The Somoza Era, 1936-74

Nicaragua Table of Contents

Somoza García controlled political power, directly as president or indirectly through carefully chosen puppet presidents, from 1936 until his assassination in 1956. A cynical and opportunistic individual, Somoza García ruled Nicaragua with a strong arm, deriving his power from three main sources: the ownership or control of large portions of the Nicaraguan economy, the military support of the National Guard, and his acceptance and support from the United States. His excellent command of the English language and understanding of United States culture, combined with a charming personality and considerable political talent and resourcefulness, helped Somoza García win many powerful allies in the United States. Through large investments in land, manufacturing, transport, and real estate, he enriched himself and his close friends.

After Somoza García won in the December 1936 presidential elections, he diligently proceeded to consolidate his power within the National Guard, while at the same time dividing his political opponents. Family members and close associates were given key positions within the government and the military. The Somoza family also controlled the PLN, which in turn controlled the legislature and judicial system, thus giving Somoza García absolute power over every sphere of Nicaraguan politics. Nominal political opposition was allowed as long as it did not threaten the ruling elite. Somoza García's National Guard repressed serious political opposition and antigovernment demonstrations. The institutional power of the National Guard grew in most government-owned enterprises, until eventually it controlled the national radio and telegraph networks, the postal and immigration services, health services, the internal revenue service, and the national railroads. In less than two years after his election, Somoza García, defying the Conservative Party, declared his intention to stay in power beyond his presidential term. Thus, in 1938 Somoza García named a Constituent Assembly that gave the president extensive power and elected him for another eight-year term.

Somoza García's opportunistic support of the Allies during World War II benefited Nicaragua by injecting desperately needed United States funds into the economy and increasing military capabilities. Nicaragua received relatively large amounts of military aid and enthusiastically integrated its economy into the wartime hemispheric economic plan, providing raw materials in support of the Allied war effort. Exports of timber, gold, and cotton soared. However, because more than 90 percent of all exports went to the United States, the growth in trade also increased the country's economic and political dependence.

Somoza García built an immense fortune for himself and his family during the 1940s through substantial investments in agricultural exports, especially in coffee and cattle. The government confiscated German properties and then sold them to Somoza García and his family at ridiculously low prices. Among his many industrial enterprises, Somoza García owned textile companies, sugar mills, rum distilleries, the merchant marine lines, the national Nicaraguan Airlines (Líneas Aéreas de Nicaragua--Lanica), and La Salud dairy--the country's only pasteurized milk facility. Somoza García also gained large profits from economic concessions to national and foreign companies, bribes, and illegal exports. By the end of World War II, Somoza García had amassed one of the largest fortunes in the region--an estimated US$60 million.

After World War II, however, widespread domestic and international opposition to the Somoza García dictatorship grew among political parties, labor, business groups, and the United States government. Somoza García's decision to run for reelection in 1944 was opposed by some liberals, who established the Independent Liberal Party (Partido Liberal Independiente--PLI). Somoza García's reelection was also opposed by the United States government. The dictator reacted to growing criticism by creating a puppet government to save his rule. He decided not to run for reelection and had the PLN nominate the elderly Leonardo Argüello, believing he could control Argüello from behind the scenes. Argüello ran against Enoc Aguado, a candidate supported by a coalition of political parties that included the conservatives and the PLI. Despite the large support for the Aguado candidacy, Somoza García subverted the electoral process by using government resources and the National Guard to ensure the electoral victory of his candidate. Argüello was sworn in on May 1, 1947, and Somoza García remained as chief director of the National Guard.

Argüello had no intention of being a puppet, however, and in less than a month, when Argüello's measures began to challenge Somoza García's power, the National Guard chief staged a coup and placed a family associate, Benjamín Lacayo Sacasa, in the presidency. The administration of United States president Harry S. Truman responded by withholding diplomatic recognitions from the new Nicaraguan government. In an effort to legitimize the new regime and win United States support, Somoza García named a Constituent Assembly to write a new constitution. The assembly then appointed Somoza García's uncle, Víctor Román Reyes, as president. The constitution of 1947 was carefully crafted with strong anticommunist rhetoric to win United States support. Despite efforts by Somoza García's to placate the United States, the United States continued its opposition and refused to recognize the new regime. Under diplomatic pressure from the rest of Latin America, formal diplomatic relations between Managua and Washington were restored in mid-1948.

Despite its anticommunist rhetoric, the government promoted liberal labor policies to gain support from the communist party of Nicaragua, known as the Nicaraguan Socialist Party (Partido Socialista Nicaragüese--PSN) and thwarted the establishment of any independent labor movement. The government approved several progressive laws in 1945 to win government support from labor unions. Concessions and bribes were granted to labor leaders, and antigovernment union leaders were displaced in favor of Somoza García loyalists. However, after placement of pro-Somoza García leaders in labor unions, most labor legislation was ignored. In 1950 Somoza García signed an agreement with conservative general Emiliano Chamorro Vargas that assured the Conservative Party of one-third of the congressional delegates as well as limited representation in the cabinet and in the courts. Somoza García also promised clauses in the new 1950 constitution guaranteeing "commercial liberty." This measure brought back limited support from the traditional elite to the Somoza García regime. The elite benefited from the economic growth of the 1950s and 1960s, especially in the cotton and cattle export sectors. Somoza García again was elected president in general elections held in 1950. In 1955 Congress amended the constitution to allow his reelection for yet another presidential term.

