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The Man Who Made The Yanquis Go Home
Starting with thirty “liberated” rifles, Augusto Sandino forced American troops out of Nicaragua in 1933
August/September 1985 | Volume 36, Issue 5
“My comrades in arms, señor,” answered Sandino. “I owe my rank neither to traitors nor to invaders.” Again a confrontation was averted by those present, and when Sandino asked permission to consult with his guerrillas, Moncada let him go in the naive hope that the young officer would disarm in the mountains.
“I spent three wretched, depressed days in the Comun heights, wondering what attitude I would take,” Sandino recalled. “I didn’t want my soldiers to see me weeping. … Finally I broke the chain of doubt and resolved to fight, feeling I was the one called to raise Nicaragua’s protest against the sellout and that bullets were the only defense of our sovereignty.”
Stimson, assured by Moncada that Sandino would disarm, proclaimed the civil war ended. The Díaz government secured a one-million-dollar loan from a New York bank to offer any Nicaraguan ten dollars for each surrendered rifle or machine gun. American planes took to the skies to drop leaflets announcing this across the entire country. In the highlands Sandino learned of the reward and immediately moved his men farther into the mountains, away from temptation. Nevertheless, in that poor country, many deserted. When Moncada grew worried about Sandino’s extended silence, he sent as an emissary don Gregorio Sandino to remonstrate with his son. “In this world,” the father warned, “saviors end up on crosses, and the people are never grateful.” But it was the father’s mind that was changed, and don Gregorio wrote to his other son, Sócrates, urging him to join Augusto.
It soon became apparent to all that Sandino was unmovable. He signaled his defiance by raiding the American gold mine at San Albino, in which he had once worked. Gold and cash receipts he appropriated for the cause were less important than the dynamite he seized. It would be used to manufacture crude “Sandino bombs” from sardine tins.
American reaction was swift. The American legation in Managua accused him of “audacious and vicious acts of banditry,” and Capt. G. D. Hatfield demanded that the Nicaraguan present himself to the small Marine garrison at Ocotal for surrender. Otherwise, he wrote, “You will be proscribed and placed outside the law, hunted wherever you go and repudiated everywhere, awaiting an infamous death: not that of the soldier who falls in battle but that of the criminal who deserves to be shot in the back by his own followers.”
“I will not surrender,” replied Sandino’s letter. “I want a free country or death.”
On July 16 he led a small band of Sandinistas, augmented by nearly eight hundred unarmed peasants, or campesinos, against Hatfield’s little garrison. Guerrillas quickly overran Ocotal except for the two-story adobe city hall and the municipal square it commanded, where they were halted by the Marines’ machine guns. The battle raged for more than half a day until five American planes arrived to bomb and strafe the attackers, who fled into the jungle.
News of the engagement created a small furor in America. First reports contrasted Marine losses of one dead and two wounded to the campesinos’ three hundred casualties. President Coolidge praised the Marine aviators for their heroism, but other Americans were horrified. The Illinois governor Edward Dunne dispatched an open letter to the President that blasted the use of airplanes against troops having no antiaircraft guns or planes of their own. The liberal weekly The Nation wrote: “The United States created the anarchy which it is now attempting to suppress. … What law excused the use of American Marines on Nicaraguan battlefields or of American bombing planes for mass murder?” At least two senators, Borah and Walter F. George of Georgia, denounced Coolidge’s Nicaraguan policy.
A few days after the battle of Ocotal, telegraph operators in Central America intercepted a proclamation from Sandino. His motive in attacking the garrison was to show that the Sandinistas were not bandits, he said. “We prefer death to slavery, for the peace obtained by Moncada is not the peace that can give liberty to men. …”
A British newspaper wrote about Coolidge’s Nicaraguan policy: “The United States is finding out, as we found out long ago, how slippery is the slope of imperialism.”
Rear Admiral Latimer, having been honorably relieved of his Central American command, reported to Washington. “Conditions in Nicaragua today are better than when the revolution started,” he said. “The recent activity of Sandino has no political bearing or significance.” The State Department promised the “bandit” would be “annihilated.”
The Nicaraguan highlands, where the Sandinistas were hiding, were historically impossible to govern effectively even in peaceful times. Some thirty thousand square kilometers in all, the Segovias were reached from the Caribbean coast by crossing a succession of inland swamps, which were replaced as one moved west by thickly forested plains that rose to overgrown mountains. One river, the Coco, drained the mountains, and it was unnavigable except by rafts or Indian canoes.