IT HAS BEEN MORE THAN 130 years since Cornelius Vanderbilt purchased exclusive right of way across the narrow strip of land that separates Atlantic and Pacific in Nicaragua. It has been 46 years since General Anastasio Somoza Garcia took control of the Nicaraguan National Guard from the United States Marines and promptly ordered the murder of nationalist hero Augusto Sandino. And it has been several months now since the front pages of America's newspapers sported gory tales of the thousands of civilian deaths that the same National Guard caused in the wake of the massive but unsuccessful popular uprising that racked this Central American country for several weeks in September.
The strange silence of reportage from Nicaragua does not mean, however, that the violence has ended. "The level of pressure is just tremendous," a recently returned observor said last week, noting "there are checkpoints virtually everywhere." Scattered reports indicate that people are dying (mostly at the hands of the 10,000 member American-trained Guard) at the rate of five or six per day. The victims range from the scores of young men who have been picked up by the Guard only to turn up lifeless on some roadside the next morning, to the five children who tried two weeks ago to stage a hunger strike in support of the opposition to General Anastasio Somoza Debayle, the President and dictator, to the guy from Cedar Rapids who taught at the American school in Managua and was killed last weekend.
A Burlington, Mass., woman--a Peace Corps volunteer--was raped recently by members of this notorious Guardia, the first time that a Peace Corps volunteer had ever been raped by members of the armed forces of the host country. The incident, though not reported in the American press, was widely reported in the Nicaraguan papers. The woman explained that normally she would not have made the incident public, but "it happens every day to Nicaraguan women."
The Peace Corps is gradually getting out of Nicaragua, at least until "volunteers can work safely and productively," according to Paul Bell Jr., Regional Director for Latin America. Between March and September of last year, 75 volunteers left the country. In February, 21 more volunteers were withdrawn.
THIS EXODUS is part of a much wider American flight from the country, one that reflects, after 45 years of unwavering support for the corrupt Somoza family dynasty, the ambivalence which now characterizes Washington's attitude towards the aging general and his oppressive policies.
By late 1976, Somoza's image in this country had so deteriorated that he hired the New York public relations firm of Norman, Lawrence, Patterson, and Farrell, Inc. to shore it up. And although the State Department cited the Nicaraguan government for several human rights violations in the early days of President Carter's May 1977 crusade, 12 million dollars in economic aid in 1977 and 1978 were nevertheless added to a total of more than $300 million that Nicaragua has received from the U.S. government since the second World War. The reason was that some of Somoza's powerful friends in Congress, notably Representatives Charles Wilson (D-Tex.) and John Murphy (D-N.Y.), Somoza's roommate at West Point, threatened to slash foreign aid to several countries if our trusted anti-Communist ally in Nicaragua was slighted. That annual shipment of $12 million has now been suspended, but $30 million in bilateral economic assistance already approved will go to Nicaragua this year. While all of Washington's milnary aid to the regime has now been cut off, many Nicaraguans will bitterly remind you that it did not end until September 23rd of last year, after Somoza had finished mopping up the blood of his countrymen in villages throughout the opposition-dominated countryside.
According to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States, the National Guard's quelling of September's revolt cost 5,000 lives (Somoza claims it took 1,000). Leading the Guard's raid of resistance center Leon was Somoza's 27-year-old son, Anastasio Somoza Portocarrero '73, who many claim is being groomed to replace his father at the head of the Guard and the country. "Tachito," as he is called, was promoted last month to Lieutenant Colonel after reportedly ordering the shooting of Red Cross ambulance drivers who had helped the opposition during the time of the seizure In Leon, site of the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua (UNAN)--one of the early hotbeds of organization against the government.
AN AMERICAN-DOMINATED international team of mediators tried to arrange a peaceful transition to a democratic, moderate government in the aftermath of this fall's bloodshed, but they failed in the face of Somoza's intransigence. The State Department claims that American mediation efforts are "suspended," not finished. The plebescite mediators had scheduled for February 18th never materialized, however, and Somoza appears as unlikely as ever to resign--the first condition for an end to violence by the opposition.
There has been a great deal of controversy in Nicaragua in recent months over whether Washington's mediation efforts led by Ambassador William Bowdler, one-time ambassador to South Africa and former Chief of Intelligence and Research at the State Department, have been in good faith. America's long history of pro-Somoza interventions and aid has led the larger part of the opposition to conclude that the U.S. should not be trusted this time, either. Fearing the Americans seek an equally conservative but less controversial successor for General Somoza--"Somozaism without Somoza"--many opposition splinter groups have recently left the formerly comprehensive Broad Opposition Front, which favors the negotiation (in hope of a plebescite) approach, to join the more radical Patriotic Front.
The Patriotic Front now includes the leftist Pueblo Unido or United People's Movement (students, progressive professionals and trade unions), a respected group of national leaders called Los Doce ("The Twelve"), and, most importantly, the Sandinista Front (FSLN), which spearheaded the opposition movement from the beginning. The Twelve includes the famous Jesuit priest Ernesto Cardenal, and used to include the popular editor of the opposiition newspaper La Prensa, Pedro Joaquin Chamorro. Chamorro was gunned down on his way to work in January 1978, and his assassination touched a spree of rioting and burning of buildings in the capital city of Managua. The first anniversary of his death two months ago also brought parades, demonstrations, and a renewed general strike.
The Sandinistas, however, have been the moving force in the drive to oust Somoza. Their daring raid of a diplomatic reception for the American ambassador on December 27, 1974, and subsequent kidnapping of 11 members of Somoza's inner circle--for which they received the release of 14 political prisoners, $1 million in ransom, a lengthy radio statement, and flight to Cuba--led Somoza to order martial law and censorship of the press on the same night. Crowds lined up on the roads leading to the airport, applauding the Sandinistas, but Somoza did not lift the sanctions until mid- 1977. The Sandanistas also set the stage for the massive revolt that took place last fall with the dramatic seizure of the National Palace in August. This time their demands included $500,000 and the release of 54 prisoners. Their actions demonstrated just how vulnerable the Somoza regime really was.
Despite the assertion of people like Kay Stubbs, of the Washington Office on Latin America, that the Patriotic Front is "much more representative" than the FAO, the U.S. government refuses to recognize or negotiate with the Patriotic Front. The Americans are thus following their 50-year-old policy of not dealing directly with the Sandanistas, an unrealistic policy at best, and a disastrous one at worst.
The violence now threatens to spread beyond Nicaragua's borders, into the hills of neighboring Costa Rica where Somoza's planes and artillery have been hitting alleged rebel bases. Costa Rica, which until this year relied primarily on a small civilian defense force, has reportedly begun purchasing weapons from abroad. The possibility exists that Venezuala (who cut off Nicaragua's oil shipments during the fighting in the fall) and the pro-Somoza governments of Guatemala and El Salvador could become involved in the conflict.
THE NICARAGUAN GOVERNMENT, no longer able to purchase American weapons, has apparently turned to Argentina and Israel for defense imports. The Boston Globe recently reported on the clandestine night deliveries of weapons that the Israelis were making to Managua, and the Nicaraguan paper La Prensa also contained eyewitness accounts of Israeli ships unloading at Puerto Cabezas.
For Somoza, however, American support remains crucial to stave off the financial effects of turbulence. He is currently trying to arrange an eight year loan of $88 million from a consortium of U.S. banks which would, in the words of one American banker, "give the country a breather." The Nicaraguan government has promised banks that it would catch up on its current interest payments by March 31, from sales of coffee, cotton, meat, and sugar in the early part of the year that provides the majority of the country's revenue. Meanwhile, there has been talk of possible Sandanista intervention to prevent a good harvest which would help to restabalize the economy.
Whether or not Somoza manages to solve his financial woes, it is doubtful that he can survive politically in his authoritarian position until the next scheduled presidential "election" in 1981. Before then, both he and the United States government which supported him for so long will have to make some difficult choices about the future of Nicaragua. Somoza must decide whether his privileged position is worth the continued destruction of his nation. The Americans must figure out whether they can afford to witness this destruction as a result of their own unrealistic and ambiguous policies.