Somoza García had many political enemies, and coups against him were attempted periodically, even within the National Guard. For protection, he constructed a secure compound within his residence and kept personal bodyguards, independent of the National Guard, with him wherever he went. Nevertheless, on September 21, 1956, while attending a PLN party in León to celebrate his nomination for the presidency, Somoza García was fatally wounded, by Rigoberto López Pérez, a twenty-seven-year- old Nicaraguan poet, who had managed to pass through Somoza García's security. The dictator was flown to the Panama Canal Zone, where he died eight days later.

Somoza García was succeeded as president by his eldest son Luis Somoza Debayle. A United States-trained engineer, Luis Somoza Debayle was first elected as a PLN delegate in 1950 and by 1956 presided over the Nicaraguan Congress. After his father's death, he assumed the position of interim president, as prescribed in the constitution. His brother Anastasio "Tachito" Somoza Debayle, a West Point graduate, took over leadership of the National Guard. A major political repression campaign followed Somoza García's assassination: many political opponents were tortured and imprisoned by guards under orders from Anastasio Somoza Debayle and the government imposed press censorship and suspended many civil liberties. When the Conservative Party refused to participate in the 1957 elections--in protest of the lack of freedom imposed by the regime--the Somoza brothers created a puppet opposition party, the National Conservative Party (Partido Conservador Nacional-- PCN), to give a democratic facade to the political campaign. Luis Somoza Debayle won the presidency in 1957 with little opposition. During his six-year term, from 1957 to 1963, his government provided citizens with some freedoms and raised hopes for political liberalization. In an effort to open up the government, Luis Somoza Debayle restored the constitutional ban on reelection.

In 1960 Nicaragua joined El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras (Costa Rica joined later) in the establishment of the Central American Common Market (CACM--see Appendix B). The main objective of the regional economic group was to promote trade among member countries. Under this partnership, trade and manufacturing increased, greatly stimulating economic growth. Furthermore, in the international political sphere, Luis Somoza Debayle's anticommunist stance won government favor and support from the United States. In 1959 Nicaragua was among the first nations to condemn the Cuban Revolution and to accuse Fidel Castro Ruz of attempting to overthrow the Nicaraguan government. The Luis Somoza Debayle government played a leading role in the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961, allowing the Cuban exile brigade to use military bases on the Caribbean coast to launch the failed maneuver.

Trusted friends of the Somoza family held the presidency from 1963 until 1967. In 1963 René Schick Gutiérrez won the presidential election; Somoza García's younger son, Anastasio Somoza Debayle, continued as chief director of the National Guard. Shick gave the appearance of following the less repressive programs of Luis Somoza Debayle. President Schick died in 1966 and was succeeded by Lorenzo Guerrero Gutiérrez.


When poor health prevented Luis Somoza Debayle from being a candidate, his brother Anastasio ran in the 1967 presidential election. To challenge the candidacy of Anastasio Somoza Debayle, the conservatives, the PLI, and the Christian Social Party (Partido Social Cristiano-PSC) created the National Opposition Union (Unión Nacional Opositora-UNO). The UNO nominated Fernando Agüero as their candidate. In February 1967, Anastasio Somoza Debayle was elected president amidst a repressive campaign against opposition supporters of Agüero. Two months later, Anastasio's brother Luis died of a heart attack. With his election, Anastasio Somoza Debayle became president as well as the director of the National Guard, giving him absolute political and military control over Nicaragua. Corruption and the use of force intensified, accelerating opposition from populist and business groups.

Although his four-year term was to end in 1971, Anastasio Somoza Debayle amended the constitution to stay in power until 1972. Increasing pressures from the opposition and his own party, however, led the dictator to negotiate a political agreement, known as the Kupia-Kumi Pact, which installed a three-member junta that would rule from 1972 until 1974. The junta was established in May 1972 amidst opposition led by Pedro Joaquín Chamorro Cardenal and his newspaper La Prensa. Popular discontent also grew in response to deteriorating social conditions. Illiteracy, malnourishment, inadequate health services, and lack of proper housing also ignited criticism from the Roman Catholic Church, led by Archbishop Miguel Obando y Bravo. The archbishop began to publish a series of pastoral letters critical of Anastasio Somoza Debayle's government.

On December 23, 1972, a powerful earthquake shook Nicaragua, destroying most of the capital city. The earthquake left approximately 10,000 dead and some 50,000 families homeless, and destroyed 80 percent of Managua's commercial buildings. Immediately after the earthquake, the National Guard joined the widespread looting of most of the remaining business establishments in Managua. When reconstruction began, the government's illegal appropriation and mismanagement of international relief aid, directed by the Somoza family and members of the National Guard, shocked the international community and produced further unrest in Nicaragua. The president's ability to take advantage of the people's suffering proved enormous. By some estimates, his personal wealth soared to US$400 million in 1974. As a result of his greed, Anastasio Somoza Debayle's support base within the business sector began to crumble. A revived labor movement increased opposition to the regime and to the deteriorating economic conditions.

Anastasio Somoza Debayle's intentions to run for another presidential term in 1974 were resisted even within his own PLN. The political opposition, led by Chamorro and former Minister of Education Ramiro Sacasa, established the Democratic Liberation Union (Unión Democrática de Liberación--Udel), an opposition group that included most anti-Somoza elements. The Udel was a broad coalition of business groups whose representation included members from both the traditional elite and labor unions. The party promoted a dialogue with the government to foster political pluralism. The president responded with increasing political repression and further censorship of the media and the press. In September 1974, Anastasio Somoza Debayle was reelected president.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress