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Nicaragua, the Somozas and Sandinistas, to 1990

Luis and Anastasio Somoza | The Sandinista Revolution

Luis and Anastasio Somoza

Following the assassination of the Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1956, his son, Luis Somoza, ruled with the title of president, and in 1967 Luis was succeeded by his younger brother, Anastasio Somoza Debayle. In 1972, an earthquake devastated Nicaragua's capital city, Managua. President Anastasio Somoza channeled millions of dollars worth of international relief to his family, and his military looted amid the ruins, all of which increased opposition to the Somoza regime.

Unable to vote Somoza out of office, various Nicaraguans believed that taking up arms against the regime was justified. With this in mind, in 1974 an underground group called Sandinistas formed, named after the legendary nationalist guerrilla of the late twenties and early thirties, Augusto Sandino.

Somoza's response was common to many autocrats: terror against all perceived opponents. In January 1977 the Catholic Church in Nicaragua complained that the Somoza regime was terrorizing peasants. In June that year the US House of Representatives, controlled by Democrats, voted 225 to 180 to end military aid to Nicaragua – aid that was viewed as being used by Somoza to repress his own people. Many of the 180 who voted against ending military aid viewed Somoza as a bulwark against Communism.

In January, 1978, the owner of Nicaragua's leading newspaper, La Prensa, Pedro Chamorro, was assassinated, and many in Nicaragua believed that Somoza was involved. A general strike was called. Nicaraguans demonstrated in the streets and set fire to buildings owned by Somoza. Venezuela's labor unions began an oil embargo against Nicaragua. In Nicaragua a moderate group of some 3000 members, called the Nicaraguan Democratic Movement, was formed among business people. In August, Sandinistas attacked and temporarily captured the presidential palace and seized 1,500 hostages. The next day they rode through the streets of the capital, cheered by joyous citizens. They released their hostages after the Somoza regime agreed to release 59 political prisoners.

Somoza's military continued to dominate Nicaragua, and in September the US State Department, during President Carter's administration, urged Somoza to mediate a solution to the fighting. Venezuela was sending arms to the Sandinistas by way of Costa Rica. Outraged Nicaraguans were fighting the military machine with 22 caliber rifles, home made bombs and machetes, while Somoza's military was using helicopter gunships, bombers, high-powered rifles and artillery. Sandinista supporters were traveling the world in search of help in the form of weaponry. President Jimmy Carter moved to greater restrictions on the Somoza regime and pressured other governments into joining him against help for Somoza. The Israeli cargo ship, Liberian Star, returned to Israel from Nicaragua without delivering its cargo of guns and ammunition to the Somoza regime, and Somoza's military was running out of ammunition.

In May, 1979, a full-scale Sandinista offensive began. On June 20, people watching television in the US were startled to watch Bill Stewart of ABC television assassinated by one of Somoza's soldiers. The US public was now more aware of the brutalities of the Somoza regime, and their opposition to the Somoza regime soared. Somoza's military inflicted punishments where it could. Townspeople were digging up their stone roads and building barricades, and Somoza's military was killing all the men of fighting age that it could find in a town and raping women.

Somoza's military was under pressure from the Sandinista guerillas. Seeing an end to his power, on July 13, 1979, Somoza fled to Miami. The civil war was over. Claims are that it had killed 40,000, had left 200,000 homeless, 40,000 orphaned, one-third of the country's industry destroyed and the country with a debt of 1.6 billion dollars.

On July 17, 1979, Nicaragua's Roman Catholic Bishops issued a pastoral letter stating that they were "confident that the revolutionary process [in Nicaragua] will be something original, profoundly nationalistic and not the initiative of others." They spoke of want for a society that was "not capitalist, not dependent, and not totalitarian."

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Copyright © 2002-2015 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.

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