Nicaragua’s twentieth-century history cannot be told without placing the United States government as the main antagonist. It is their active interventions that have shaped the Central American country’s political, economic and social systems, but it is also the opposing forces to this imperialist aggression that has served as a counterbalance to writing the story of the Nicaraguan people.
From military invasions to economic blockades, the U.S. has set to extinguish every attempt to a left-wing alternative against the imposed ‘Banana Republic’ model, that U.S. transnational interests have exerted in the country ever since the 19th century.
Yet it is out of U.S. imperialism, that a figure rose in Nicaragua to become a symbol of rebellion and hope for past, current and future generations. Known as the ‘General of Free Men’, Augusto Cesar Sandino’s life and murder on Feb. 21, 1934, would shape the Central American republic.
But to understand the emergence and death of Sandino one must see that U.S. imperialism is at the heart of Nicaragua’s composition as a nation.
US’ “Good Men” in Nicaragua
By the nineteenth century, the U.S. was prepping itself to become the new dominant empire in the world. A newfound power that was especially felt in Latin America, a region the North Americans consider theirs by belief in manifest destiny, which in turn was materialized in the Monroe Doctrine (1823). This way the U.S. assumed their role of self-declared caretakers of the American continent. But it wasn’t until President Theodore Roosevelt (1901 – 1909) that the reach of U.S. imperialism, in Central America specifically, would take its most modern configuration.
With the new imperialist sense, the U.S. reaffirmed its foreign policy through Roosevelt’s 1904 Corollary, which was was an addition and interpretation of the Monroe Doctrine presented after the European naval blockade to Venezuela in 1902–1903. The corollary states that the U.S. will intervene in Latin American if the rights or property of U.S. citizens or businesses are threatened or endangered.
“Chronic wrongdoing . . . may in America, as elsewhere, ultimately require intervention by some civilized nation,” Roosevelt said in his 1904 state of the union, adding that “in the Western Hemisphere the adherence of the United States to the Monroe Doctrine may force the United States, however reluctantly, in flagrant cases of such wrongdoing or impotence, to the exercise of an international police power.”
Consistent with Roosevelt’s foreign policy it legitimized the use of force as a means to defend the interests – in the broadest sense – of the U.S. The result was the so-called ‘Banana Wars’, a series of U.S. military interventions in several Latin American countries from 1898 to 1934 of which Nicaragua was one of the main victims, as the U.S. wanted to “teach” the country how to choose “good men” as leaders.
A Nation Under US Tutelage
Under the liberal government of Jose Santos Zelaya (1893 – 1909), Nicaragua would transition into a modern state. As part of his modernization program, the country made concessions to Germany and Japan for a transisthmian canal across Nicaragua. Since the U.S. had its plans set in Panama, a competing venture financed by foreign interests, was not of their liking.
As relations with the U.S. deteriorated, civil war erupted in October 1909 when anti-government liberals joined with a group of conservatives under Juan Estrada to overthrow Zelaya. The U.S. then saw an opportunity to invade after two U.S. mercenaries serving with the rebels were captured and executed by government forces. Soon thereafter, 400 U.S. Marines landed on the Caribbean eastern city of Bluefields.
Rebel leader Juan Estrada’s forces seized Managua, Nicaragua’s capital and the conservative leader assumed power. U.S. Secretary of State Philander C. Knox agreed to recognize the new government, provided that U.S. demands were met. A conservative-liberal regime, headed by Estrada, was recognized by the U.S. on Jan. 1, 1911. However, Estrada’s hold on power was weak at best, sensing instability in Nicaragua once again, Knox sent Thomas C. Dawson as a “special agent” to Nicaragua. Dawson had previously overseen the U.S. invasion in the Dominican Republic.
Debt and Lackeys Shackle Nicaragua to the US’ Will
The U.S. agent assessed the political situation and reported that if elections were held, Zelaya’s liberals would certainly win. To avoid an unwanted liberal victory, the U.S. pushed Estrada to agree on a constituent assembly to get himself elected, approve a first short-term U.S. loan, among other concessions. As political rivalries within the conservative-liberal coalition surfaced, the Minister of War General Luis Mena forced Estrada to resign, replacing him with his vice president, Adolfo Diaz.
Nicaraguan and U.S. representatives then signed a treaty on June 6, 1911, which included U.S. Government and private bank approval for the post of customs collector. In a second, short-term loan agreement, the collector general was nominated by a consortium of private banks and approved by Knox. As part of the deal, the newly appointed president Diaz handed control of the Nicaraguan national rail company and the central banking system to U.S. private firms. Although the treaty was rejected three times by the U.S. Senate as many legislations opposed the William Taft Administration’s connections with large corporations, Nicaragua’s government proceeded to comply with the stipulations.
As history would have it, only US$1.5 million was obtained by Nicaragua from the US$15 million due to the non-ratification of the treaty, but truly only US$100,000 reached Nicaragua and to the pockets of private bankers to form the National Bank. The rest of the money stayed in New York’s banking system while the collateral for the loans came from Nicaragua’s customs revenues, railways, and shipping industry.
