Nicaragua: Universal Revolt

In Nicaragua , battered by warfare and economic disaster, support for President Anastasio Somoza is virtually nonexistent. But the forces allied against the dictator are by no means united among themselves.

By December 1978, ten thousand U.S.-trained national guardsmen were the only thing standing between the angry people of Nicaragua and their president, General Anastasio Somoza Debayle. To a degree unprecedented even in this strife-torn republic, all segments of society except the guard had united against the president’s harsh rule. “This is not a civil war,” explained Bill Baez, the young executive secretary of the nation’s largest business association, the Nicaraguan Development Institute. “This is a revolt of all the people of Nicaragua against one man.”

Baez exemplifies the persuasiveness of the anti-Somoza coalition. Earnest, soft-spoken, and educated at Holy Cross and Cornell, he is a moderate social democrat who readily admits that he does not anticipate or favor drastic social change. At the same time, the involvement of such mainstream figures as Baez suggests the bitter debate that is certain to follow Somoza’s fall.

The so-called peaceful opposition, composed of conservative businessmen, moderate labor confederations, unofficial political groups, and elements of the two legal parties, seeks as its central goal the removal of the president from power and from the country that his family has ruled for four decades. Its official program consists of a series of institutional steps, such as the formation of a three-member interim junta and the election of a constituent assembly, and of proposals for social reforms, enumerated with enough lack of detail to avoid alienating any of its politically cautious members.

I recently met with several leaders of the Broad Opposition Front (FAO) in the comfortable, air-conditioned offices of the opposition newspaper, La Prensa. They complained that Somoza’s inability to govern the country has made normal life and business impossible, and that therefore they have no choice but to join in overthrowing him. But after those reasonable, civic-minded men had had their say, I ventured into the press room, where shirtless workers operated gigantic American-made presses in sweltering heat. The pressmen told a different story.

“Those guys with the neckties have been running this country for years, since before Somoza,” shouted one, straining to be heard above the din of the machines. “Five thousand of us haven’t died over the last two months just for a change of faces in the bunker” (a reference to the heavily guarded compound in Managua where Somoza lives and works).

“They were perfectly happy with Somoza until they started to lose business,” yelled another. “The old families have been in bed with him for years. Now we are fighting to take this country away from all of them. The FAO is not for us. We are Sandinistas!”

At the mention of that word, the workers cheered and laughed. Two years ago, most Nicaraguans were afraid even to pronounce it. But today, the Sandinista guerrillas have won the admiration of the poor and much of the middle class because they have managed to do something that years of petitioning and speechmaking had failed to accomplish: shake the Somoza regime at its foundation.

Even the president seems to respect “the boys,” as the guerrillas are called. He openly ridicules the FAO as unorganized, self-interested, and internally divided, though for the sake of appearance he has agreed to negotiate indirectly with them. But as a West Point graduate, he appreciates the rapidly growing military sophistication of the guerrillas. Asked in November if he would be able to handle the next Sandinista offensive, Somoza paused thoughtfully, nodded, and answered quietly, “I think we are ready for that particular insurgency.”

A history of resistance

Nicaragua is not a pleasant place to live these days. While Somoza and his lieutenants remain cloistered in the concrete, windowless bunker, nervous guardsmen patrol the streets of Managua, the capital, armed with rifles and light machine guns. They have a hunted, almost fearful look about them, as if they sense the hostility of their countrymen. They do not look at all like the swaggering army that one might expect, given Somoza’s confident demeanor.

Outside the capital, guardsmen are even less secure. At isolated outposts scattered across the countryside, the poorly paid enlisted men live in groups of five or ten, often with a few chickens outside wooden huts that can hardly be called barracks. Though most of the country, including Managua, was until recently under a 10:00 P.M. curfew, it is the guardsmen who must be most careful after dark. They are permitted to shoot anything that moves after that hour, and they do so. But more often than not, the soldiers in the countryside prefer to remain near their quarters, conceding the night to their stealthy adversaries. Guerrillas regularly attack their outposts, often tossing a few crude bombs, firing for a few minutes, and then slipping away into the darkness.

“Those guardsmen are thieves and criminals, every one of them,” said a Managua cabdriver without provocation as he passed a guard jeep. “Every night they attack people on the street, beat them up, rob them, and throw them in jail. Then they rot there until someone comes up with enough money to get them out.”

