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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
The last American Marines departed on January 2, 1933, taking their planes with them. Thus, with Sandino’s main goal realized, barriers between himself and traditional politicos seemed surmountable. Therefore, when he received word from Sacasa that it was time to discuss a settlement, Sandino agreed. The peace parley ended on January 25, and Sandino announced he would fly to Managua to demonstrate his sincerity. After signing a truce, he slept in the presidential palace. And in a beneficent mood, he declared: “I have nothing against North Americans. Let them come to Nicaragua—as workers, not as bosses.” Even American newspapers that had equated him with a highwayman allowed in editorials that he was a “patriot.”
Granted amnesty, eighteen hundred guerrillas surrendered one-fourth of their arms and were given preference in public work projects and land along the Coco River for a communal enterprise. Sandino refused any compensation but retained a personal guard of one hundred men. As if to show that everything was now settled, Somoza had a photographer snap a picture of him in a back-thumping embrace with the rebel leader.
The following year was an uneasy one; Sandino learned that the absence of Americans did not automatically usher in social change. National Guardsmen made life hard for the disarmed Sandinistas; President Sacasa, concerned only with his own stability, played Somoza off against Sandino, keeping them both edgy. And though Sandino drew satisfaction from having expelled the American Army, and from the belief that his moral stance was unimpeachable, he felt a sense of imnendine doom.
In February 1934, when Sandino’s complaints of Guard cruelties to his men could be ignored no longer, Sacasa invited the former rebel to come down out of the highlands to Managua. A presidential envoy, Sonfonías Salvatierra, assured Sandino that Sacasa was planning no perfidy.
At 5:00 P.M. on February 21, Sandino and his father dined at the presidential palace. Concurrently, a council of war convened at the home of Anastasio Somoza, who told the sixteen assembled officers some astonishing news, the veracity of which has never been proved. Somoza claimed he had just come from the American Embassy, where Ambassador Arthur Bliss Lane assured him that the Washington government supported and recommended the elimination of Augusto César Sandino as a threat to Nicaraguan peace. All present signed a document committing them to the pact, which rapidly took shape.
At 10:00 P.M. Sandino, his father, two Sandinista generals, and the Sacasa aide Salvatierra said goodnight, boarded a limousine, and left the palace grounds. Several hundred yards down the road their passage was blocked by an apparently stalled truck attended by Guardsmen. A sergeant toting a Thompson machine gun ordered the Sandino party out of the car. Sandino told the men not to resist, because of the presence of his father and Salvatierra. A civilian who saw what was happening hurried back to the palace to inform Sacasa, who immediately tried to phone Somoza. There was no answer. Sandino remonstrated with the guards. “Why do this, if we’re all brothers?” he asked. “All I’ve done is fight for Nicaragua’s liberty.” He persuaded a major to call Somoza, but the officer returned a few minutes later to say he could not find him.
Sandino climbed into the truck, saying that it was obviously a military order, and “that is obeyed immediately.” His two generals followed. Don Gregorio and Salvatierra (who provided this account) were allowed their freedom.
After a short ride the three condemned men were taken to a remote place, allowed to sit on a rock, and shot. Sandino’s last words, according to the firing squad, were: “My political leaders have played jokes with me.”
Augusta’s brother Sócrates was also killed that night. Meanwhile in the remote community of Wiwili on the Coco River, National Guardsmen crept up on Sandino’s disarmed followers and slaughtered three hundred men, women, and children.
“It was pure patriotism to kill Sandino,” exulted the retired Moncada from Granada. General Somoza, present at the same celebratory banquet, said the death was inevitable, as Sandino had been planning to overthrow the government. At another banquet, this one at the American Embassy, a drunken Somoza boasted openly of having ordered the assassination. To lend legality to the murder, the National Guard began releasing “evidence” of a longstanding Sandinist plot.
President Sacasa, a virtual prisoner in his own palace, was finally ousted in a coup in 1936, succeeded by a Somoza henchman. In November of that year, Anastasio Somoza was elected president, thus beginning a brutal political dynasty that, inherited in 1956 by his son, ruled Nicaragua with American acquiescence until revolution deposed it in 1979. It is one of history’s ironies that finds Nicaragua today with rebels again in the Segovian highlands, and a shaky regime trying to survive in Managua. But many of the guerrillas are former Somozista National Guardsmen, and the government, which enshrined Sandino’s memory by appropriating his name, is Marxist, a philosophy the nationalist leader never believed in.