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Nicaragua: The Legacy of Somoza and Sandino

By Juan Valdez

Fifty years ago the inhabitants of the town of Ocotal in the mountains of northern Nicaragua witnessed an armed encounter between a detachment of U.S. Marines and a band of Nicaraguan insurgents under the leadership of General Augusto C. Sandino. The Marines formed part of an occupation force dispatched to this Central American nation by President Calvin Coolidge in order to put an end to civil disturbances and the threat these posed to U.S. property and strategic interests. Sandino, a military commander, had refused to accept the political settlement imposed on Nicaragua by the U.S. He vowed to continue the struggle until the last Yankee soldier left Nicaragua, and for six years he battled the Marines while gaining international prominence as the defender of a people's sovereignty against its oppressors.

Six weeks ago another military encounter took place in Ocotal. A guerrilla force descended from the mountains, overpowered the army garrison and held the town for several hours before enemy air attacks forced them to withdraw. The assault on Ocotal was part of a nationwide offensive launched by a well-organized rebel force taking its name and inspiration from Sandino: the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN). The Sandinistas' opponents were not North Americans (save for the Viet Nam veterans paid to operate helicopter gunships against the guerrillas) but Nicaragua's own National Guard. Begun in the days of Sandino, the National Guard was conceived in the minds of U.S. government officials as the force that would provide "stability" for this turbulent nation when the U.S. military occupation came to an end.

When the Marines withdrew in 1933, they left behind a "non-partisan constabulary force" of local recruits organized, trained and supplied by the U.S. Because of his facility in the English language, Anastasio Somoza, an ambitious Nicaraguan officer, was designated to command this National Guard. One of Somoza's first actions was to order the execution of Sandino, who naively believed his struggle was at an end. With this action Somoza cleared the way for his own political ascension, based on the military force and diplomatic support granted to him by the U.S. Somoza I--there are several in this story--took formal control of Nicaragua in 1936, and his power remained virtually absolute until 1956, when an assassin's bullet put an end to his rule.

The dictator's oldest son, Luis, immediately assumed the presidency, and Luis's younger brother, Anastasio Somoza II, a West Point graduate, became commander in chief of the National Guard. Luis governed until 1963 when a puppet president succeeded him. It was then the younger Somoza's turn. In 1967 General Somoza installed himself as president, stepping out only long enough in the early '70s to make the necessary manuevers to permit his "re-election" in 1974. Like his father, the current Somoza's base of power rests with the 7500-member National Guard faithfully trained and supplied by the United States. Somoza boasts that a higher percentage of his officers are trained by the Pentagon at the School of the Americas (with emphasis on counter-insurgency) in the Canal Zone than that of any of the other armed forces in Latin America. Per capita, Nicaragua receives one of the highest allotments of U.S. military assistance in the region.

Forty-one years of control over Nicaragua have netted for the Somoza family one of the largest single fortunes in the world. Conservative estimates place the family's assets between $400 and $600 million. According to the London Economist, General Somoza owns at least one-fifth of the arable land in Nicaragua and runs more than 40 companies. Very few commercial transactions take place in Nicaragua that do not, directly or indirectly, involve one of the Somozas. U.S. corporations have long learned to pay their dues; the Harvard Business School's Nicaraguan branch recently presented the dictator with an honorary degree.

By contrast, the living conditions of the great majority of Nicaragua's 2.3 million inhabitants are wretched even by Latin American standards. Official unemployment levels reach 36 per cent; 50 per cent of the work force earns a averageincome of $90 a year. The illiteracy over 80 per cent in the countryside. For every 10,000 people, there are only 6.8 doctors and 18.2 hospital beds (and most of these are in the city, catering to the rich). Infant mortality is 13 per cent in the city, and nearly 50 per cent of all fatalities reported are among children under 14. Some 47 per cent of urban homes have no sanitary facilities, and in the countryside, that figure stand at 81 per cent.

Inevitably, the political situation is explosive, and the guerrillas' numbers and supporters are rapidly multiplying. Somoza lives in fear of his subjects and of the guerillas' dexterity. Tanks and barricades surround the dictator's urban ranch. When he goes out for dinner, his mess steward prepares his food beforehand lest someone attempt to poison him. Any area Somoza visits is literally placed under military siege several hours before his arrival, and he is protected by 200 bodyguards armed with Belgian automatic firearms and knives. When he makes a public speech, Somoza speaks from behind an enormous protective contraption referred to jestingly by Nicaraguans as the "fish tank" or "bath tub." This is a huge, three-sided bulletproof shed with glass so thick it distorts Somoza's features; three trucks and a crew of 20 are required to erect it.

