A Review of Nicaragua's Twentieth Century

This month marks a series of seminal events in Nicaraguan history spanning over 70 years. Earlier this month, on February 5, 1967 (42 years ago) Anastasio Somoza was elected president of Nicaragua. Later this month, on February 25, 1990, (19 years ago) the Sandinistas, after overthrowing Anastasio Somoza in 1979, were voted out of office. And today, 75 years ago, in 1934, Augusto Cesar Sandino was assassinated by Anastasio Somoza’s father’s National Guard.

We will review them out of order, to break the general monotony of standard histories on Nicaragua and tie each together creatively. It is important, in a variety of ways, to start with the “election” of Anastasio Somoza in 1967, as it served as a call from the past and the present for the next two events. In this fragmented look at Nicaragua’s twentieth century, I will leave out much, in order to conform to my task, but these three events encapsulate so much. This is a series of three articles, fused as one.



It was all a culmination towards this day, the day he would, like his father, be elected president of Nicaragua. It was a journey of sorts – one that provided infinite, or so it seemed – connections across the Western Hemisphere. Anastasio Somoza Debayle was educated in the United States (Florida and New York) before graduating, like many Latin American aspirants to “public office” from the United States military Academy. This was June 1946.

Part of the world Anastasio knew was the experienced in the United States, a world of open arms. His father, Somoza García, knew this world well, being one of FDR’s “sons of bitches” before World War II. He would come to power on Jan. 1, 1937. A caudillo with the National Guard at this fingertips – he was ruthless, and the people of Nicaragua rejected his reign, but to little avail. His father was killed in Sept. 1956.

On Feb. 5, 1967, Anastasio was elected president of Nicaragua. Upon leaving the US, his father, the former president, appointed him head of the National Guard that brought him to power. After his father’s death, power shifted to his brother, Luis Somoza. It was Anastasio’s job to make sure his family benefited from the corporatist state. After his brother passed away in 1967, it was his time.

One aspect of Nicaragua (and Central America in general) to remember as we trace back these events: the presidency is often of little use when compared to the National Guard. Like his father, he is known for his human rights abuses before their was outrage against such a thing. He is remembered for his close ties with the United States and his repression of his people. As his first reign came a close, he stepped down back into his position in the National Guard.

Thus, like his father pioneered, Anastasio stood down from power, symbolically, allowing a junta to rule in his place – but, here again, he retained his position as head of the National Guard, effectively the strongest man in the country.

Events changed quite rapidly for Anastasio. An earthquake leveled the capital of Managua in December of 1972. As mentioned on this blog before, he, as head of the National Guard, declared martial law, which of course implies civilian control by the state military organ. The 6.2 magnitude earthquake killed 5,000 people, injuring nearly 20,000. A quarter of a million people were left without homes. International aid flowed into Nicaragua for the people. Roberto Clemente, the famed Pittsburgh Pirates right fielder, was a part of the support for the people of Nicaragua before his plane tragically crashed into the Caribbean carrying supplies for earthquake victims. It is widely known that the Somoza family pocketed much of the international aid – Managua never recovered, and this moment played a decisive role in the ushering in of the Sandinistas (FSLN) in 1979 (an event to be explored in July later this year).

The earthquake is important as it brought former opponents of the regime and human rights defenders to the forefront for the first time. The world, after 1972, had turned its back on Nicaragua’s leaders and began to support the Sandinistas (of course, this would change after it was them in power instead of dictators). President Jimmy Carter withdrew funds from Nicaragua by 1975. As a result, the Sandinistas (named after Augusto César Sandino) began to knock on Managua’s door. Anastasio unleashed the National Guard, but this proved limited. Without US aid (military or otherwise) it was impossible to contain the FSLN. Even Israel, who supplied massive military aid to Nicaragua for decades, was forced by the US to halt shipments. The Sandinistas waltzed into Managua on July 19, 1979.

Somoza fled Nicaragua. He flew to Miami, where he was denied entry by President Carter. He found refuge (where else) but in Paraguay under equally despotic Alfredo Stroessner. On Sept. 17, 1980, in Asunción, a group of Sandinstas led by Argentine Enrique Gorriarán Merlo, fired an anti-tank grenade at Somoza’s Mercedes at close range. He was later buried in Miami.

There is little doubt now – maybe it was scandalous then – but Somoza’s downfall was a mixture of things, including the recension of US aid and Sandinista support on a global level as well as a military level with armaments and cash from Cuba. His son, Anastasio Somoza Portocarrero, as head of the National Guard in 1979, ordered Nicaraguan planes to bomb major cities in the country to expel the Sandinistas. He still lives in exile in Guatemala – accused of human rights abuses, like the rest of his shameful family.

