Before entering into this topic, we should state that this article is merely historical, without any relation with the Nicaraguan political world.
Every year on July 19, hundreds of people from all over the country gather at Plaza La Fe (also known as Plaza de la Revolución) in Managua to commemorate a historical and inspiring event: the fall of the militarized Somaza family dictatorship. This family ruled the country in a harsh and unscrupulous way for more than four decades. The dynasty was overthrown after the National Sandinista Revolution, which took place when people from all sectors – workers, businessmen, peasants, students, and guerrillas – joined forces and finally defeated the Somoza dynasty and the National Guard on July 19, 1979.
Unfortunately, nowadays this celebration and the whole heritage of the Revolution is monopolized with proselytizing ends by a political party. Consequently, thousands of Nicaraguans do not anymore identify themselves with this important moment of national history that had the friendliness and solidarity of the entire world. Others do not anymore attend the gathering at the plaza; instead, they celebrate in their own neighborhoods or houses.
Before the Revolution
The symbol and direct precedent of the revolution is the struggle of General Augusto C. Sandino (1895-1934), a national hero who fought with bravery, supported by an army formed by farmers and workers. He fought against the armed intervention of the United State in Nicaragua, done under the pretext of ensuring peace and democracy in the country.
Sandino and his “small and crazy army”, as the Chilean writer Gabriela Mistral called it, fought US marines in the mountains of the Segovias, the northern part of the country. His tactics where so effective that even though they were outnumbered and even though the Marines were technologically superior, Sandinos army was never eliminated by foreign soldiers. The Marines finally left the country, leaving behind a Nicaraguan army that was then known as the National Guard (“Guardia Nacional”), led by a national military man trained in the United States: Anastacio Somoza García, known as “Tacho”.
After the marines retreated, Sandino wanted to negotiate peace and let the life of his soldiers turn back to normal. He was called by the president José María Moncada and by Somoza to negotiate. Sadly, Sandino was betrayed, captured and executed. Even nowadays, the place where the body of this hero is buried remains unknown.
With time and political astuteness Somoza García took power in 1937. His unconditional alliance with the United States (with whom he negotiated at the country’s expense) and his complete control of the National Guard guaranteed him his totalitarian “throne”, where contrarian politicians were controlled using terror methods and sometimes by massive executions. Nevertheless, in September 1956 Rigoberto López Pérez, a young poet from León, scarified his life when he shot the dictator during a social celebration that took place in the city of León. Rigoberto was killed at the same place. Somoza survived the bullets, but died later in a Panamanian hospital where he was transferred to.
Somoza García’s oldest son Luís Somoza then took over the presidency, while the National Guard was led by the youngest son, Anastacio Somoza Debayle, also known as “Tachito” (trained in the United States just like his father), who started a repression movement in León after his father’s death, against those who he considered political enemies.
In 1967 Luis Somoza Debayle was still occupying the presidency (although he did not govern for 11 years, he alternated power with another politician of that time), but suddenly died. After the government of a marionette president, “Tachito “, his younger brother won the national elections and restored the dictatorial repressive and devouring regime.
Even though his father had acquired various real estate properties, businesses and industries that then became his and his family’s patrimony, Somoza Debayle continued to indiscriminately collect more and more wealth. At the end of 1972, when a devastated earthquake hit Managua, a big part of foreign aid brought to Nicaragua was deviated to the dictator’s warehouse. This aid was commercialized and auctions put in place for the reconstruction of the city (paid by public money and international aid) were won by Somoza’s businesses and their allies.
The social distress was increasing, but the National Guard could strongly submit any public declaration by torturing and executing political opponents and people from the general population.
Beginning of the struggle
The strong subjection of Nicaragua and its population to the wishes of Somoza and his private army resulted in the creation of a military movement in 1962 that intended to defeat the dictatorship. The movement was named after Sandino and this is how the “Sandinista National Liberation Front” (Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional –FSLN) was born, founded by a group of intellectuals and volunteers led by the young Carlos Fonseca.
The beginning of this organization was tough, due to the inequality in combat. Its first military action ended in a massacre because the group was surrounded by the National Guard and the Honduran army at the national border in the department of Jinotega, a place that used to be the setting of numerous battles directed by Sandino against North American marines.
