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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
By then the Americans had decided to get out of Nicaragua entirely before the 1932 election. As Americans continued to get killed, the Marines were told to stay out of the nation’s interior, and civilians were warned that they could be protected only in the coastal towns. The original justification for America’s role in the war—protecting American people and property in Nicaragua…was in effect rescinded, after four years of a conflict that had cost the lives of two hundred Marines and countless Nicaraguans.
In a Washington press conference in April 1931, Hoover’s anger at the situation he had inherited was evident. He called Sandino a “cold-blooded bandit outside the civilized pale.” There was no revolutionary movement in Nicaragua, Hoover asserted, merely “sporadic disorders fomented by a murderous band.” The President was confident that Sandino would be brought to justice.
But a series of mountain and jungle battles that wore on well into 1932 further consolidated the rebels’ positions. In April, after issuing a string of announcements of an impending attack upon Managua, Sandino mounted a “victory drive” against the southern cities. Not until the end of June did the Marine-led National Guard repulse his army.
General Moncada was not only in military trouble but he found himself politically outmaneuvered. A cabal of Liberal politicians made it impossible for him to run for a second term. The less abrasive Dr. Sacasa was brought back from a sulky self-imposed exile to head the ticket.
Progressives in both the Liberal and Conservative parties indicated a willingness to sit down with Sandino after the elections, but this did not satisfy Sandino’s goal of getting the North Americans out of Nicaragua. Newspapers reported skirmishes every few days in the months preceding the American-supervised election. Sandino proclaimed a national boycott, saying that anyone going to “polling stations sentineled by Yankees will only pay lamentable homage to foreign bayonets.” A third of Nicaragua’s voting list of one hundred and fifty thousand stayed away on voting day.
Sandino’s last words, according to the firing squad, were, “My political leaders have played jokes with me.”
Barely a thousand Marines were left in the country by the time the election was over, and Dr. Sacasa had finally attained the position he had claimed back in 1926. He turned out, however, to be a poor president and was easily overshadowed by the husband of his own niece, whom he appointed—at the Americans’ insistence—as the first Nicaraguan chief of the National Guard. The man was Anastasio Somoza García.
Born in 1896 only a few miles from Sandino’s birthplace, Anastasio Somoza was the son of a politician and coffee grower. He was a difficult child, and when, at nineteen, he got the family maid pregnant, relatives packed him off to Philadelphia to learn a trade. He studied bookkeeping and advertising at the Pierce Business School, but the talents he learned that would change his life —and Nicaraguan history—were a command of American culture and an expert grasp of colloquial English.
Back in Nicaragua in 1919, Somoza changed his politics to Liberal so he could marry the daughter of a wealthy surgeon; if he had his eyes on the family money he was disappointed, for they offered no aid, and his attempts at making a living were dismal. A car dealership failed because there were few Nicaraguan roads; he picked up a pittance refereeing boxing matches, worked as an electric meter reader, and inspected privies for the Rockefeller Foundation’s Sanitation Mission to Nicaragua. He even tried his hand at counterfeiting and avoided prison only through a wealthy relative’s intercession.
His political and military skills were equally dreary, as the Liberals learned when he joined their side in the 1926 civil war. He presided over a few small defeats before attaching himself to Moncada’s staff. There he found a niche, for his smooth manner and fluent English made him a favorite with the Americans. Henry Stimson made him his translator in 1927; eighteen months later President Moncada appointed him as his personal aide, and before the end of that term the president appointed him an undersecretary for foreign affairs. During all of the years of trouble besetting Nicaragua, Somoza busied himself cementing his relationship with the Americans.
It seemed to be a natural choice to make Somoza—whose Americanized patter, salted with jokes and baseball statistics, put Marines at ease—the head of the National Guard, though he possessed no military training. Under his guidance, according to a Somoza biographer, the army would come to be known as the “best-armed, best-drilled, worst-conceived, most vicious little army in Central America.”
News of Somoza’s appointment on November 16, 1932, alarmed Sandino. From afar he had watched the career of the Yanquista, as Somoza was called. Though he habitually derided him, Sandino’s disdain camouflaged real fear. In December he warned through his spokesman that Somoza would overpower the government if the National Guard was not taken away from him and reorganized, and that President-elect Sacasa’s only chance lay in making peace with the guerrillas.