Fall of the Sandinistas
violeta-chamorroAfter nearly three decades of war, from the 1960s to 1990, the people of Nicaragua had come out on the short end of the stick. Their popular revolution in 1979 against Anastasio Somoza proved that surviving in Latin America was perilous indeed. A decade of Sandinista rule grew tiring for the people of Nicaragua. And for good reasons. The state had to rely solely on outside aid, as for years the economy was non-existent. The state was essentially militarized – this was part of a prevailing ideology of time, but also had to do with the US Contra war against the Sandinistas that existed until 1990, as the FSLN was ejected from power.

Violeta Chamorro, a neoliberal ally with the United States, was elected president on Feb. 25, 1990, after an internally observed election that was declared free and fair over FSLN president Daniel Ortega, whom many thought would easily win. She represented a faction of Sandinsta opponents: Unión Nacional Opositora (UNO). She became the first female elected president in the Western Hemisphere. She came from an anti-Somoza family but after falling out of favor with the Sandinista interim government in 1980, she allied with the US-backed Contras – a wise career move.

In war, and under those conditions, the people should not be forced to wait for the comforts any regime may be peddling. Thus, Chamorro represented change – and the people voted for it. And change is what they got. The most significant change came with her ending of the wars that plagued Nicaragua for decades. Her campaigns against violence were powerful, which included buying weapons and encasing them in cement to say, “Never again.”

Her ability to do this, however, came not from her personality or any coalition she built in the country. As mentioned above, it was wise to cozy up to the United States during the Contra wars because she got $9 million from the US as well as the promise to lift the embargo that former President Reagan imposed after the Sandinistas took power. There was also talk of more aid from the US due to her ties, and for this, she won the election. Although the thought of a billion dollars worth of aid may have been sought, on a few hundred million trickled in in the seven years she was in office.

Like other leaders, the 1990s were a time of neoliberal reformism. Chamarro represented this strand of thought as she cut government spending down to size, stopped funding social programs, and increased foreign investment – a reversal of sorts from the FSLN. Her reforms were never popular in Nicaragua as poverty, a by-product of neoliberalism, continued to soar and unemployment rose to new levels. In the end, she behaved like others in her situation. She encouraged nepotism, hoarded government monies, and went only so far in granting needed civil liberties and constitutional reforms. She was followed in the presidency by Arnoldo Alemán, who is now facing a 20-year jail term for money laundering, embezzlement and corruption. Daniel Ortega succeeded in becoming president again in 2007.


“We will go to the sun of freedom or to the death; if we die, our cause will continue living.”

Today is the 75th anniversary of Augusto César Sandino’s assassination in 1934 by Anastasio Somoza García. Augusto Sandino is, still to many, considered a Latin American hero and his stock continues to rise despite the fluctuations of history. He is remembered for resisting US occupation of Nicaragua in the 1930s. He forced United States Marines into a guerrilla war that forced their departure from the country after installing Juan Bautista Sacasa as president. Followers took his name in the 1960s and ’70s in opposition to the Somoza regime: Sandinistas, they called themselves.

Sandino was born out of wedlock in 1895 to a wealthy landowner. In 1921 he fled, after attempted to kill the son of a conservative town member, to Mexico where he became involved in radical theories while working at Standard Oil. Like other revolutionaries of his time, he believed in mestizaje, literally the blending of colors – in effect, the Latin American race. This would have important consequences in the future. The histories to be written of Central America, such as the events in 1932 in El Salvador, are seen as a unified social movement when in fact they are not. This theory erases key components to the stories of 1932 in El Salvador as well as Augusto Sandino’s journey. Mostly, the ideology affects Indians in Central America, who, through class and other factors, serve the same means to the same ends as the major revolutionaries remembered today, like Sandino.

He returned to Nicaragua in 1926 with this new ideology in mind, as well as the effects of the recent Mexican Revolution. Nicaragua had changed too. The US pick for president Adolfo Díaz was seen as illegitimate in the eyes of elites in Nicaragua. General José María Moncada, a member of the Liberal party, organized a revolt against Díaz in support of exiled Juan Bautista Sacasa. Sandino got into the fray, at first somewhat haphazardly. He did meet with Moncada in Puerto Cabezas to ask for guns and military commission. He would be granted both by 1927.

Sandino's seal

Sandino’s seal

The United States was having none of this. They forced the Liberal and Conservative factions into a cease-fire under threat of military intervention. The agreement stated that Díaz would finish his term, then a new National Guard would be established (slyly, with the help of the US) and new elections would help under US supervision. US Marines arrived in Nicaragua to make sure all happened to plan.

Sandino refused the agreement, for obvious reasons. In May 1927, 800 of Sandino’s soldiers attacked a patrol of Marines and Guardsmen primarily with machetes. This event is significant as it was one of the first times in history a country used dive-bombing to repel another enemy as the US did to Sandino’s forces. After that day, Sandino and his men never fought another traditional battle and resorted back to guerrilla tactics. Sandino proved elusive – a famous example involves El Chipote in November when Marines reached Sandino’s headquarters near Honduras to find the place guarded by straw dummies.

Sandino was only interviewed once during his short life. In February of 1928, Carlton Beals of The Nation magazine found and was granted an interview with Sandino in San Rafael del Norte. According to Beals,

Sandino in rapid fire gave me the basis of his demands in the present struggle: first, evacuation of Nicaraguan territory by the marines; second, the appointment of an impartial civilian President chosen by the notables of the three parties – one who has never been President and never a candidate for the Presidency; third, supervision of the elections by Latin America. [Later he would adopt the repeal of the Bryan-Chamorro Treaty, that gave the United States rights to a canal across Nicaragua].

“The day these conditions are carried out,” declared Sandino, “I will immediately cease all hostilities and” disband my forces. In addition – I shall never accept a government position, elective or otherwise. I shall not accept any government salary or pension. No position, no salary – this I swear. I will not accept any personal reward either today or tomorrow, or at any time in the future.”

Sandino reiterated:

We have taken up arms from the love of our country because all other leaders have betrayed it and have sold themselves out to the foreigner or have bent the neck in cowardice. We, in our own house, are fighting for our inalienable rights. What right have foreign troops to call us outlaws and bandits and to say that we are the aggressors?…Is this patriotism or is it not? And when the invader is vanquished, as some day he must be, my men will be content with their plots of ground, their tools, their mules, and their families.”

Sandino tried to build support for his movement in Mexico and Central America. He took the ideology of mestizaje to its limits by suggesting his fight was for the race of Latin Americans – meaning those mixed and non-white. That year, 1928, José María Moncada was elected president. Things then turned odd. Sandino declared himself generalissimo of the republic, declared Moncada’s electoral win unconstitutional, and formed a junta of marginal figures to rule Nicaragua. He also called for a restoration of the United Provinces of Central America, an idea dead for one hundred years to that point.

Despite this, the Soviet Union, Comintern and other anti-imperial organizations declared solidarity with Sandino. Yet, on the continent, Sandino’s relations with communists were becoming hostile. An area that I am not well versed in his spiritual side beginning in 1921 with the Seventh-Day Adventists to the Magnetic-Spiritualist School of the Universal Commune that he became a member of in 1930. The school taught a kind of communism thought of today – a universal commune and the like, but with a racial (Hispanic) and linguistic (Spanish) edge. There is evidence that after 1930, to tried to adopt these ideals into this activism, but I’ll leave others to that study of him.

In 1932, the US announced that it would be evacuating troops after the 1932 elections. That May, an earthquake struck Managua killing 2,000 people (can we see the symmetry of these stories?). Sandino took advantage by sending troops throughout Nicaragua, their goal was to occupy cities (which it succeeded in briefly). When Juan Bautista Sacasa, whom this whole ordeal began with, was elected in 1932, Sandino engaged in talks to lay down his arms and support Sacasa’s government. He was granted a small auxiliary force and certain autonomy, but he was betrayed. Anastasio Somoza García, head of the National Guard whom Sandino fought during the civil wars heyday, captured Sandino today in 1934 and executed him in Managua. Massacres followed as Somoza found Sandino’s followers and had them killed. Two years later Somoza would force Sacasa to step down from office, as he installed himself as president of Nicaragua.

His families reign would last until 1979 – when another earthquake shook up the power relations one more time.


~ by Daniel on February 21, 2009.

2 Responses to “A Review of Nicaragua's Twentieth Century”

  1. […] Today in Latin America, Veracruz and San Juan del Sur 7 03 2009 Nearly one hundred and forty years apart, the two features today center around a common theme in Latin American history: the United States. Today in 1847 and 1984, the US moved closer to Veracruz in Mexico and San Juan del Sur in Nicaragua. This is a continuation of pieces I’ve began elsewhere on the Mexican-American War and the twentieth century of Nicaragua. […]

  2. The finest lives, in my opinion, are those who rank in the common model, and with the human race, but without miracle, without extravagance….

    Nothing fixes a thing so intensely in the memory as the wish to forget it….

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