• RSS icon
  • Share icon
  • Printer-friendly version

Anastasio Somoza

Last modified 19 June 2011.

First published 5 October 2001. Updated 18 October 2006

Full name Anastasio Somoza Debayle.

Country: Nicaragua.

Kill tally: No reliable figures, although an estimated 50,000 killed during the Nicaraguan "revolution", 120,000 exiled and 600,000 made homeless.

Background: Nicaragua is largely overlooked by the Spanish during their conquest of the Americas in the 16th Century, becoming a colonial backwater. The declaration of the country's independence in 1838 brings little stability as the United States and Britain vie for influence. The US marines enter the country in 1909 to help drive the anti-US dictator José Santos Zelaya from power. They return in 1912, remaining in the country almost continually until 1933. On their departure Anastasio Somoza García, the director of the National Guard (the national police force established by the US), begins to lay the groundwork for his ascent to power. He organises the assassination of the resistance leader Augusto César Sandino and the annihilation of Sandino's guerrilla army. In December 1936 Somoza García is elected president. More background.

Mini biography: Born on 5 December 1925 in Leon, Nicaragua. He is the second son of Somoza García.

He attends school in Florida and then La Salle Military Academy on Long Island, New York, after which he pursues a career in the military, graduating from West Point on 6 June 1946.

1937 - After his election as president, Somoza García appoints family members and close associates to key positions within the government and the military. He has absolute control of his party, the Liberal Nationalist Party, and the National Guard and is supported by the US. The National Guard comes to control most government-owned enterprises, including the national radio and telegraph networks, the postal and immigration services, health services, the internal revenue service, and the national railroads.

1938 - Somoza García manipulates the government to increase his power as president and to remove the constitutional ban on presidential reelection, extending his term for another eight years.

1940s - During the Second World War the Nicaraguan economy booms on the back of primary produce exports to support the US war effort, but most of the profits go into the pockets of Somoza García and his cronies. German properties are confiscated then sold to Somoza García and his family at ridiculously low prices. By the late 1940s Somoza García is Nicaragua's largest landholder, owning most of the country's cattle ranches and coffee plantations. He also owns or controls all banks, the national railroad, the national airlines, a cement factory, textile plants, several large electric power companies, and extensive rental property in the cities. By the end of the war his personal wealth is estimated at US$60 million.

1947 - When opposition to Somoza García grows locally and in the US he withdraws from presidential elections but has a series of cronies installed, remaining in power behind the scenes and in control of the National Guard, a pattern that he will exploit until his reelection as president in 1955.

1955 - Anastasio Somoza Debayle is made commander of the National Guard.

1956 - Somoza García is fatally wounded on 21 September by Rigoberto López Pérez, a 27-year-old Nicaraguan poet, dying eight days later. Luis Somoza Debayle, his older son and director of the National Guard, immediately assumes the post of president. Somoza García's younger son, Anastasio Somoza Debayle, takes over as National Guard director, launching a major reprisal campaign during which political opponents are tortured and imprisoned, the press is censored and civil liberties are suspended.

1957 - The Somoza brothers create a puppet opposition party, the National Conservative Party to lend credibility to presidential elections, won by Luis Somoza Debayle. The credibility of Luis Somoza Debayle's presidency is further bolstered when he restores the constitutional ban on reelection.

1959 - Luis Somoza Debayle's anticommunist stance wins his government support from the US, a position that is strengthened when he condemns the revolution in Cuba and accuses Fidel Castro of attempting to overthrow the Nicaraguan Government.

1961 - The government of Luis Somoza Debayle plays a leading role in the attempted 'Bay of Pigs' invasion of Cuba, allowing a brigade of Cuban exiles to use military bases on Nicaragua's Caribbean coast to launch the abortive attack.

1963 - The Somoza brothers take a leaf out of their father's book, installing trusted friends of the Somoza family in the presidency from 1963 until 1967.

1967 - Anastasio Somoza Debayle is elected president in February, two months before his brother dies of a heart attack. Somoza Debayle remains as director of the National Guard, giving him absolute political and military control over Nicaragua. As corruption and political repression increases opposition to the regime grows, igniting a spiralling cycle of response and counter-response that threatens to destroy the country's economy and society.

1971 - With his four-year term as president nearly at an end, Somoza Debayle amends the constitution to allow him to stay in power until 1972.

