Anastasio Somoza Debayle
Anastasio (Tachito) Somoza has been described as the prototypical military dictator. He truly believed in the power of the army, and never doubted in using it. By the time he came to the presidency in 1967, he was already one of the wealthiest men in Latin America. By the time he left Nicaragua in 1979, he had become one of the richest men in the world. When Idi Amin, dictator in Uganda known for his cold-blooded murders, was told during an interview in the late 1970s that he had been compared to Somoza, he answered that he did not wish to be compared with "such a pig." Somoza did, perhaps unwittingly, cultivate an international image of cruelty and calculated mass killings.
Tachito was born in Leon in 1925. He did his primary education in Nicaragua and his High School at the La Salle Military School in New York. Later on, he graduated from West Point in 1946. His first term as President started on May 1st, 1967, to end in 1972. He was supported in his bid for office by the private enterprise and even some sectors of the Conservative party that did not agree with Agüero (see section on Luis Somoza). As early as June of that same year, the National Guard engaged the incipient FSLN guerrilla in Pancasan, north of Matagalpa. During these encounters, co-founder of the FSLN Silvio Mayorga was killed in August. In November, there were more fire clashes between the National Guard and the FSLN, but this time in Managua. After dislodging the guerrillas, the National Guard decided to create a new tactical counterinsurgency unit, the EEBI (Basic Infantry Training School). In October of 1971, Sandinista commandos hijacked an air plane in Costa Rica and obtained the freedom of Sandinista prisoners in Costa Rican jails. The FSLN thus started to be known around the country although most people did not take them too seriously.
On November 27, 1970, Somoza and Agüero made a joint statement through which they announced that they were engaged in negotiations. By March of 1971, they signed a pact by which they agreed that a Constituent Assembly would be called. Nicaraguans were in shock at the news. To guarantee that the Constituent Assembly would work appropriately, Somoza stepped down from the Presidency and was replaced by a Triumvirate conformed by General Roberto Martinez (liberal), Dr. Alfonso Lovo Cordero (liberal), and Fernando Agüero himself representing the Conservative party. Somoza kept the leadership of the National Guard.
On December 23, 1972, at 11:23 in the evening, the city of Managua was destroyed by a massive earthquake. 13 km2 of the capital city were levelled. Some 10,000 people lost their lives and tens of thousands were left homeless. Things that were not destroyed by the quake itself were rapidly engulfed by raging fires ignited by the explosion of butane gas tanks common in Nicaraguan urban households for cooking purposes. Water mains were broken and fighting the fires was nearly impossible due to the lack of water on the one hand, and the massive amounts of rubble blocking virtually every street on the other. The quake was so strong that it was felt as far as San Jose, Costa Rica, almost 700 km away. Material losses were staggering. International relief started arriving by the very next morning. It is interesting to note that the first aid brigade (field hospital) to arrive came from Cuba, Somoza's archenemy.
Somoza quickly took control of the Emergency Committee and the governmental board de facto lost all power. Agüero protested and was quickly taken out of the Junta and replaced by another Conservative leader, Edmundo Paguaga. The Junta had virtually no power at all. The Emergency Committee was in charge of handling all the international aid that came to the country. Massive corruption became apparent almost immediately: army trucks were seen looting still-standing stores or selling donations; cash donations were quickly diverted to other accounts; key positions were given to Somoza's cronies, with little control of their activities; clean up and reconstruction efforts were blocked to opposition activists; Martial Law was declared and press censorship instituted; and so on. Somoza designated lands in the outskirts of Managua, east and west, to house some of the thousands of homeless. Basic services were lacking for many months.
The handling of the earthquake disaster is probably what ultimately caused the dissatisfaction with the Somoza regime to reach a hiatus that permitted the tactical unification of the traditional opposition elite with the more radical FSLN insurrectional movement. The elite resented Somoza's hoarding of the wealth that could be acquired from the reconstruction effort. Poverty spread throughout the capital and the ruins of the old downtown Managua remained as an ominous symbol of Somoza's caring for his own people.
