Anastasio Somoza

Background

Nicaragua is largely overlooked by the Spanish during their conquest of the Americas in the 16th Century. The country becomes a colonial backwater subject to incursions by pirates and foreign interests and to factional conflicts between local cities and landholders. The declaration of the country's independence in 1838 brings little stability as the United States and Britain vie for influence.

US marines enter the country in 1909 to help drive the anti-US dictator José Santos Zelaya from power. They return in 1912, remaining 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 Anastasio 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 extend 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 exploits until his reelection as president in 1955.

1956 - Somoza García is fatally wounded on 21 September by Rigoberto López Pérez, a 27-year-old Nicaraguan poet. He dies eight days later. Power is immediately handed over to Somoza García's sons. Luis Somoza Debayle, the older son, relinquishes his post as director of the National Guard and assumes the position of interim president. Anastasio Somoza, the younger son, takes over as director of the National Guard.

A campaign of repression is launched in retribution for the assassination of Somoza García. Political opponents are tortured and imprisoned, the press is censored and civil liberties are suspended.

1957 - Luis Somoza Debayle wins a formal election for the presidency. He implements some reforms and restores a constitutional ban preventing presidents from running for consecutive terms.

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 by allowing a brigade of Cuban exiles to use military bases on Nicaragua's Caribbean coast to launch the abortive attack.

1963 - Luis Somoza Debayle's term as president comes to an end. Though he is constitutionally banned from running for a second consecutive term, the Somozas remain in control. A trusted friend of the Somoza family is elected president at the 1963 vote. When he dies in 1966 another family friend is installed to see out the term. Anastasio Somoza continues as director of the National Guard.

1967 - Poor health prevents Luis Somoza Debayle from running in the 1967 presidential election. Anastasio Somoza runs in his brother's stead. The vote is held in February. Anastasio Somoza wins. Two months later Luis Somoza Debayle dies of a heart attack.

Along with the presidency, Anastasio Somoza continues as director of the National Guard. The two posts give him absolute political and military control over Nicaragua.

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

1972 - Anastasio Somoza negotiates an agreement to install a three-member junta to rule until 1974. He remains as commander of the National Guard.

Opposition to Anastasio Somoza 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 Anastasio Somoza 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, Anastasio Somoza runs for and wins the presidential election 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 a handful of leading Nicaraguan officials, many of who are Somoza relatives, as hostages.

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. Anastasio Somoza responds with further censorship, intimidation, torture and murder.

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

1975 - Anastasio Somoza and the National Guard launch a violent campaign against the FSLN. A state of siege is imposed, the press is censored and all opponents are 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, Anastasio Somoza lifts the state of siege. Antigovernment protesters take to the streets. 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. Suspicion that the National Guard was involved in the killing provokes mass demonstrations against the regime.

A nationwide strike begins on 23 January, with participants demanding the end of Anastasio Somoza's dictatorship. The National Guard increases repression and Anastasio Somoza proclaims his intent to stay on in power until the end of his presidential term in 1981. As the strike wears on the FSLN launch a series of attacks throughout the country.

In February the US suspends all military assistance to the regime. Anastasio Somoza turns to the international market to procure arms and equipment, at further cost to an economy already suffering from a flight of capital, lack of investment, inflation and high unemployment. According to reports, the arms are sourced from Israel.

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 Anastasio Somoza.

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, Anastasio Somoza 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.

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) General Assembly passes a resolution censuring the repression of the civilian population of Nicaragua.

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

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 Anastasio Somoza remains.

Facing certain defeat, Anastasio Somoza resigns as president on 17 July and flees to Miami then Paraguay. Many members of the National Guard also flee, 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 Anastasio Somoza 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 Contras begin a hit-and-run war against the FSLN.

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 develops into the largest and best equipped military force in Central America. Compulsory military service, introduced during 1983, brings 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, obtaining 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 teetering 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 stalls, 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.

Comment

There are no ultimate heroes or villains in the political history of Nicaragua. All players appear compromised in the country's multi-shaded 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 and 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 following their initial electoral victory they were rejected by the people in two subsequent 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 Anastasio Somoza. 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