1972 - Somoza Debayle negotiates an agreement installing a three-member junta to rule until 1974. He remains as commander of the National Guard. Opposition to Somoza Debayle begins to mount in the general community, in the press (led by Pedro Joaquín Chamorro Cardenal and his newspaper La Prensa), and in the Roman Catholic Church (led by Archbishop Miguel Obando y Bravo). On 23 December an earthquake destroys the capital Managua, leaving about 10,000 dead and 50,000 families homeless. The subsequent looting of the city by the National Guard and revelation that the Somoza family and members of the National Guard are embezzling most of the international aid for the victims of the disaster turns almost all political figures against the regime, a development that is only strengthened by the country's rapid economic decline. Martial law is declared and Somoza Debayle is made chief executive of the government. He responds to the mounting opposition with increased political repression and further censorship of the media.

1974 - Despite opposition from within his own party, Somoza Debayle runs for and wins presidential elections held in September. On 27 December the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), an armed Marxist revolutionary organisation named after Augusto César Sandino and operating in rural areas, seize the home of a former government official and take as hostages a handful of leading Nicaraguan officials, many of whom are Somoza relatives.

The guerrilla's prestige soars when they successfully negotiate a US$1 million ransom, have a government declaration read over the radio and printed in La Prensa, and get 14 FSLN prisoners released from jail and flown to Cuba along with the kidnappers. Somoza Debayle responds with further censorship, intimidation, torture and murder.

The FSLN has strong links with the KGB (Komitet Gosudarstvenoi Bezopasnosti - the Soviet secret police force) and the KGB is involved in the planning of most FSLN operations.

1975 - Somoza Debayle and the National Guard launch a violent campaign against the FSLN. A state of siege is imposed, the press censored and all opponents threatened with detention and torture. Individuals suspected of collaborating with the FSLN are targeted. The country begins the descent into civil war.

1977 - In September, under pressure from the administration of US President Jimmy Carter, Somoza Debayle lifts the state of siege. Antigovernment protests and demonstrations resume. In October a group of prominent Nicaraguan business people and academics known as Los Doce (the Group of Twelve) form an anti-Somoza alliance and establish ties with the FSLN.

1978 - On 10 January Pedro Joaquín Chamorro Cardenal, the publisher of the newspaper La Prensa, is assassinated, leading to mass demonstrations against the regime. A nationwide strike begins on 23 January, with participants demanding the end of Somoza Debayle's dictatorship. The National Guard increases repression and Somoza Debayle proclaims his intent to stay on in power until the end of his presidential term in 1981. As the strike wears on over two weeks the FSLN launch a series of attacks throughout the country.

In February the US suspends all military assistance to the regime. Somoza Debayle then turns to the international market to procure arms and equipment, reportedly sourced from Israel, at further cost to an economy already suffering from a flight of capital, lack of investment, inflation and high unemployment. Political opposition to the regime continues to grow. The Broad Opposition Front (FAO) comprising four opposition groups, including Los Doce, is formed in May and tries to reach a negotiated solution with Somoza Debayle.

On 22 August the FSLN takes over the national palace and holds almost 2,000 government officials and members of Congress hostage for two days. In a humiliating defeat that inspires the opposition and demoralises the National Guard, Somoza Debayle is forced to meet most of the rebels demands, including the release of 60 FSLN guerrillas from prison, media dissemination of an FSLN declaration, a US$500,000 ransom, and safe passage for the hostage takers to Panama and Venezuela.

The FSLN is further strengthened in December when Cuban mediation leads to an agreement among the group's three factions for a united Sandinista front. Formal unification of the FSLN occurs in March 1979.

Meanwhile, with the FAO unable to secure a negotiated solution, the insurrection escalates. Further blows to the regime come at the end of the year when the Organisation of American States Inter-American Commission on Human Rights publishes a report accusing the National Guard of numerous violations of human rights and when the United Nations (UN) passes a resolution condemning the Nicaraguan Government.

1979 - The FSLN establishes the National Patriotic Front, a coalition supported by Los Doce and elements from the FAO and the business sector, on 1 February.

The battle-readiness of the FSLN forces is meanwhile improved by arms shipments from Venezuela, Panama and Cuba, mostly through Costa Rica.

An offensive launched in May sees the FSLN overcome the National Guard across the country. By the end of June all of Nicaragua is under FSLN control except the capital, where Somoza Debayle remains. Facing certain defeat, Somoza Debayle resigns as president on 17 July and flees to Miami then Paraguay. Many members of the National Guard also flee the country, seeking asylum in neighbouring countries, particularly Honduras and Guatemala.

The FSLN and other members of the revolutionary force enter Managua on 19 July, signalling the end of the war. An estimated 50,000 Nicaraguans have died during the conflict, 120,000 are exiled and 600,000 homeless. The country's economy is in ruins and foreign debt amounts to US$1.6 billion. A five-member junta formed to govern the country initially has the support of most of the population, but as the FSLN works to consolidate its power cracks begin to appear.