In spite of the initial defeat, the FSLN did not succumb. Some peasants, students and even big landowners joined in an active form or as accomplices. As time went by, the “anti-somocista” ideology began to embrace revolutionary views while increasing military power and propaganda efforts to build a sense of consciousness in the working sectors, universities and schools. Even though the guerilla was pushed back to the mountains due to the National Guard’s force, the mere existence of this opposition army made the gradual involvement of more and more people possible.
Somoza still was completely in control. The guerrilla actions in urban and rural zones were repelled and in 1967 a second organized move was knocked down after several combats in the northern region of the country. The remnant Sandinistas were forced to disperse in much more remote areas.
Nevertheless, the movement did not die. In 1969, a small group of battlers hidden in a house in Managua was discovered by the National Guard, and a battle took place almost as if it was a movie scene. Three hundred soldiers, tanks and planes were sent to destroy the hidden guerrillas. The battle lasted several hours until there was no more answer to the attack. When soldiers entered the house seeking for bodies they realized that the entire combat was fought by a single young man, Julio Buitrago, who stayed inside the house so that his partners could escape.
Somoza showed the battle on TV to demonstrate the FSLN’s destruction, but the heroic action of a single man turned the entire situation around and the population was moved by the event and identified themselves even more with the revolutionary movement. Other unequal battles took place in several cities.
Continuous and diversified actions of the guerrillas at several points of the country provoked a strong repression by the National Guard. Through threats, tortures and spying the National Guard achieved the apprehension or annihilation of collaborators, clandestine groups and guerrilla leaders who were dispersed in mountains and cities. Then, in 1970, the FSLN started with a so-called period of “accumulation of forces in silence”, during which they reduced their attacks to a minimum and focused their concentration at strengthening the organization, its incidence in the different sectors, the military preparation of its members and the compilation of war resources and those of other nature.
Four years later, the movement initiated public combat. They organized attacks all over the country. Furthermore, an urban action with high political value took place in the house of an aristocrat, Jose María Castillo, Somoza’s friend, who organized an elite party. Here, the guerillas entered the house and kidnapped several diplomats and government officials. The National Guard could not attack, so they decided to accept demands, including the publication of a manifesto, the liberty of political prisoners and a monetary reward. Battlers also negotiated their flight out of the country.
Somoza declared a state of siege and started an indiscriminate repression against collaborators or against any suspect. The following years were of strong combats in cities and rural areas; more and more people were getting involved with the guerilla.
In 1976 the highest leader of the FSLN, Carlos Fonseca, was unexpectedly killed. Another leader, Eduardo Contreras (who directed the assault against Castillo’s house), was also murdered. After these killings, the FSLN was divided in three tendencies that continued their fight independently: FSLN Proletario (Proletarian FSLN), FSLN Guerra Popular Prolongada (Prolonged Popular War FSLN), and FSLN Insurreccional (Insurrectionist FSLN).
At the end of the following year one of the tendencies – the FSLN Insurrectionist – organized a strong urban offense with direct attacks to all National Guard barracks in various cities. At the beginning, the majority of the actions were successful but Somoza’s army superiority moved the balance around. Nevertheless, that same year a public manifesto of “Grupo de los Doce” (Group of The Twelve) encouraged the support of the battle against the dictatorship. This group was formed by twelve civil personages who were exiled by Somoza.
The following year, in 1978, Pedro Joaquín Chamorro, director of the national newspaper La Prensa (directly opposing Anastasio Somoza Debayle), was murdered. This action was attributed to the dictator and the capital city’s population protested. Moreover, this caused a more expressive hate of the national business class.
This same year, a month later, an insurrection started at the local indigenous neighborhood Monimbó in Masaya. At this time, the world had more interest in the Nicaraguan conflict. Interest was intensified when in August a guerilla commando of the FSLN Insurrectionist took over the National Palace in Managua (where the Congress gathered), kidnapping congressmen and senators. Again, the dictatorship had no other choice than to accept demands: liberate prisoners, publish a revolutionary note and allow the departure of the commando.
