Catholic, was elected president in 1940. Subscribing to the Social Christian doctrine, his first objective was to reinstate religious education in public schools. Many social reforms initiated by him are still in effect today, such as social security, land reform, guaranteed minimum wage, collective bargaining, and workers' rights to organize. In addition, he founded the University of Costa Rica. By the end of his four-year term, Calderón had earned both the admiration of the lower class and the opposition of the upper class.
The election of 1944, however, triggered the beginning of Calderón decline as a venerable leader. He supported a puppet candidate, Teodoro Picado, whose subsequent victory was met with great public resistance; many citizens contested the election, claiming that the results were falsified.
In the 1948 election, Otilio Ulate ran as the unified opposition party leader, challenging Calderón. Ulate won the election by a very small margin, but Calderón refused to recognize the new president; the government demanded a recount. The next day, conspirators set fire to half of the ballots, and, as a result, the government demanded that the election be annulled. Picado remained in power.
Don Pepe Figueres
After a 6-year exile in Mexico, José María (Pepe) Figueres, a powerful coffee grower and outspoken rival of Calderón, returned to Costa Rica just before the election. As tensions were escalating at the nation's capitol, Figueres and a few operatives captured the airport at San Isidro de El General. As soon as foreign arms were airlifted in and his army was assembled, Figueres mobilized onto Cartago and Peurto Limón. Throughout the country, armed groups were formed, trained by Guatemalan military advisors. President Picado declared a state of siege, sending out borrowed Nicaraguan soldiers and banana workers from the communist unions. The subsequent civil war lasted 40 days, resulting in the deaths of more than 2000 people. Before Figueres launched an attack on San José, a treaty was negotiated and signed, and Picado stepped down.
Over the following 18 months, Figueres acted as interim president, during which time he drafted a new constitution. The new constitution prohibited presidential reelection, dissolved the communist party in Costa Rica, granted women and blacks the right to vote, abolished the army, and established a neutral body that would oversee future elections (the Electoral Tribunal). All of the social reforms that Calderón had established were maintained. Banks and insurance companies were nationalized, and ten percent of all bank funds were seized for reconstruction. In 1949, Figueres turned the country over to Ulate.
From the rubble of the civil war emerged a new party, National Liberation Party (PLN), one that still maintains great influence in Costa Rican politics today. "Don Pepe" Figueres was elected president in 1953 and again in 1970. Upon his death in 1990, he was remembered as one of Costa Rica's greatest leaders and a crusader against political corruption.