As the term for the Junta ended, Somoza won the 1973 elections. He took official possession of the presidency on January 1st, 1974. His term was scheduled to end in 1981. On December 27th, 1974, the FSLN staged the first important urban guerrilla action as it stormed the house of Jose Maria (Chema) Castillo, a close Somoza associate. The American Ambassador had left just minutes before the operation was undertaken. Chema Castillo was killed in the action as he reached for a gun. The FSLN held his captives for a couple of days while negotiations with the government took place. The end result was the payment of US $1,000,000 in ransom, a broad publicity campaign for the FSLN, and the release of thirteen captive comrades, among them Daniel Ortega Saavedra and Lenin Cerna. The political costs to Somoza were way higher, however, as his regime was seen as weakening.
For the next few years, there were few encounters between the FSLN and the National Guard. Press censorship was finally lifted in 1975 and La Prensa, the opposition paper headed by Pedro Joaquin Chamorro, devoted a lot of effort at printing all the news items that had been censored for the past few years. As the common people learned about the repression that a sector of the Nicaragua population was enduring, support for the government dwindled quickly.
In the United States, Jimmy Carter became President in 1977. His foreign policy concentrated on Human Rights. He quickly instructed the American Ambassador in Managua to persuade Somoza to curve down his Human Rights abuses. Somoza did not pay heed to American demands, comfortable in the belief that he was the best friend that the United States ever had. President Carter did not share his opinion. The US stepped up its pressure on the Somoza regime, trying to make the dictator understand that their demands were real and not simply political rhetoric. It was not until late 1978 that Somoza came to realize that he had made a mistake, as the US joined other countries in demanding his resignation. By that time, the US cut all military aid to Somoza.
The Beginning of the End
Towards the latter months of 1977 the Sandinista Front for National Liberation (FSLN) still did not count with widespread support. In fact, most people in Nicaragua were not aware of the existence of the FSLN as a real fighting force and, for the most part, those who knew of their existence saw them as idealistic guerrillas lost somewhere in the deep jungles or the mountainous slopes of central Nicaragua. For the FSLN to gain support, recruits, and represent a threat to the Somoza dynasty, it would have to engage in some daring actions, and they were not prepared either logistically or ideological for that type of thing.
The situation changed dramatically when on January 10, 1978 Pedro Joaquin Chamorro, editor of La Prensa and an ardent and outspoken anti-Somoza leader, was assassinated as he drove to work in the morning. Since Somoza had lifted press censorship some time before, La Prensa published on its first page the pictures of its murdered editor. The people in Managua were in shock at the brutality of the murder and quickly blamed Somoza for it. Somoza himself claimed in Nicaragua Traicionada (Nicaragua Betrayed) that it would have been insane for him to order Chamorro's murder. This makes sense since Chamorro had become Somoza's 'proof' that his government was democratic and open in the sense that the virulent attacks he received from Chamorro demonstrated that people could think and say anything they wanted.
Apparently, Chamorro's murderer was Pedro Ramos, a Cuban American entrepreneur whose business had been attacked by La Prensa. Mr. Ramos owned a plasma processing clinic—Plasmaferesis—which used to buy blood from any Nicaraguan and then send the plasma products to the United States. Plasmaferesis was commonly known by the people as the "House of the Vampires."
Regardless of who ordered Chamorro's murder, the people's reaction was quick and extremely violent. Thousands of people, mostly from the poorer neighbourhoods, poured into the streets for spontaneous demonstrations, burning and defacing any business that could possibly be associated with Somoza or his supporters. The president called the National Guard to remain within their barracks to prevent an escalation of the situation. The people continued with their protesting for a couple of days until the Guard was unleashed again and things went to a relative calm.
The directorate of the FSLN was at a loss as to what to do for this presented a perfect opportunity to inflict a serious blow to the dictatorship but were still unable to do it. Furthermore, the FSLN had split into three distinct factions some time before: GPP (Prolonged People's War), led by Tomas Borge and Henry Ruiz, following a cautious approach after the teachings of Mao Tse Tung (China) and Vo Nguyen Giap (Viet Nam); Proletarian, led by Jaime Wheelock, which followed the urban guerrilla theories, organizing workers and student groups; and Tercerista (the Third force), led by the Ortega brothers, Humberto and Daniel, with a much more conciliatory tone towards the non-Marxist anti-Somoza groups. Talks about reunification started soon after Chamorro's murder.