“The boys” have widespread popular support, not only because they have succeeded in badly embarrassing Somoza and in propelling their nation’s agonizing problems onto front pages around the world. To many Nicaraguans, they also represent the continuity of anti-Somozism through nearly half a century of sporadic resistance. As the regime becomes more oppressive and as social and economic conditions deteriorate, the Sandinistas seem more and more reasonable. Even many who dismissed the guerrillas as adolescent adventurers only a few years ago are coming to recognize that they may now be the only hope of the masses.

Augusto Sandino, from whom the guerrillas take their name, was a peasant leader whose followers took up arms against the U.S. Marines who were sent to Nicaragua by President Taft in 1912. The soldiers expected only the routine peace-keeping chores to which they had become accustomed in other lands, since in most countries the very presence of American troops was enough to quiet troublemakers. But in Nicaragua, the Marines were harassed mercilessly by several ragtag bands of self-described “patriots” and became bogged down in the first foreign guerrilla war ever fought by American soldiers. Sandino led the largest and most effective of the guerrilla armies.

The Marines occupied Nicaragua for twenty years; after they were recalled in 1933, President Roosevelt urged the new head of the Nicaraguan national guard (created by the United States) to invite the wily Sandino down from the hills to negotiate. The head of the guard, who had been selected for that post by the U.S. ambassador largely because he was fluent in English, was a failed coffee farmer who had been sent by his American friends to school in the United States. His name was Anastasio Somoza García. He accepted Roosevelt’s suggestion, invited Sandino and his men to peace talks under a guarantee of safe conduct, and then killed them all after they left a lavish dinner given in their honor on February 21, 1934. With the guard as his power base, he ascended to the presidency in 1937. His family has controlled the presidency, the guard, and the nation ever since.

The elder Somoza was assassinated in 1956—an act known here as the ajusticiamiento, or the “bringing to justice”—and his son Luis took over. Five years later, in 1961, a group of students decided that the time had come to renew armed action against the Somozas, and they staged their first small attacks the following year. They managed to recruit several old men who had actually fought with Sandino thirty years earlier and, imbued by the veterans with a sense of tradition, they took the name Sandinist National Liberation Front (FSLN).

For ten years, few Nicaraguans took these guerrillas seriously. They did not establish a base among the peasants and, in fact, were almost exclusively university dropouts who came from the best Nicaraguan families, with names such as Fonseca, Zelaya, Portocarrero, Sacasa, Amador, Sevilla.

The Somoza rule remained harsh, often brutal. Its credo was enunciated by the tough founder of the dynasty: “We have a threefold policy: money for friends, a beating for the indifferent, and lead for the enemy.” Businessmen who cooperated with the regime prospered, and the suffering people in the towns and villages were no more assertive than their counterparts in other Latin American nations.

The distinguishing feature of the Somoza dictatorship, however, has not been its harsh treatment of opponents or lack of concern for common people; these, after all, are characteristics of many regimes in Latin America and elsewhere. What has always made the Somozas different is their personal control over the national economy. Anastasio Somoza today owns the nation’s only airline, its only steamship line, and its only luxury hotel. He controls the meatand fish-packing industries, textile mills, the Mercedes Benz franchise, banking and insurance interests, and extensive acreage in the most fertile areas of Nicaragua. But until recently, the family traditionally shared the nation’s wealth with the local business elite.

New challenges

In the early 1970s, Nicaragua began to change. Two events made it clear that new challenges to the Somozas’ rule would not be as easily dealt with as those in the past. The first was an earthquake which devastated Managua on December 22 and 23, 1972. The nation was then being run by a junta under the firm control of the Somozas, and Luis Somoza’s younger brother, Anastasio, the present ruler, decided immediately after the quake to take over the government himself.

“After the earthquake, Somoza got too greedy,” recalled a well-to-do banker. “He took over the cement business, he took over all construction, and he funneled all the foreign reconstruction aid to his own companies. He violated the rules of the game that his father and brother had always followed.” (While foreign estimates of his worth range to $500 million, a modest Somoza told Dan Rather on 60 Minutes that he is worth only “around $100 million.”)

It was then that Somoza began to lose the backing of businessmen, one of the pillars of support that had kept his family in power. There were three pillars left: the Catholic Church, the U.S. government, and the national guard (which has never had a commander named anything other than Somoza).

Two years after the quake, in December 1974, the FSLN guerrillas, then numbering less than a hundred, electrified a nation that had almost forgotten them and a world that had never heard their name. Eight rebels invaded a Christmas party attended by the cream of Managua society (including one of Somoza’s sisters), took more than thirty hostages, and traded them for $1 million and fourteen imprisoned comrades.

The wave of repression unleashed by Somoza after this dazzling act repelled even some of his supporters and assured the enmity of another of his traditional backers, the Catholic hierarchy, led by Archbishop Obando y Bravo, who had served before then as intermediary between Somoza and the FSLN attackers. Still, Somoza’s power seemed secure. Though the guerrillas might be able to embarrass him, they could not possibly defeat him militarily. The guard, in essence a private army of the Somoza family, remained firmly in control of Nicaragua.

So matters stood until 1978. Opponents of Somoza, led by conservative publisher Pedro Chamorro, scion of one of the nation’s most prominent families, organized a loose coalition called the Democratic Liberation Union (UDEL); but that group was essentially elitist and made no effort to reach out to the many impoverished Nicaraguans who would be the logical base of a popular anti-Somoza movement. Like many Latin American countries, Nicaragua has always been ruled by a small, selfperpetuating elite, and UDEL leaders, epitomized by the aloof Chamorro, sought simply to replace Somoza with one of their own, who would eliminate the excesses of the former regime.

In January 1978, Chamorro was assassinated on his way to work at La Prensa, where he was editor and publisher. Business leaders from UDEL and the more than seven hundred enterprises represented by Bill Baez’s Nicaraguan Development Institute called a national business strike in protest, holding Somoza responsible for the murder and demanding his ouster, and the economy came to a virtual standstill for two weeks. But to their surprise, Somoza was unyielding. The strike ended, and life in this Michigansized nation returned to a semblance of normality. The businessmen felt they had shown their strength, but though they had done more than ever before, many Nicaraguans were unimpressed.

“We showed that a lot of us wish Somoza would leave,” shrugged the owner of a small restaurant in Granada. “But he already knew that. A lot of people have always wanted the Somozas to leave. But they are still here. What does that say about the effectiveness of our strikes?”

It remained for the guerrillas, once again, to deal Somoza a stunning blow that attracted world attention. It came as a complete surprise last August 22 that twenty-five commandos stormed the national palace while the Somozacontrolled legislature was in session. They took 1500 hostages, including two close relatives of Somoza’s who hold high government posts, and successfully exchanged them for $500,000 and fifty-nine imprisoned guerrillas.

After the palace attack, divisions in the opposition became more apparent. Business leaders immediately called a second strike to demonstrate that they, too, have power in Nicaragua, that the FSLN is not the only force capable of anti-Somoza action. They demanded a new government “without the participation of the Sandinistas,” whom they fear will threaten capitalism in the country.

On September 9, as if in response to these actions, the guerrillas launched their heaviest attack ever, holding parts of seven different towns for as long as a week until they were thrown back by national guard reinforcements. Many of those towns are in ruins today. Estelí, bombed from the air to clear out the rebels, hardly exists anymore. In León, guardsmen ran from house to house, killing every male they could find. In Chinandega and Masaya, residents cannot say how many hundreds died. The final death toll of the offensive is estimated at fifty guardsmen, perhaps one hundred FSLN militants, and as many as 5000 civilians. Almost everyone in Nicaragua lost a friend or relative in the growing violence.

At the time of the September offensive, the FSLN still numbered no more than seven hundred. It was not the guerrillas who did most of the fighting in the towns, but young boys between the ages of twelve and seventeen, most of them armed only with rocks and sticks. Many were killed, and many more fled to the hills to join their FSLN heroes. The memory of those youngsters is now a part of the Nicaraguan conscience, and their sacrifice makes the years of gentle petitioning by businessmen seem even more ineffective.

The children, perhaps amazed by their own power, are now a determined threat to Somoza. When a small film crew visited a Managua cemetery recently to shoot a scene of Somoza’s father’s grave, scores of small boys, none over sixteen, gathered around. The children waved sticks, pretending they were rifles. “We are Sandinistas!” they screamed, obviously not caring who heard them. “Give us guns and we will fight! Without guns, we will fight anyway! Down with Somoza!" A boy who stood less than four feet high shouted, “Half of us will be dead soon, but the rest will live free of Somoza!”

This enthusiasm might be dismissed anywhere else as childish bravado, but in Nicaragua, the memory of the children who were shot down while attacking guardsmen with machetes and kitchen implements gives these boys’ feelings validity. Their amazing militance has led guardsmen in battle zones to shoot unhesitatingly, even at very young children.

Guardsmen rarely take prisoners anymore. Twice they have seen the prisoners that they risked their lives to capture freed by Somoza in exchange for hostages, so summary execution has become the standard treatment for suspected guerrillas of all ages.

The American role

Just before the seizure of the national palace and the subsequent guerrilla offensive, President Carter sent a letter to Somoza, praising his progress toward human rights. The Nicaraguan leader welcomed the note as a sign of continued support from the country that gave his family power and has maintained it with lavish military aid for forty years. During that time, the U.S. ambassador has been considered the most influential man in Nicaragua, a sort of proconsul who is always whispering in the ear of whichever Somoza is in power.

President Nixon’s appointee, Ambassador Turner Shelton, who served from 1970 to 1975, visited Somoza almost daily and epitomized the strong ties between the two governments. (Virtually all Nicaraguans assume that Shelton was appointed because of his relationship with Howard Hughes, which he developed when both men were in the Bahamas. Indeed, Hughes moved to Managua during Shelton’s tenure, resided at Somoza’s Intercontinental Hotel, and was on the verge of buying into Somoza’s airline and making other substantial investments which might have proven invaluable to Somoza when the 1972 earthquake struck. Hughes beat a hasty retreat from Managua, taking his money with him.)

But after the events of last fall, even the American State Department began to have second thoughts. New ambassador Mauricio Solaún has kept his distance from Somoza and has been in contact with various opposition groups, something unheard of during Shelton’s tenure.

Ambassador Solaún is obviously acting under very different instructions. A Cuban by birth and a long-time student of Latin America, he portrays himself as little more than an observer of the drama unfolding around him. But he is no amateur: Solaún has been employed at various universities and think tanks, and has been the recipient of government grants to visit Chile and other countries where the United States has been politically active.

A series of not-so-subtle signs from Washington, including the refusal of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to approve a $20 million loan for Nicaragua, has made it clear that Somoza’s excesses have cut him off from his traditional source of support, the U.S. government. Somoza, who has long considered himself a stalwart defender against communism in Latin America, blames the policy change on “Communists” in the State Department.

Among these changes, Solaún has presided over a cutoff of what was once extravagant military aid to the Nicaraguan national guard. Until last year, almost every recruit in the guard received a full year of training at the U.S. Army’s School of the Americas in the Panama Canal Zone. Though many Latin American nations send soldiers to study there, none has taken such advantage of the varied curriculum as Nicaragua; as a result, the national guard is a tough, elite force with power that exceeds its numerical strength.

Nicaragua has received no military assistance from the United States since a $2.5 million appropriation in fiscal 1977, though a substantial amount remains in the pipeline and could be released in the unlikely event that President Carter decided to do so. In mid-October 1978, eighty-six members of Congress, led by representatives Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Donald Fraser (DMinn.), urged the President to suspend all aid to the Nicaraguan government because such aid “would be ineffective and would only send a misleading message of support” to Somoza. Carter appears to have taken that advice.

But the worldly Somoza, perhaps foreseeing present events, has stockpiled U.S. arms in recent years, aided by a strong Somoza lobby in Congress, headed by representatives Charles Wilson (D-Texas) and John Murphy (DN.Y.). “Somoza has enough guns to arm all of Central America,” complained guerrilla leader Eden Pastora, referring to the 5000 M-16 rifles that American manufacturers have sold Nicaragua in the past three years. The arms, he added, “were not sold to fight against Honduras or Costa Rica, but to kill the Nicaraguan people.”

Somoza is now buying most of his weapons from Israel, which has caused bitter condemnation of the Begin government by anti-Somoza Nicaraguans. In recent years, Nicaragua has been one of Israel’s few reliable defenders in international circles.


Alarmed by the growing strength and prestige of the FSLN, business leaders and others who formed UDEL expanded their coalition into the FAO, which gained considerable credibility when a group of prominent Sandinista sympathizers known as The Twelve agreed to join. Among the members of The Twelve are lawyers, businessmen, a priest, and several academics. They returned from exile during July to a tumultuous reception, after issuing a public call for Somoza’s resignation. But only three months later, disillusioned, they withdrew from the FAO, claiming that it was not sufficiently committed to post-Somoza political and social reforms. They and their backers fear that the FAO, if successful, would install a government that would amount to “Somozism without Somoza.”

Bill Baez scoffs at the suggestion and says that there can be no such thing. He quotes a Spanish proverb: “When you kill the dog, you eliminate the rabies.”

American officials, reluctant to intervene directly in the ouster of Somoza, finally suggested that a threenation mediation commission try to negotiate a compromise between Somoza and the FAO. Both sides agreed, and William Bowdler, a seasoned American diplomat, joined representatives of Guatemala and the Dominican Republic. FAO leaders were elated with the development and anticipated that it would bring about Somoza’s early resignation, but they continued to misread his tenacity. He offered insignificant concessions, and refused even to consider the fundamental demand of the opposition—his resignation and departure from the country.

In the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, businessmen such as Baez continued to expect that the commission would succeed where all else had failed. After a particularly bellicose speech by Somoza in November, Baez assured me that “a dictator always talks like that just before he goes. He doesn’t want to show his weakness, but he is really very weak. We have hope in the mediation team. It has done an extraordinary job. It is backed by international pressure and strong civic pressure. Nicaragua needs not only political reconstruction, but social and moral reconstruction. There can be no role for Somoza because he cannot possibly provide that moral leadership.”

U.S. pressure on Somoza has increased dramatically since Carter’s illtimed letter. Though Bowdler is rarely available to the press, he reportedly demanded Somoza’s resignation in a private conversation. When Somoza, in a rage, turned him down (according to a local diplomat), Bowdler curtly informed him that Washington would no longer guarantee his life or his future asylum in the United States, where he maintains diverse business investments, overseen by Cuban exiles in Miami. (Asked to confirm that Bowdler had asked for his resignation, Somoza denied that any such interchange had occurred. Asked if he would resign if President Carter personally asked him to do so, the agile general replied, “Only if he’ll resign if I ask him to.”)

The civic leaders who make up the FAO now seem to fear the guerrillas as much as they hate the confident, durable Somoza. His crack guardsmen can still defeat any challenge on the battlefield, even now that the FSLN has swollen to perhaps 2500 soldiers, including volunteers from Panama and Costa Rica. But because of the strong support that the common people in Nicaragua maintain for “the boys”— and because of their traditional disdain for the elite that makes up the FAO — the guerrillas will be in a very powerful position when Somoza finally leaves office.

Recognition of this fact by the State Department led the United States to take a leading role in the mediation aimed at resolving the Nicaraguan crisis. Somoza’s honed political skills have been on view as he has played the negotiators and their internally divided supporters against each other, all the while buying time to resupply and expand his national guard. Somoza welcomed the U.S.-backed mediators, but never had any intention of allowing himself to be forced from office. Unsurprisingly, in late December he abruptly rejected the mediator’s plan, and he is strengthening the guard because he believes that the real challenge to him will be a military one. The guerrillas agree, and are building, for the first time, a disciplined rebel army.

The ideology of the guerrillas is hazy, perhaps intentionally so. Somoza likes to refer to them as Sandino-Communists, but they call themselves nationalists and anti-Somozists. According to those who have been in contact with the FSLN, it is actually made up of two small Marxist factions and a dominant third group that favors profound social change, but is willing to participate in a coalition government and subsequent elections. It is this group that planned the assault on the national palace and that directs FSLN operations.

If the events of recent months have shown anything, it is that civic pressure alone will not force Somoza from power. Neither the opposition of businessmen nor that of the Church (which has called for Somoza’s resignation because his regime “lacks the confidence of the Nicaraguan people”) has shaken him, and the withdrawal of American aid, while clearly a blow, has also been insufficient. But the combination of business and labor strikes and guerrilla military attacks has shattered the Nicaraguan economy, and many experts here wonder how long the country can stay afloat, especially now that the International Monetary Fund is withholding its all-important seal of fiscal approval.

“Virtually broke”

The litany of economic problems confronting Nicaragua includes virtually every woe imaginable. Heavy bank withdrawals have caused a severe liquidity crisis that has brought lending and hence investment to a virtual halt. Consumer demand has dropped to almost nothing. Government corruption has deprived the people of the benefits of most of the foreign aid that has come into Nicaragua in the last few years. Insurance is unavailable, and imports are rising sharply to compensate for the production slowdowns caused by the two general strikes. Unemployment is approaching 50 percent, the heavy external debt is growing, and, to top it off, the loans made to Nicaragua for earthquake reconstruction are beginning to come due.

“The government is really desperate for money. They’re virtually broke,” explained a well-informed American economist. “Even with a perfect political climate, it would take eighteen months to get the economy back on its feet again.”

Somoza’s only hope now is the coffee and cotton harvests this spring, which could be among the best in years. But some farmers fear that the Nicaraguan migrants and their counterparts from Honduras and El Salvador, who normally pick the crops, will be afraid this year to leave their families and come to work in the fields. If Somoza can get the crop harvested and exported without disruption, he could take in as much as $300 million in desperately needed foreign currency by spring, assuming that he remains in power until then. But many Nicaraguans believe that those are very big “ifs.”

Other potential bright spots in the economic picture are even more longterm. Geologists believe, for example, that Nicaragua, with its volcanoes and deeply fissured rock formations, could produce enough geothermal power to meet its energy needs four times over— but not until the year 2000, and even then only as a result of substantial investment.

An estimated 60,000 Nicaraguans have fled the country in recent months, most of them penniless peasants whose homes have been destroyed and who want to avoid being caught in the crossfire again. The United Nations has begun allocating aid for some of the wretched, disease-infested refugee camps that have sprung up beyond Nicaragua’s borders, but most of the refugees seem likely to remain out of the country until Somoza leaves power and the fighting stops. While they are waiting, they provide an invaluable network of support for the guerrillas and their cross-border forays, aimed at keeping the guard on edge.

The mainly conservative FAO leaders—men such as Coca-Cola bottler Adolfo Calero, cooking-oil magnate Alfonso Robelo, and influential lawyer Rafael Cordova (titular leader of the FAO)—are jockeying for position in the post-Somoza regime, while they continue, through mediators, a dialogue with Somoza which has so far proven remarkably sterile. The FSLN leaders and their civilian advocates, The Twelve, fear that the FAO will compromise too readily with Somoza. The FAO might agree to a solution whereby Somoza would leave office in 1980, and the FAO is willing to retain the present national guard. The guerrillas will settle for nothing less than Somoza’s unconditional, immediate departure and the replacement of the guard with a new army, possibly led by guerrilla leader Pastora. FSLN leaders would prefer one of The Twelve—perhaps exuniversity rector Carlos Tunnermann, or Sergio Ramirez, a former professor—as leader of a new government.

But while the opposition struggles internally, agreeing only on the need for Somoza’s ouster, the president has consolidated his strength to deal with certain new guerrilla attacks. He announced his intention to increase the troops under his command to 15,000. Because the guard’s officers are entirely dependent on him, not only for their exalted economic position, but for their very lives, he is confident of their loyalty.

It has seemed increasingly likely that this confidence could prove Somoza’s ultimate downfall. With the loss of support from the business elite, the Church, and the U.S. government, Somoza has only the guard left. But some Nicaraguans are convinced that the United States, determined to avoid more bloodshed in Nicaragua, might encourage a coup against Somoza from within the guard.

“I know it’s been talked about, but I don’t like the idea a bit,” said one American official. “We have been so deeply involved in Nicaragua—running the country, really—for so many years that the Nicaraguans have lost their sense of national identity. Whenever there is a problem here, they expect us to resolve it. This time, I’d like to see it left in their hands.”

A Nicaraguan intellectual takes a different view. “The United States is trapped by history,” he reflected while strolling near the fortified presidential bunker in Managua. “They might want to walk away from here, but they cannot. A coup might be messy, but otherwise many thousands of people will die.”