August/September 1985 | Volume 36, Issue 5
Starting with thirty “liberated”
rifles, Augusto Sandino forced American troops out of Nicaragua in 1933
Rear Adm. Julian L. Latimer stood on the bridge of his flagship, the USS Rochester, as it nosed into the harbor of Puerto Cabezas, on Nicaragua’s northeastern Mosquito Coast. It was Christmas Eve, 1926, and the fifry-seven-year-old West Virginian had been called abruptly away from family festivities at the Canal Zone naval station at Balboa.
Rear Admiral Latimer could see Puerto Cabezas clearly: with its sawmill and rows of workers’ shacks, it looked like a Georgia lumber town. But it was owned lock, stock, and barrel by the Standard Fruit Company, which used it as a shipping point for the mahogany produced by the company’s vast plantations in the interior. American-owned the town may have been, but the Rochester was there, along with two other warships, the Cleveland and the Denver , because Puerto Cabezas currently was occupied by people the U.S. State Department viewed as hostile.
A civil war between Nicaraguan Liberals and Conservatives, erupting in the aftermath of the country’s 1924 election and a subsequent coup, had drawn Washington’s attention when deposed Liberals appealed for outside aid to help reestablish their “constitutionally elected” coalition government. Led by Dr. Juan B. Sacasa, the Liberals had been able to enlist only one ally—Mexico. Rather than helping their cause, this sealed their fate. The Coolidge administration was squabbling heatedly with the ruling Mexican Liberal party over Mexican laws curbing foreign ownership of property and restricting gringo oil leases. Among certain circles in the United States, such economic nationalism was nothing but “bolshevism.”
The Rochester and its accompanying warships owed their presence in Nicaraguan waters at least outwardly to the call of Adolfo Díaz, a Conservative who had been installed as president with American approval. He was disliked at home because he was unable to rule without the presence of U.S. Marines. During a term of office fourteen years before, Díaz’s call for Yanqui help had cost a thousand Nicaraguan lives and millions in state debts. This time, invoking a highly questionable threat, Díaz claimed that the Liberal army had been beefed up by “three hundred Mexican bolsheviks.” The U.S. State Department quickly responded—citing the “spectre of a Mexican-fostered Bolshevistic hegemony intervening between the United States and the Panama Canal.”
Rear Admiral Latimer might have expected only a short postponement of his Christmas celebration as his squadron anchored in the harbor opposite the building that housed the Sacasa government. The Liberals had abandoned their initial capital, in the Caribbean port of Bluefields, only days before—at first sight of the warships. And now on this Christmas Eve it seemed that they were also to lose control of Puerto Cabezas. As swarms of bluejackets trooped through the town searching Sacasa’s residence and posting sentries every few yards, Latimer declared that, effective 4:00 P.M. Christmas Day, everything “within rifle range” of American properties would be “neutralized.” The action was not an intervention in the internal affairs of Nicaragua, he explained; it was simply a measure to protect American lives and property.
Dr. Sacasa—who still called himself president—protested the “bellicose display,” saying that he had no quarrel with Americans or designs on their holdings. But he and his ministers and generals looked on, powerless, as bluejackets disarmed all Nicaraguan soldiers left within Latimer’s neutral zone. Seven hundred tons of weapons and ammunition, purchased earlier by the Liberals in New Orleans, were confiscated and piled alongside the harbor—destined to be dumped in the bay.
Before this could be done, an unlikely squad of six Liberal soldiers and a group of port prostitutes stole over to the pile of confiscated weaponry. They managed to grab thirty rifles and six thousand cartridges. Their leader, an unprepossessing little man whose name was Augusto César Sandino, had, a few weeks before, floated in a dugout canoe for nine days down the Coco River from the interior highlands to secure some weapons for his irregulars. Of all the officers in the Liberal ranks, Sandino alone planned to ignore Admiral Latimer’s directive to disarm, beginning a pattern of defiance that would bedevil and divide the United States for six bloody and costly years. In weeks Latimer’s force of 16 warships, 215 officers, 3,900 soldiers, and 865 Marines would prove insufficient to effectively occupy Nicaragua. By then the name Sandino had already come to stand for more than just the man.
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. …”
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.