The people themselves had a different idea, however, and general strikes demanding the resignation of the Executive were organized. Also, in the month of February of that same year, the inhabitants of Monimbo, a semi-native neighbourhood in the city of Masaya, decided to rename their main plaza after Pedro Joaquin Chamorro. The National Guard disrupted the commemorative mass and the people responded, outraged. As the soldiers retreated, the people quickly built barricades on all access roads to the neighbourhood and staged a popular uprising, keeping the National Guard at bay for two weeks. Since the international press was present, Somoza had not wanted to use the full force of the Guard against the people of Monimbo. On February 26, however, Somoza finally decided that the situation could not continue and ordered the National Guard to go in with light armoured vehicles, the FAN (Nicaraguan Air Force), and the EEBI (elite counter-insurgency troops from the Basic Infantry Training School). The end result was hundreds of people dead, some of them killed in front of the cameras, and further anger from the general citizenry around the country. The FSLN had sent three of their members to help in the fight, and the three were killed by the Guard. Among these was Camilo Ortega Saavedra, the future president's younger brother.
One of the more serious consequences of the Monimbo affair was that people all around the country came to realise that their life was worth absolutely nothing in the eyes of the Guard. If Pedro Joaquin Chamorro had been killed, and hundreds of virtually defenceless people of Monimbo had endured the wrath of the Guard, what guarantee would there be for anyone else?
In the meantime, business leaders and traditional opposition groups joined forces to fight the dictatorship. General strikes were called twiece in 1978, deeply damaging the already crumbling economy. Political groups such as the FAO (Frente Amplio Opositor—Broad Opposition Front) and the Group of Twelve (a group of intellectuals that called for a change of government), quickly took form in the struggle. Labour and student organizations joined in the fight against Somoza, who saw himself cornered from the inside, and shunned, at best, internationally. The measures he took to counterbalance the attacks were extreme, as the National Guard was given pretty much free rein to do whatever it pleased.
The Fall of the Last Somoza
Faced with an unexpected popular response against Somoza, the Sandinista Front had to carry out spectacular operations to let itself be known. The FSLN had claimed to be the "vanguard of the revolution" after all. In the morning of August 22, 1978 the commando Rigoberto Lopez Perez, led by commander Eden Pastora—better known at the time as commander Zero—took over the National Palace. The House of Representatives and Congress were in session. The guerrillas dressed with the uniforms of the EEBI entered the building and simply disarmed the sentries outside the Palace arguing that "the man" (Somoza) was coming. This is very significant as it demonstrates that Somoza had his doubts even about his own soldiers. The Sandinista commando took over the installations of the House of Government virtually without violence, although there were shots fired and a few people were killed. After 48 hours of an apparent stalemate, Somoza gave in to Sandinista demands (except for the amount asked, which was not paid in full). The most significative of these was probably the reading and printing on all media of a war communiqué in which the FSLN explained their plans and called for the people to join in and fight against Somoza.
Finally, on September 9, 1978, the skies over Managua shone red as the fires burned from a co-ordinated attack against six police stations took place. The Sandinistas, it became known later, had never intended for these attacks to be more than one more extraordinary propaganda tool. Instead, as the attack started, small arms fire was heard throughout the city as hundreds of people believed that this was the signal for the start of THE revolution. The fighting continued for nearly two weeks, leaving thousands of people dead and revealing the National Guard in all its strength. The "mop-up" operations were particularly brutal: after a neighbourhood had been retaken by the Guard, a house-to-house search for "subversives" would be carried out. It was not uncommon for the Guard to kill any young males between the ages of 13 and 30 in their own backyards "so that the family does not have to bother going to look for them to the station." The EEBI units were particularly skilled in counterinsurgency and were commanded by Somoza's son, Anastasio Somoza Portocarrero ("El Chigüín"), and never doubted in using brutal force even against unarmed student demonstrators.
The September 1978 uprising carried deep political consequences to Somoza, however. The OAS, at the prompting of Costa Rica, Venezuela, and Panama, issued a resolution condemning Somoza and asking the President to resign. The US continued putting pressure on the dictator and attempting to find a negotiated solution to the problem. Somoza, however, kept repeating the same speech as always: "I am bound by duty and honour to stay until 1981, when my term ends."
The next few months were marked by sporadic fighting throughout the country, so that the National Guard had to spread itself fairly thin, thus lowering its fighting capacity. During this time, the FSLN, counting now with thousands of untrained recruits and the open support of foreign governments, opened three fronts: the Rigoberto Lopez Perez Western Front; the Carlos Fonseca Northern Front; and the Roberto Huembes Eastern Front. It is worth mentioning at this point that the ranks of the Guard also increased from some 8,000 members in early 1978 to some 16,000 by mid 1979, mostly from volunteers who were afraid that the revolutionaries would install a Communist regime in Nicaragua.
In March of 1979, the rebels occupied Esteli and there was generalized fighting in virtually every large city and town in the country (with the notable exception of Granada). Tens of thousands of people fled the country towards Honduras and Costa Rica. On April 7, the cordoba was devalued for the first time in forty years and the economic situation was classified as critical. There was mass flight of capital out of the country while the cost of staple products increased sharply by 50%. By May 20, the guerrillas took up the tactic of simultaneously attacking with large forces the major cities and retreating almost immediately so as to wear down the already over tired army troops. By the beginning of June, the long-expected Final Offensive started with a massive invasion from Costa Rica and the Opening of the Benjamin Zeledon Southern Front, under the command of Eden Pastora. The National Guard was forced to commit large amounts of its best troops to contain the invasion and the fighting was brutal. As the National Guard's suuplies of ammunition quickly decreased, Somoza ordered the Nicaraguan Air Force to bomb guerrilla strongholds in the major cities, several of which were virtually levelled by the indiscriminate bombardment. These were the dying kicks of a wounded animal.
A number of countries started breaking diplomatic relations with the Somoza government throughout the month of June. On the 20th of that month, ABC reporter Bill Stewart was murdered mercilessly by a soldier and his murder was televised and broadcasted around the world. The American public, along with the people of the world, watched in shock at the event and precipitated further calls for Somoza's head. Somoza had called for CONDECA (a Central American Military mutual aid organization) for help. The governments of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, however, while sympathetic to Somoza given their own governments and Human Rights records, were preasured by the US to stay out of Nicaragua.
In July of 1979, Somoza finally agreed to resign the presidency and started a feeverish negotiation process with the United States, who still had not lost hope of a negotiated settlement that would limit FSLN power in the new government. Somoza insisted not only on the personal safety for his family and close associates, but also in the preservation of the National Guard. One of the major problems, however, was that the general population now saw the National Guard as the enemy and the institution itself was widely hated because of the attrocities committed throughout the past months. Even the Catholic Church openly supported the revolutionary effort and many priests had joined, along with their parishoners, in the armed struggle.
On July 14, 1979, the JGRN (Governmental Junta for National Reconstruction) was officially formed in San Jose, Costa Rica. Its members were Violeta Barrios de Chamorro (Pedro Joaquin Chamorro's widow), Sergio Ramirez (from the Group of Twelve), Daniel Ortega (representing the FSLN), Moises Hassan (representing the United People Movement), and Alfonso Robelo (for the private enterprise).
On July 17, Congress was called to session at the Intercontinental Hotel, where most of the government officials had been reconcentrated. Somoza read a brief note informing them that he would be leaving the country and was formally resigning his post. Somoza and his family, along with some 100 of his closest associates, left the country towards Homestead Air Force Base in Florida. Senator Francisco Urcuyo Maliaños was named successor.
According to the agreement signed with the US, Urcuyo would be in power just long enough to hand it over to the JGRN. The officers and soldiers of the National Guard that were not accused of war crimes would be integrated to the new National Army, and the new government would obtain the immediate recognition from the US, along with desperately needed aid for the victims of the war and the devastated economy. Urcuyo, however, announced unexpectedly that he intended to stay in power until 1981 until Somoza's term officially ended. The war intensified right away while at the same time many members of the National Guard sought refuge in other countries once they learnt that Somoza had left. The American Government immediately contacted Somoza and threatened him to hand him over to the rebels as they thought that the whole Urcuyo thing had been staged by the dictator. Somoza called Urcuyo and ordered him to relinquish power. Somoza left Florida towards the Bahamas and eventually went into permanet exhile in Asuncion, Paraguay.
On July 19, 1979, Urcuyo fled to Guatemala on three Guatemalan Air Force planes sent by President Romeo Lucas. The next day, the JGRN and the Sandinista army entered Managua triumphantly and were received by a crowd of tens of thousands in the city's main plaza. Power was officially transferred to the Junta on July 20th, thus ending 42 years of dynastic dictatorship.
Anastasio Somoza Debayle was killed in Asuncion on September 17, 1980 by a terrorist group atuned with the Sandinista ideals.
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