By Christina Spilsbury.
The 1940s and 1950s saw a huge real estate boom in California, and developers soon began looking for the next great place in the sun. Bush pilots flew up and down the coasts of Mexico and Central America, searching for paradise. A 1962 study named the North Pacific coast of Costa Rica as the ideal place for the largest resort project in Central America. The Costa Rican government began laying plans to provide the infrastructure to accommodate an international resort, creating the Papagayo Project. In 1974, Daniel Oduber, President of Costa Rica, bought the land for Liberia Airport, (originally named Tomas Guardia airport and now called Daniel Oduber International Airport), although the airport did not really get going until 2002 when Delta began providing regular service between Atlanta and Liberia.
Don Pepe Figueres was elected to a third term in office in 1970, promising to bring more foreign investment to the country. He saw the potential in attracting retired foreigners to the country, and in 1971, Law 4812 was passed. The law established the Pensionado and Rentista Programs, providing tax incentives to retirees who were willing to relocate to Costa Rica. Retirees were not allowed to work, but the financial requirements were minimal, and the incentives generous - such as the right to import household goods and a vehicle duty free. Don Pepe established the ICT or Costa Rican Tourism Institute which ran the residency program and took on the task of attracting visitors to beautiful Costa Rica.
Many good people were encouraged to immigrate to Costa Rica. But a few scoundrels were also attracted by the new laws and the banking laws which protected the client’s right to secrecy. The most famous individual to apply for the pensionado program was Robert Vesco, who called himself the Che Guevara of international finance, the Fugitive Financier or the Famous Fuge. President Figueres liked him and became his champion in the country: “Vesco may have stolen Wall Street blind but all we care about is that he, or we, do nothing illegal in Costa Rica.”
In 1970, Vesco began a successful takeover bid for Investors Overseas Service, Ltd., a mutual fund investment firm with holding of $1.5 billion. The battle quickly turned nasty, and Vesco was accused of looting the company of hundreds of millions of dollars. In February 1973, with criminal charges against him imminent, Vesco took the corporate jet and fled to Costa Rica with his family (and with about $200 million worth of IOS's investments, according to SEC allegations.) Shortly before his departure from the United States, Vesco routed substantial contributions to Richard Nixon through his nephew, Don Don. His secret $200,000 contribution to Nixon´s campaign was a key element in the Watergate trials, helping to indict a number of Nixon´s top aides. The United States solicited his extradition from Costa Rica in June of 1973.
Robert Vesco became a controversial figure in Costa Rica. Pepe Figueres defended him, and passed a law, (popularly known as the Vesco Law), that kept Vesco from being extradicted. But Vesco was paranoid of being snatched by bounty hunters, and traveled around the country in a caravan of cars: two Range Rovers, a Mercedes with driver and guard, then two more Range Rovers. Two of his cars had submachine guns in carrying cases in their trunks.
Many Costa Ricans were offended by Vesco´s flamboyant behaviour and resented their country harboring criminals. But here in Santa Cruz, Vesco was a popular man who was made an honorary citizen of Santa Cruz in 1977.
In 1974, Vesco bought the 1000 acre Cabo Velas at the northern end of Playa Grande on Tamarindo Bay. He made 18 trips to Guanacaste in a Navajo aircraft to supervise the renovation of his new finca. Cabo Velas includes a six bedroom house with two swimming pools and a bowling alley, 250,000 teak trees, a lake stocked with fish and a place for duck hunters, and a dirt runway which Vesco paved. Figueres called it “A runway with a farm.” Vesco brought in a fleet of planes and boats and travelled often between San Jose and Cabo Velas in his fleet of cars with his family and business associates.
Vesco employed over 100 people at his finca, and helped educate a number of local girls and boys. He bought desks, chairs, and uniforms for local schools. He was interested in agriculture, and supported experimentation on his farm. He bought paint for the town of Matapalo.
Although he was a fugitive from justice, Vesco flew in and out of the country without a problem, conducting business and going for shopping trips for essentials like salami and bazooka bubble gum. In May, 1978, he was refused permission to land in Costa Rica after returning from the Bahamas. The new president, Rodrigo Carazo fulfilled his campaign promise to expel Vesco from Costa Rica and invoked the 1884 Expulsion of Foreigner´s Act against him. Vesco moved to Nicaragua for a while and then to Cuba where he died in jail in 2007.
By Christina Spilsbury.