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History, The Somoza Dynasty, 1936-1979

Carlos Fonseca Amador, Anastasio Somoza Debayle, Luis Somoza Debayle, Tomas Borge, Sandinista National Liberation

With Sandino out of the way, Somoza began his climb to power. In 1936 he forced Sacasa to resign, pressured the Liberal Party into making him their presidential nominee, and then used the National Guard to ensure his victory. Once in office he used corruption and favoritism to cement his control over Guard officers, and he used political favors to keep the Liberal Party in line behind him. He took whatever steps he could to maintain the image of U.S. support, making an official visit to Washington, D.C., in 1939; naming Managua’s main street after President Franklin D. Roosevelt; and declaring Roosevelt’s birthday a national holiday. He also began to amass the largest private fortune in Nicaraguan history. With military support, wealth, and U.S. backing, he and his family members ruled Nicaragua for the next 43 years.

In the 1940s the United States began pressuring Somoza not to run for reelection. He reluctantly agreed, believing that as National Guard commander he could control any elected president. His forces ensured that his handpicked successor won the 1947 election, but once in office the new president tried to replace Somoza as Guard commander. He was promptly overthrown, and a series of puppet presidents completed his term.

Somoza then negotiated a deal with the Conservatives, still led by General Chamorro, which allowed him to win the presidency in 1950. Somoza continued to cultivate U.S. support, and to that end he backed the 1954 coup that toppled a reformist government in Guatemala. The coup had also been supported by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). He planned to run again in 1957 but was assassinated in 1956.

As president, Somoza gave Nicaragua peace and stability. The economy grew, new exports such as cotton were developed, and the foreign debt was paid. But all of this came at a high price. Corruption was institutionalized; force, fraud, and inside deals dominated politics; and the country was run as a giant estate for the benefit of the Somoza family. When members of elite families rebelled against Somoza’s rule they were exiled; those without such influence were often imprisoned, tortured, or killed.

Somoza had groomed his sons, Luis Somoza Debayle and Anastasio Somoza Debayle, to succeed him. After their father’s assassination, Luis became president and Anastasio, known as Tachito, took over command of the National Guard. They continued their father’s system of control and corruption and maintained support for U.S. policies. In 1961 they allowed Nicaragua to be used as the launching pad for the unsuccessful Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, which had been led by Cuban exiles and backed by the CIA. Nicaragua’s role in the invasion created hatred between revolutionary Cuban leader Fidel Castro and the Somozas.

In the early 1960s a small group of Nicaraguans organized an armed guerrilla force to try to overthrow the Somozas. Taking their name from General Sandino, they called themselves Sandinistas and their movement the Sandinista National Liberation Front (known by its Spanish abbreviation FSLN). The FSLN’s founders—Carlos Fonseca Amador, Tomas Borge, and Silvio Mayorga—were Marxists who had met as university students involved in anti-Somoza activities. They were inspired by the Cuban Revolution and supported by Castro. Beginning with only about 20 members, the Sandinistas slowly won support during the 1960s among rural Nicaraguans, students, and poor urban youth.

The Somozas continued to hold power but allowed an associate they controlled to be elected president in 1963. However, Anastasio Somoza was determined to have his turn as president in 1967. When Luis died that year, the only effective limit on Anastasio’s ambition was removed. As president, Anastasio Somoza Debayle proved to be more corrupt but less capable than his father. While the Somoza family and its close associates amassed even greater wealth, the poorest Nicaraguans grew poorer, especially in rural areas. By the 1970s the top 5 percent of the population received 30 percent of the nation’s income, while the poorest 50 percent received only 15 percent. Malnutrition and disease were widespread among the poor.

Growing resentment over these conditions caused many young Nicaraguans, especially students, to join the Sandinistas. However, the guerrillas suffered repeated defeats in clashes with the National Guard. After a military campaign failed in 1967, many of the Sandinistas’ leaders were killed, jailed, or exiled, but the group rebuilt during the early 1970s.

The Somoza dynasty began to unravel in the mid-1970s. In December 1972 Managua was again destroyed by an earthquake that killed as many as 10,000 people and left as many as 300,000 homeless. Millions of dollars in international aid poured into Nicaragua, but Somoza and the Guard took most of it for their own benefit. This corruption angered most Nicaraguans, including middle-class and business people. Somoza’s manipulation of politics became even more brazen when he was again elected president in 1974. Those who opposed Somoza were often imprisoned, tortured, exiled, or killed, and the Guard murdered and terrorized rural residents in areas of guerrilla activity. Constitutional rights were suspended and the press was censored. Yet opposition to the regime increased. The Sandinistas gained support among rural and urban residents for their guerrilla campaign. In addition, prominent Nicaraguans formed an anti-Somoza political movement, and Managua’s archbishop, Miguel Obando y Bravo, became the spokesman for the Catholic Church’s growing opposition to the Somozas.

The dictatorship also faced economic and international problems. The economy had grown rapidly in the 1950s and 1960s, but that ended in the mid-1970s due to the increasing costs of the Somoza regime’s corruption and the rise in world prices for oil, which Nicaragua depended on for electric power and agricultural chemicals. U.S. support declined after 1977 when Jimmy Carter became president and began to emphasize human rights and democracy in relations with Latin America. Somoza survived a 1977 heart attack, but the attack raised further doubts about the regime’s ability to maintain control.

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