In recent weeks Somoza has been confronted with the most serious political and military challenge to his rule in years. As The New York Times put it, "This may be the twilight of the Somozas." Political agitation culminated last month with the FSLN's military offensive and heavy fighting in the capital and other areas of the nation. In the wake of these attacks, a broad spectrum of Nicaragua's political forces have stepped up their demand for Somoza's ouster and for the recognition of the FSLN as a legitimate political organization in its own right.

While the rural peasantry, urban workers and students have long been vocal in their support of the FSLN, the overtures of Nicaragua's "traditional" anti-Somoza sectors towards the front is indicative of the severity of the political crisis and of the Sandinistas' mass popularity. At present the FSLN included some 500 to 1000 armed militants, though it counts on the collaboration of hundreds of people throughout Central America.

Somoza's position began to deteriorate rapidly after he suffered a heart attack in late July. During his two month convalescence in Miami, some of Somoza's underlings attempted to usurp power in anticipation of the dictator's death. At the same time traditional opponents advanced their demands for political reforms. On his return to the country, Somoza--who remains under doctor's orders not to work more than three hours a day--dismissed the overly-ambitious officials, but in doing so he exacerbated the internal divisions within the state and military apparatus.

The power struggle continues as Somoza appears intent on keeping Nicaragua in the hands of the family. His 27-year-old son, Major Anastasio Somoza III '73 and Somoza's brother-in-law and ambassador to Washington, Guillermo Sevilla Sacasa, are reportedly the designated heirs to the throne. Sources in Nicaragua say that key civilian and military elements within the regime agree with the opposition that such blatant continuation of family rule cannot be allowed.

Relations between Somoza and the U.S. government are currently undergoing severe strain. The Guardia Nacional's indiscriminate use of terror in the countryside, where the FSLN has its strongest base of support, is proving an embarrassment to Carter's "human rights" stance. A report released by Amnesty International last August concluded that "instances of political imprisonment, denial of due process of law, use of torture and summary executions" were extensive. Last month the State Department decided to withhold $12 million in economic assistance, although Congress did approve $3.1 million in military aid to the regime (with the encouragement of professional lobbyists hired by Somoza). U.S. government officials are known to be unhappy about the situation in Nicaragua; a Spanish news weekly recently quoted Assistant Secretary of State Terrence Todman as saying that "the Somoza family cannot continue in power." In Managua and in Washington, U.S. officals and leaders of the traditional opposition are engaging in conversations that could pave the way for more "liberal" government that would be respective of private property and U.S. interests in Nicaragua. Alternatively, a military coup with some form of U.S. backing is possible should Somoza refuse to step down or fail to contain the political situation.

In the light of these conflicts, the FSLN moved last September to adjust its strategy to the new political conjuncture and with an aim to toppling the dictatorship. Last month's offensive corresponded to what the FSLN designated the "last phase of the revolutionary war" against Somoza, as opposed to the old strategy, favored by the more left-wing militants, emphasizing long term work in the countryside and the establishment of socialism through military struggle.

The FSLN is now making a bid for broad national and international support while escalating the military pressure in the regime. Spokesmen for the front have issued a call for Somoza's immmediate ouster and for free elections to be held, by a provisional government in which the FSLN would be represented. The demands of the Sandinistas include sweeping reform of the agrarian structure, nationalization of the banking sector, concentration of social welfare programs and education in particular, the establishment of diplomatic relations with socialist countries, and the expropriation of Somoza's massive business empire.

The new strategy appears to be meeting with some success. On the military front, students and non-Marxist elements such as "radical Christians" have joined in the offensive. On the political front, a group of prominent Nicaraguans--including wealthy businessmen, clergy and lawyers--have issued a declaration praising the "political maturity" of the guerrillas and warning that the FSLN must participate in any solution to Nicaragua's political crisis.

Clearly the FSLN is preparing itself for a post-Somoza political stage, which now appears to be forthcoming. The FSLN runs the risk of being gravely weakened as a political force in that stage unless it secures the right to build a political apparatus (as it already has in the universities) capable of affecting state power and thereby addressing the aspirations of the masses that the FSLN, more than any other movement in Nicaragua, represents. Such an apparatus would translate the popular following of the front into a mass political organization capable of achieving victory through a free electoral process. In order to build that apparatus it will first be necessary for the FSLN to secure the legality currently denied it, and to insure that legality by demanding participation in the provisional government that will succeed Somoza.

The objective, then, is to prohibit alliance of anti-communist and anti-Somoza forces that could rob Nicaraguans of what may be the most significant opportunity for social advancement in their history. The FSLN has shown clearly that the armed struggle will continue if Somoza is merely replaced by a military junta, or if any sort of political arrangement is worked out with opponents of the regime which does not include the Sandinista representatives of the mass of dispossessed Nicaraguans.

Juan Valdez is a pseudonym for a member of the Latin American student community at Harvard who wishes to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals.

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