The appearance of a scruffy young irregular from the mountains did not visibly impress the urbane Dr. Sacasa nor his war minister, José María Moncada. Graying, convivial, and pro-American, a former schoolmaster and journalist, General Moncada knew Sandino’s father well, from local political work, and viewed Augusto as something of a backslider. The young man had adopted a jaunty guerrilla’s outfit, the most striking elements being his large, shovel-shaped Stetson cowboy hat (which dwarfed his prematurely lined face), bandoleros crossing his chest, and a formidable pair of riding boots. For his part, Sandino thought Moncada possessed questionable Liberal credentials, as the elder general had served in Díaz’s cabinet during his earlier administration. Thus Sandino did not react well when the “renegade conservative” haughtily turned down his plea for arms.
Moncada irritated him further by telling him, after Sandino had stolen guns from the confiscated pile, to return to the mountains—and to leave the rifles behind. Other Liberal leaders temporarily defused the situation, and Sandino left for San Rafael del Norte in the Segovias. News of his flamboyant action at Puerto Cabezas was already becoming mythical among the ranks of Liberal soldiers. In time the legend would tell of Sandino not only going hungry to feed his troops and the poor but also dreaming clairvoyant dreams and sending forth mysterious “waves” that psychically linked his fighters. But in 1927 the legend was young—more concerned with moral righteousness and machismo. Soldiers began migrating from the Sacasa-Moncada forces to be with Sandino, who had grown disgusted with the traditional politicos and had decided the revolution would have to be saved from them. Sacasa was only inept, he felt, but the more ambitious Moncada bore watching. “Moncada will at the very first opportunity sell out to the Americans,” he wrote in early 1927.
The minister of war’s personal ambition was soon unveiled. Not only Sacasa but also his sworn enemy, the Conservative Díaz, told the Americans they would abdicate their leadership in favor of a third man, and General Moncada began to maneuver himself into the spotlight. Inevitably he clashed with Sandino, the commander of the only other organized Nicaraguan army. Soon after Sandino left Puerto Cabezas, he defeated a large Conservative force at El Bejuco, capturing thousands of rifles and millions of cartridges, and Moncada’s ill-equipped soldiers began showing up among the Sandinistas. Furious, Moncada attempted, unsuccessfully, to have Sandino killed.
Meanwhile, President Díaz’s foreign aid continued to arrive. On February 21 the Navy Department announced that 5,414 American servicemen were on duty in Nicaragua or on their way there. Washington began to sell munitions on credit to the bankrupt Díaz government. None of this sat well with Sen. William E. Borah of Idaho, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who had long been voicing doubts about entanglements in Latin America. Decrying a U.S. “mahogany and oil policy” that put protection of property above questions of right and wrong, Borah demanded that the troops be recalled.
Patiently the administration repeated the rationale: the intervention was strictly “neutral”; communists in “Mexico and other Latin American countries” were committing anti-American acts, and citizens’ lives and property were endangered. Increasingly the Monroe Doctrine was cited. In April, President Coolidge spoke, promising to protect United States citizens wherever they might be. He added, “We are not making war on Nicaragua any more than a policeman on the street is making war on passersby.”
Coolidge’s soothing words fell upon uneasy ears. Walter Lippmann, then writing for the New York World, complained that the United States had “neither been honestly neutral, nor have we honestly intervened. We have combined the worst features of both policies.” The London Spectator commented, “The United States is finding out, as we found out long ago, how slippery is the slope of imperialism.”
Plainly Coolidge did not enjoy what was going on. Marines, simply by their presence, were coming under fire. To avert a political and military disaster, the President appointed Henry L. Stimson, a former Secretary of War, to mediate between the embattled parties. But the peace conference, which began on May 4 outside Managua, satisfied no one but the United States. Under threat of American force, the armies of both Díaz and Sacasa were instructed to disarm. Díaz would complete his term, followed by an American-supervised election. Stimson (it was whispered) obtained Moncada’s cooperation by promising him the presidency in 1928.
Sandino began to suspect Moncada when a Liberal war council convened to vote on the disarming. Moncada assured his subordinates that this defeat was actually a victory, since the 1928 election would doubtlessly return them to power. Of twelve Liberal generals, only Sandino refused to commit himself, turning down promised rewards of money and land. The chilly relations between the two men worsened when Moncada angrily blurted out, “And who made you a general?”
“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. …”
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.
Months of search and foray by American troops through the cordillera ended in the last days of 1927. Col. L. M. Gulick, commander of the 2d Marine Brigade, learned through spies of Sandino’s whereabouts—on a nearly impregnable mountain in the Segovias called El Chipote. Harold Norman Denny, a New York Times correspondent, described the territory: “Chipote was a mile-high mountain overgrown with forests looming above the valleys at its base like the prow of a titanic battleship,” he wrote. “Its flanks extended back fifteen miles and in the center of this triangle was the house in which lived Sandino, surrounded by a small picked bodyguard. The prow of the mountain was studded with trenches and machine gun nests, and at the top were quarters for men and storehouses for supplies. Sandino, the neighboring Indians said, had boasted that it never could be taken.”
An American Marine patrol along with a detachment of the Nicaraguan National Guard and a large convoy of pack mules were dispatched by Colonel Gulick to attempt to storm the mountain. It was a tragic blunder. The patrol was surprised on a cliffside trail, and its captain was badly wounded in the first attack. The men rallied, taking their dead and wounded with them as they pushed forward to a level place where they held off waves of attackers. A reinforcing column fought its way to their side on January 1, 1928. The combined force was besieged in a hamlet called Quilali for a week by Sandinist snipers in the overlooking hills.
With five killed and twenty-three badly wounded, the beleaguered Marines appealed for aid in an ingenious way. They had no radio, so they strung wires between poles to which were attached messages. Airplanes snagged these with grappling hooks. In an era when aviation exploits made headlines daily (it was only seven months since Lindbergh had flown the Atlantic), what followed thrilled the world. A pilot, C. F. Schilt, volunteered to rescue the wounded. A single lane ran through Quilali, and the Marines widened this by demolishing the adjoining board-and-adobe houses with their bare hands until an airstrip was created. While a brother aviator strafed the surrounding hills to keep the Sandinist snipers down, Lieutenant Schilt dived into the town ten times to evacuate the wounded. It was a feat that won him a Congressional Medal of Honor.
The bravery of American aviators and ground troops notwithstanding, the incumbent Republican administration wished Nicaragua would go away. A Pan-American conference opened on January 16, 1928, in Havana, and as a contemporary historian wrote, “The sharpest debates that had ever occurred in the history of Pan-American conferences took place in a special sub-committee to which [the question of American intervention] was referred.” The attacks against the United States were led by El Salvador and Mexico, and to a somewhat lesser extent by Argentina and Chile. Even the representatives of pro-American countries acknowledged that Sandino had a wide appeal across Latin America. His dispatches and manifestos, printed word for word in many newspapers, touched Latino nerves rubbed raw by years of foreign domination. Among some elements in Latin America, Sandino’s symbolic eminence was approaching that of the two great liberators, Bolívar and Martí.
Sometimes Sandino’s program was obscured by an inchoate pan-Latin Americanism, but behind the rhetoric lay two goals: Latin ownership of natural resources, and education and jobs for the poor. Above all, Sandino believed that nothing could be accomplished until U.S. forces were out of Nicaragua.
“When [the Yankees] speak of the Monroe Doctrine, they say, ‘America for Americans,’” Sandino wrote. “Fine, well said. All of us born in America are Americans. But the imperialists have interpreted the Monroe Doctrine as ‘America for the Yankees.’ Well, to save their blond souls from continuing in error, I propose this reformulation: ‘The United States of North America for the Yankees. Latin America for the Indo-Latins.’”
By the time the conference ended, with any anti-intervention resolutions postponed until the next session, five more American destroyers were steaming toward the Nicaraguan shores, twelve hundred additional Marines were on their way there, and an air bombardment of El Chipote had blasted the mountain bare.
“During the sixteen days when we were under siege,” Sandino wrote, “the pirates’ air squadrons paid us daily visits. The first four planes would come in at 6:00 A.M. and start dropping bombs. Naturally we shot back at them, and several of their steel birds were mortally wounded. After four hours of bombing, another squadron would appear, bomb for four hours, and then be replaced by another—they kept this up till nightfall.
“The bombs did little damage to our men because we were well protected, but we lost some two hundred cavalry mounts and cattle for our table. The situation was serious because the animals’ decaying bodies made the camp insupportable. The air was full of vultures for days. They did us a service in wrecking visibility for the planes … but life there was getting tough and we decided to clear out.”
For several weeks after his stronghold was smashed, Sandino was reputed to have been killed in the bombardment. He claimed later to have staged his own funeral to aid in the deception, but when he reappeared near the town of Jinotega, alarm bells went off in Washington. Col. Charles A. Lindbergh made a barnstorming tour of Central America on behalf of the Coolidge administration; he was showered with rose petals on Latin airstrips, but many back home wondered aloud whether he had attached his name to a bad issue.
More outraged Republican and Democratic voices asked why Coolidge had committed soldiers to slaughter in Central America without first obtaining the legislators’ approval. Even Will Rogers, the revered cowboy philosopher, wondered why the country was getting involved in Nicaragua.
Diplomacy was rediscovered—it was, after all, an election year at home—and Latimer’s successor, Adm. David F. Sellers, was ordered to open a dialogue with Sandino. The guerrilla responded with a demand for withdrawal of American soldiers and the proposal that Latin American nations, not the North Americans, should supervise and guarantee free elections. As this was not part of U.S. plans, the Americans and Sandino became engaged in one of the most peppery diplomatic exchanges ever recorded. An exasperated Sellers stiffly complained of the “insolence” of “bandit” Sandino’s replies.
“Who are you, anyway?” Sandino wrote a Yankee officer. “How dare you threaten with death, and otherwise, the legitimate sons of my country? Do you think you are in the heart of Africa? Don’t believe that I am afraid of you! If you are any kind of man come out and fight it out with me single-handed on neutral ground, whenever you want.”
The unproductive correspondence continued despite the launching of a concerted drive to wipe out Sandino within two months. American forces were told to travel light and adopt the guerrillas’ tactics. “If you want to eat,” the soldiers were told, “catch a bandit and take his beans from him.”
Dispatches and official releases took on a pronounced tone of confidence in the spring of 1928, but the war was as savage and hard as all guerrilla wars. Both sides traded charges of atrocities, which, as our melancholy experience in such conflicts has shown, were at least in part accurate.
As 5,480 Marines and 2,000 National Guardsmen pursued the rebels, the first American journalist managed to find his way to Sandino’s camp. In a widely publicized series of articles and interviews, Carleton Beals, writing for The Nation, portrayed Sandino as a dedicated nationalist, politically sophisticated, capable of humor and confident. Sandino was indignant when people called him a communist or a bandit, and he was also, Beals wrote, “a bit flamboyant and boastful and with a tendency to exaggerate his successes.”
“My record is absolutely clean,” Sandino told Beals. “Any man can examine every step I have ever taken. He will never find that Sandino his life long has ever taken anything that has not belonged to him, that he has ever broken a promise, that he has ever left any place owing any man a cent.” A few minutes later the guerrilla showed Beals his ledger of army expenditures. “Everything we take in and spend is faithfully recorded here,” Sandino explained. “Today, for instance, I gave Colonel Colindres fifteen dollars, all I had at the moment, to buy clothes for five of his soldiers who escorted you from El Remango and who came in dirty and ragged. I suggested to him that he tell the shopkeeper we are poor and that he make the money go as far as possible, and if it didn’t quite stretch to send the bill to President Coolidge, who is to blame for this violation of my country.”
From his command post in the hills, Sandino appealed on the eve of the American-supervised election in 1928 to the leaders of fifteen Latin American nations. He urged them to protest diplomatically or with arms “the uncounted crimes being committed by the Government of the White House, in cold blood, in our unhappy Nicaragua.” His agents had tried to convince Indians in remote hamlets that Americans ate babies—causing prospective voters to flee into the jungle when Marines rode in to conduct registration and balloting. Such campaign dirty tricks, however, had little lasting effect.
Despite the election of General Moncada (as expected), Sandino’s popularity was growing in the cities as well as in the mountains, and the new Nicaraguan president feared that the Marines would be withdrawn by the new administration of Herbert Hoover in Washington, leaving him with no support for his regime. He tried to organize a private army but was told by the Marine commander to concentrate on nonmilitary measures such as public works if he wanted to win over the people. The National Guard, supposedly a nonpartisan police force, would eventually have its American officer corps replaced by Nicaraguans; Moncada was told to forget about armies until that time.
Sandino, who had opinions on everyone and everything, released his estimation of the new president in 1929. Moncada, he said, “is surely the most dismal and dangerous of the men who are now astride of our people, with his fakery about public works, prosperity, and grandeur—as false as it is ridiculous … the income from customs and other taxes loaded on the people goes to pay a National Guard in which bad Nicaraguans take orders from Yankee officers. … Everything [Moncada] does smells of sadness, disaster, and death.”
These words paled before Sandino’s opinion of Hoover. “Like a rabid but impotent beast, Herbert Clark Hoover, the Yankee president, hurls abuse at the head of the army that is liberating Nicaragua,” Sandino wrote. “He and Stimson are the modern assassins … who have earned the eternal curses of parents, sons, and brothers of the Marines fallen on Segovian battlefields.”
His words were brave, but the years of guerrilla warfare were beginning to take their toll on Sandino. In July 1929 he turned over command of his forces to a subordinate and traveled to Mexico. Despite his youth Sandino appeared, according to one reporter, “greatly enfeebled by ill health and the rigor of his campaign.” He planned to stay in Mexico for a brief time to recover his energy and, he hoped, to raise money in the name of Latin American brotherhood. In August, however, he wrote: “As we haven’t so far found even half a centavo divided in half, nor a pistol bullet for the cause of liberty in Nicaragua, I must wait a bit.” The Mexican. government was not entirely cordial to its guest and saw to it that Sandino stayed in the Yucatan instead of in Mexico City, where he might prove an embarrassment.
One group that responded to his fund-raising efforts was the local communist organization, but they stipulated that Sandino lend his name to their cause. Sandino balked; the communists got furious. They spread a rumor that Sandino had taken a fifty-thousand-dollar bribe to leave Nicaragua—which he hotly denied “with many picturesque Spanish adjectives,” a journalist reported —and that when Sandino returned home he would “sell out to the highest bidder.” Sandino came back to Nicaragua bearing only two submachine guns (declared for Honduran customs as “carpentry tools”), which represented all of the arsenal he was able to raise in Mexico. The subordinate he had left in command, Gen. Pedro Altamirano, had kept their enemy at bay in a year of skirmishes, but the character of warfare had changed. The Hoover administration had come to believe that all its Marine might could not defeat a popular guerrilla movement. The American troops had begun to be rotated home, and those remaining had been withdrawn to the larger towns because of the danger of ambush. Instead of ground troops, the Marines backed the national constabulary with an air force that had grown from thirty to seventy warplanes—a commitment unprecedented in the world at that time. Latin American journalists protested to Hoover in July that the planes were dropping “asphyxiating gases” on rural Nicaragua. The Navy did not rebut the charge.
The size of the Nicaraguan National Guard had risen to five thousand, swollen by a large officer corps, all of them graduates of a hastily established and expensive national military academy. The Guard existed independently of the national government; it had its own postal and telegraph systems and had absolutely no accountability to the government for expenditures. The Americans had created a new military caste.
In the mountains the National Guard, still led by Americans, had adopted guerrilla tactics. They employed espionage and they avoided towns and well-traveled routes. By the time Sandino resumed command, both sides had dispensed with the formalities of taking prisoners.
A Central American journalist who visited Sandino’s encampment gave this description of a rebel detachment coming back from a clash in the forest: “men of the most varied aspects, dried and hardened by weather and privations; some, the fewest, white-skinned and even blond; others with the light brown complexion of the local mestizo; many Indians of the mountain region with their air of abstraction; and even a black man, corpulent and with tight curly hair. Many of them wore virtual rags, their bronze skin showing through their tattered shirts or pants. Their sombreros, some of felt and others of straw, all bore the classic red and black ribbon. Less than half of them had Springfield rifles of the sort taken from the North Americans; the rest had pistol and machete or just a machete. … Behind came the mounted men, comprising about a third of the whole, riding the small tough mules of the region and a few wretched horses past their time for the slaughterhouse. … The cavalrymen ranged from graying oldsters with bent backs to boys who were really infants, twelve- and fourteen-year-olds who followed the column like seasoned veterans.”
Sandino boasted that his army was “the most disciplined, devoted, and disinterested in the entire world because it is conscious of its lofty historical role.” Certainly it was hard to defeat. Although slightly wounded in June of 1930, Sandino led his irregulars in at least nineteen skirmishes during the closing months of that year.
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.
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.
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.