The main purpose of the 1912 occupation was to impede the construction of an inter-oceanic canal, though their stated objective was to promote democracy in this country.
By mid-1912, Minister of War Luis Mena persuaded the constituent assembly to name him successor to Diaz when the president’s term expired in 1913. Diaz then asked the U.S. government to intervene to “secure” the property of U.S. citizens. When the U.S. refused to recognize the decision, Mena began a revolt to seize power.
In August 1912, a force of around 2,700 United States marines once again landed at the ports of Corinto and Bluefields; Mena fled the country. This gave way to the U.S. occupation which lasted almost continually until 1933. Although reduced to 100 in 1913, the contingent stayed as a reminder of the willingness of the U.S. to use force and quickly intervene to preserve its interests in the country. With U.S. tutelage, conservative governments ruled until 1925 without any major mishaps, especially as the country assumed a quasi-protectorate status under the 1916 Bryan–Chamorro Treaty. This was a revised version of the 1914 Castillo-Knox Treaty, which gave the U.S. the right to intervene in Nicaragua to protect its interests.
The modified version omitted the intervention clause but gave the U.S. exclusive rights to build an interoceanic canal across Nicaragua. As the Panama Canal was inaugurated in 1913, the Nicaraguan agreement served to impede any potential foreign countries, mainly Germany or Japan, to building another canal in Central America. Also for 99 years, Nicaragua leased the Corn Islands to the U.S. and gave them the right to establish, operate and maintain a naval base anywhere in the Gulf of Fonseca; both concessions would be subject exclusively to the laws and U.S. sovereignty.
The Occupation Doesn’t End, Just Changes
By 1924, a moderate conservative, Carlos Solorzano was elected president presenting a coalition ticket with liberal Juan Bautista Sacasa as his vice president, although he ended up purging all liberals from his government. Solorzano then requested that the U.S. stay to build a national military force, which would be the National Guard. After deciding it was “safe” to leave the Central American nation, the remaining Marines were withdrawn after a thirteen-year occupation on Aug. 3, 1925.
Not even a month after the occupation forces left, former conservative president (1917 -1921) General Emiliano Chamorro launched a coup d’état, forcing Solorzano and Sacasa to flee the country, and proclaimed himself president on January 1926. The political situation errupted into a civil war by May, as exiled liberal forces landed in the Caribbean port of Bluefields.
Fearing the new round of conservative-liberal violence and mainly worried that the infighting in Nicaragua might result in a liberal victory as it happened a few years earlier in Mexico, the U.S. invaded Nicaragua once again. A peace was brokered by the U.S. between liberal and conservative factions in October 1926. Chamorro resigned and the Nicaraguan Congress elected former president (1911- 1916) Alfonso Diaz to serve as head of state once again.
Yet due to Chamorro’s resignation, his vice president liberal Sacasa returned from exile from Guatemala and declared himself Constitutional President of Nicaragua from Puerto Cabezas on Dec. 1, 1926, only recognized by Mexico who was providing weapons to the liberal army.
Thousands of liberal soldiers made their way towards Managua led by General Jose Maria Moncada, winning key battles along the way. In January 1927, U.S. President Calvin Coolidge lifted the arms embargo on the Nicaraguan government, allowing his country to legally provide military aid to the conservatives. Coolidge then sent politician Henry Stimson to negotiate an end to the war. On May 20, 1927, both factions agreed to sign the truce known as the Pact of Espino Negro, under the conditions that Diaz would remain president until a new, U.S.-supervised election in 1928, both sides would disarm ending the Constitutionalist War, and a new National Guard would be established.
Sacasa left the country since he refused to sign, as did another liberal leader, Augusto Cesar Sandino.
The ‘General of Free Men’ Rises
The illegitimate son of a wealthy landowner of Spanish descent and an Indigenous servant of the Sandino family, young Sandino was the definition of the mestizo identity in Latin America. From an early age, he saw and lived the disparities between the wealthy elites and the working-class people of his country.
Although he lived with his mother until nine years old, his father then took him into his home and arranged his education and well being. As a young adult, Sandino witnessed the U.S. invasion of Nicaragua in 1912 and the power struggle between the conservative elites. But it was at the age of 26 in 1921 that his life took a turn, as he tried to kill the son of a rich conservative townsman who had insulted his mother. Afterward, he had to flee and went to Honduras, Guatemala and eventually settled in Mexico. Influenced by the ideals of the Mexican Revolution, during his three-year stay in Tampico, Mexico, Sandino acquired a strong sense of Nicaraguan nationalism, strongly embraced his Indigenous heritage and took on an anti-imperialist stance.
In 1926, his father urged him to come back, Sandino returned and settled in the northern department of Nueva Segovia. He took a job at the San Albino gold mine owned by a U.S. firm, where he organized the mine workers and taught them about social inequalities and the need to change the political system and soon after the civil war erupted. Parallel to Moncada’s liberal army, Sandino organized a rebel force consisting mostly of peasants and workers to fight against the conservative regime of Chamorro for the liberals. After the U.S. intervention ended the war with the Pact of Espino Negro, Sandino refused to order his followers to surrender their weapons and returned with them to the Segovia Mountains.