1980 - On 17 September Somoza Debayle is assassinated while in exile in Asunción, Paraguay. He dies from gunshot fired into his Mercedes Benz motorcar by a group of leftist guerrillas led by Enrique Gorriaran Merlo.

Postscript

1981 - Claiming that Nicaragua, with assistance from Cuba and the Soviet Union, is providing arms to guerrillas in El Salvador, the administration of US President Ronald Reagan begins a campaign to isolate the FSLN. All US aid to the country is suspended and funding and training is provided to right-wing 'Contra' rebels operating from neighbouring Honduras. The Contras, who are mostly former members of the National Guard, also reportedly receive arms and assistance from Israel.

The FSLN responds by restricting civil liberties and increasing spending on the new national army, the Sandinista People's Army (Ejército Popular Sandinista - EPS), and a police force, the Sandinista Police (Policía Sandinista - PS).

Both the army and the police are controlled by the Sandinistas and trained by personnel from Cuba, Eastern Europe, and the Soviet Union. With support from Cuba and the Soviet Union, the EPS will develop into the largest and best equipped military force in Central America. Compulsory military service, introduced during 1983, will bring its size to about 80,000 troops by the mid-1980s.

1984 - Elections for the presidency and parliament are held on 4 November. The FSLN wins 67% of the votes, the presidency, and 61 of the 96 seats in the National Assembly.

1985 - When the US Congress suspends funding to the Contras in April the Reagan administration orders a total embargo on US trade with Nicaragua. The embargo has a devastating effect on the country's already tottering economy, providing indirect assistance to the Contra insurgency.

1986 - In June the US Congress votes to resume aid to the Contras. The US$100 million provided in military and nonmilitary assistance forces the FSLN government to increase spending on defence, further damaging economic development. In November it is revealed that staff in the Reagan administration attempted to circumvent the 1985 congressional ban on aid to the Contras by illegally diverting funds from weapons sales to Iran, the so-called 'Iran-Contra Affair'.

1987 - When the US Congress again withdraws aid to the Contras following the Iran-Contra Affair the war dwindles to a stalemate, opening the way for a negotiated peace settlement. A temporary cease-fire agreement is signed in March 1988.

1990 - At elections held on 25 February the National Opposition Union (UNO), a coalition of 14 parties, wins a surprise victory over the FSLN, inheriting a country in ruins with a gross domestic product of less than US$500 per capita. During the year demobilised members of the Contra and FSLN forces rearm and renew the fighting, ultimately joining in a new group focused against the government. A split in the UNO ads further instability.

1992 - At the end of December the president calls in the military and police to resolve the conflict. The parliament is occupied, all assets and documents seized and the leaders of the parliament replaced.

1995 - The constitution is amended to reduce the power of the president in favour of the parliament. The military is also depoliticised.

1996 - Elections for the president and parliament are held in October. The FSLN is again defeated, this time by the Liberal Alliance, a coalition of five parties, whose candidate also wins the presidency.

1999 - The Somoza family attempts to reenter Nicaraguan political life, forming a new political party which is subsequently absorbed into the Liberal Nationalist Party, the family's traditional power base.

2001 - The Somoza family launches legal proceedings to try to regain possession of 342 properties (worth more than US$500 million) confiscated after the fall of the Somoza regime. When a Managua daily newspaper runs stories accusing the Somozas of looting the country while in power the family files a libel suit against the paper.

Somoza Debayle's son, Anastasio Somoza Portocarrero, the former commander of a National Guard unit accused of widespread human rights violations, plans to return to the country from exile in Guatemala.

Elections held in November once again see the defeat of the FSLN, this time at the hands of the Constitutional Liberal Party. The election is considered to be the most peaceful in the country's history.

Comment: There are no ultimate heroes or villains in the political history of Nicaragua. All players appear compromised in the country's multishaded progress to true democracy. The Somoza dynasty was corrupt to the core but, especially under the rule of patriarch Anastasio Somoza García, astute enough to maintain widespread community support through the introduction of reforms to the labour market, the voting system and the provision of social services. For a time Nicaragua was an economic success story and the envy of its neighbours. The price was the surrender of political power to dictatorial whim. The country could only be as good as the dictator of the day.

The Sandinistas are often portrayed in the West as crusading heroes for the common good. They were in reality as fractious as every other player on Nicaragua's political landscape. The fact that they have been rejected by the electorate in two consecutive votes is a sobering estimation of their capacity to govern.

The liberation theologists of the Roman Catholic Church are also frequently lauded for their role in toppling Somoza Debayle. But their readiness to participate in the government established after the dictator's fall broke a central tenant in the West's understanding of the parliamentary system - the separation of the church from the state. To object to a government is one thing, to help form a government is entirely something else.

More information: