The Man Who Made The Yanquis Go Home

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Augusto César Sandino was born on May 18,1895, in the Toltec village of Niquinihomo, in southwestern Nicaragua. His father, don Gregorio, owned a small farm on which he grew coffee and raised cattle. Doña Margarita Calderón, his mother, was part Indian, and young Augusto inherited his mestizo complexion from her. From his father he inherited a passion for Liberal politics.

Augusto attended primary school before the revolution that culminated in the first Marine occupation in 1912. As a teen-ager, his education over, he had begun to manage some of his father’s lands when he witnessed the body of the popular Liberal revolutionist, Benjamin Zeledón, being brought in tied feet foremost to his horse by soldiers of President Díaz.

Sandino was compelled to leave Nicaragua in 1921 after a personal dispute with a village official (some said later Sandino had killed him). He worked in Honduras briefly, then as a laborer in Guatemala for United Fruit—his first close acquaintance with Yanqui imperialism—and later in Mexico.

Mexico at that time had become a magnet for political exiles from all over Latin America. The impressionable young Sandino drank in their debates on the merits of a Central American Union, the need for laborers’ organizations, and the popular Liberal notion of regaining control over isthmian resources. He also looked into various kinds of spiritualism. The blend of politics and mysticism would plant in him a conviction that he was “called” to perform great acts.

From Sandino’s perspective, his radicalization (he would call it his “illumination”) becomes understandable. Nicaragua’s first grievance about American intervention came in 1855, when a half-crazed Tennessee adventurer named William Walker led a private army to Nicaragua with the aim of establishing himself as the leader of a gringo paradise, with slavery its economic mainstay. He actually ruled the country for two years until some Central Americans stood him up before a firing squad.

American interest in the country increased dramatically as it became apparent that an isthmian canal was not only possible but necessary. Washington helped depose two presidents, selected two others, and snuffed out at least one revolution by landing Marines in an occupation that lasted twenty years. Long after the Panama Canal had opened, there were plans afoot to dig another sea lane across southern Nicaragua. The Wilson administration had forced through a treaty granting the United States exclusive and perpetual rights to construct such a canal. A token sum of three million dollars was appropriated by Congress for these rights—but the money was turned over to American banks to partially satisfy the enormous Nicaraguan debt. One of Sandino’s first manifestos spoke of the “robbery” of canal rights. “Theoretically,” he wrote, “they paid us three million dollars. Nicaragua, or rather the bandits who then controlled the government with the aid of Washington, received a few thousand pesos that, spread among Nicaraguan citizens, would not have bought each one a sardine on a cracker. …”

President Coolidge, promising to protect Americans, said, “We are not making war on Nicaragua any more than a policeman is making war on passersby.”

By early 1926, while Sandino pored over political tracts with the urgency of the newly converted, the United States had extensive influence throughout Central America, perhaps nowhere as much as in Nicaragua. The republic’s resources, considered under-developed, lay in the land: coffee, banana, and sugar plantations, minerals, vast tracts of mahogany and pine forests, and ample grazing land for cattle. North Americans owned or managed the lumber and gold-mining industries, most of the financial institutions, including the Nicaraguan National Bank, the railroad, and the customs house. Two American fruit companies controlled between them some three hundred thousand acres of plantations.

When Sandino learned in 1926 that the newly elected Liberal president of Nicaragua had been intimidated into resigning and that American gunboats had moved in, he decided to end his own exile and return home to help organize resistance. Withdrawing three thousand dollars of his savings, he got a job at an American-owned mine in the northern Nicaraguan highlands of Nueva Segovia and started organizing the miners. At first he sought to dissociate himself from the traditional Liberal politicians, who were distrusted because they habitually betrayed the poor, but later he decided he could succeed only by joining up with the Liberals. He heard of Sacasa’s move to Puerto Cabezas and of the seven hundred tons of imported weapons. Sandino traveled from the Segovias down to the sea, and thence to the Liberals’ stronghold. He arrived a few weeks before Admiral Latimer’s warships.