Sandino, called Moncada a traitor vendepatria (nation-seller) and denounced the foreign intervention, reorganized his forces as the Army for the Defense of Nicaraguan Sovereignty (Ejercito Defensor de la Soberanía de Nicaragua-EDSN) and led a new counter-offensive against the ruling elite and the U.S. empire that backed them. He declared war on the U.S., which he called the “the enemy of our race,” referring to the Latin Americans.
“I will not abandon my resistance until the…pirate invaders…assassins of weak peoples …are expelled from my country…I will make them realize that their crimes will cost them, dear…There will be bloody combat…Nicaragua shall not be the patrimony of Imperialists,” Sandino said in 1928.
Venezuelan Communist Leader Gustavo Machado with the flag of the U.S. invaders that was taken by the Sandinistas in the heroic combat of El Zapote on May 14, 1928.
As the general and his forces gained international notoriety, the U.S. grew more annoyed by the fact that they couldn’t capture him. On Jan. 20 1928 Rear Admiral David F. Sellers, Commander of the U.S. Special Service Squadron operating against the forces of Sandino in Nicaragua, wrote to the general demanding his surrender, arrogantly ordering him to stop the fighting in the Nueva Segovia department, especially against U.S. forces and mining companies from the U.S., alluding to the Espino Negro accords and the fact the U.S. would intervene in Nicaragua based on the agreements.
“The only way to put an end to this struggle is the immediate withdrawal of the forces invading our country, at the same time replacing the current President with a Nicaraguan citizen who is not among the candidates for the Presidency and that representatives from Latin America supervise the elections instead of North American marines,” Sandino proudly responded.
With the popular and rural support, Sandino’s forces grew both in number and strength, inflicting important losses on the U.S. Marines who never captured the ‘General of Free Men’. But most importantly showing the world that a group of peasants could face the “Colossus of the North,” as he referred to them. After a year-long exile in 1929 in Mexico, where he desperately looked for foreign support, he returned to Nicaragua to continue his fighting to face an internal enemy as well.
As the support within the U.S. for the Nicaragua occupation faded and the Great Depression (1929) made overseas military expeditions too costly for the U.S in January 1931 Henry Stimson, then-Secretary of State announced that all U.S. soldiers in Nicaragua would leave following general elections and that newly created and U.S.-commanded Nicaraguan National Guard would take over responsibility for the fighting. In the 1932 elections liberal and former vice president, Juan Bautista Sacasa won and was installed as head of state on Jan. 2, 1933.
As the U.S. withdrawal loomed close, the U.S. Ambassador Matthew Hanna and General Moncada had their trusted ally Anastasio Somoza Garcia named as director of the National Guard, the most important power in Nicaragua’s political scene. Somoza Garcia was born in Nicaragua’s elite, being the son of a rich coffee landowner. He attended school in Philadelphia and was trained by U.S. Marines, thus developing strong ties with the military, economic, and political figures of the U.S.
With US Invaders Gone, A Dictator is Placed
U.S. troops left Nicaragua in January 1933 as Franklin D Roosevelt invoked his new Good Neighbor policy ending 40 years of direct military intervention in the region. The Marines passed control of the 4,000 enlisted National Guard troops to Somoza Garcia. With the occupying forces gone Sandino agreed to talk with Sacasa’s government. In February 1934, negotiations began. During their meetings, the liberal administration offered Sandino a general amnesty as well as land and safeguards for him and his guerrilla forces to stop the fighting still raging between the guerrilla forces and the National Guard.
Sandino, who regarded the Somoza’s forces as unconstitutional because of its ties to the U.S. military, insisted on the guard’s dissolution, yet he pledged his support for the president and agreed to order his forces to surrender their weapons within three months.
Somoza saw in Sandino a strong force that could affect his hunger for power later on. So on Feb. 21, 1934, as the General of Free Men left the presidential palace after having dinner with Sacasa, Somoza Garcia gave orders to kill Sandino, without the president’s approval.
Sandino, his brother and two of his most trusted generals were arrested by National Guard officers, they were then taken to the airfield, executed, and buried in unmarked graves in Larreynaga. The Nicaraguan president, despite his disapproval, was too weak to contain the National Guard director. After Sandino’s murder, the National Guard launched a ruthless campaign against the EDSN, and in about a month, Sandino’s army was destroyed.
As Sacasa’s popularity and power diminished, Somoza Garcia took advantage of pushing the president to resign by June 6, 1936, an interim president was elected by Congress until elections were held. In December, Somoza was elected president by a margin of 107,201 votes to 108, “an implausibly high margin that could have been obtained only through massive fraud.”
On Jan. 1, 1937, he took office and also the role of director of the National Guard, combining the roles of president and chief of the military. The military dictatorship was established and a U.S.-backed dynasty under the Somoza family that would last four decades.