A year later, in 1979, several battle settings were organized all over the country. The Somoza dictatorship made their attacks against the guerrilla stronger, affecting the entire population. Bomb attacks were undiscriminating; bombs were thrown over houses in cities where the National Guard was being attacked.
In March, the three tendencies concluded a unification agreement creating, in this way, a single FSLN, motivating the entire population to start an attack at the end of June. In fact, it was in June when the guerrilla moved all its combatants in order to gather in Managua. Moreover, a general strike was organized with the participation of workers and even businessmen, an indicator of hate of the dictatorship.
Again, there was an insurrection in several departments and cities. Somoza organized a powerful attack against those cities, killing many civilians. Nevertheless, the FSLN, supported by the entire population, could not be stopped. One by one, each city was liberated from Somoza’s control.
Somoza’s previous ally, the United States, started to see him with bad eyes, just as the general international opinion. The US opinion deteriorated when a North American journalist was murdered. Even though the dictator tried to accuse the guerillas, another reporter had recorded the event. The government of the United States asked Somoza to step down from power before a public downfall, in order to avoid a new revolutionary government.
However, Somoza tried to defeat the national rebellion. It was impossible. On July 17, Somoza, his collaborators, and leaders of the National Guard left the country, taking a huge fortune with them. A Somoza supporter, Francisco Urcuyo, headed the presidency and asked the Sandinistas to stop attacks. His government lasted only 24 hours, after which he abandoned the country. The National Guard finally surrendered.
On July 19, 1979, thousands of guerillas and civilians entered the Plaza de la Republica, in the old center of Managua, where the whole population celebrated the definite fall of the Somoza dynasty. It was a national celebration and the opportunity to create a new Nicaragua.
A Government Assembly for the National Reconstruction was organized, formed by five members - nobles and Sandinistas leaders among them. Reforms started to be held in order to take the country out of the post war disaster and to promote social justice at all levels. Banks were nationalized and properties were expropriated from the Somoza family and their allies. Furthermore, as a sign of total victory a National Crusade of Alphabetization (an illiteracy campaign) was organized, reducing the illiteracy rate from 53% to 12%. This program was admired worldwide.
Somoza, who first left to the United States and then settled in Paraguay, was murdered in 1980 by an Argentinean guerrilla commando called “Montoneros”. His collaborators settled in Miami, Florida (United States) where they became a powerful local political group.
The leftist characteristics of the new Nicaraguan government were not accepted by the United States, due to its affinities with the Cuban communist leader Fidel Castro. Consequently, an economic blockade started in 1981. This further united Nicaragua and the socialist block of the Soviet Union, creating a harsh attitude of their powerful northern neighbor.
Despite this situation, Nicaragua had won huge international sympathy and several countries (also from Europe) started to collaborate with the reconstruction of Nicaragua. Organizations and private individuals also helped, which made the existence of various nationalities in the country commonplace.
The remnants of the National Guard, who settled in Honduras, Costa Rica, and Miami, soon received enormous financial clandestine support from the government of the United States and organized the so called “Contrarrevolución Nacional” (the National Counterrevolution). Their army was known as “La Contra” and war started once again, hurting the fragile Nicaraguan economy as a result of war expenses.
The FSLN called for national elections and their leaders formed a leftist political party, that later, in 1984, won the election by a comfortable gap. However, the war incremented the public distress and errors committed by the Sandinista government caused the enrollment of many ‘campesinos’ (peasants) to the Contra (mainly in the Caribbean coast).
In 1985, the government of the United States dictated a commercial embargo to Nicaragua, supported by the fact that Nicaragua adopted a pro-communist attitude. The US threatened the Nicaraguan government several times with military intervention. Nevertheless, the international opinion discreetly supported the revolutionary government when the secret Contra funding by the US government was discovered (Iran-Contra affair). Moreover, the International Court in The Hague ruled that the United States had to stop any indirect hostility and it had to pay a multi-million indemnification to the very impoverished Nicaragua. However, this turned out to be a merely symbolic victory.
Nicaragua was gradually being destructed and consumed by war; the victims were numerous. In 1988, after a strong attack of the national government agains the Contras, peace negotiations started to take place. In 1989, the Sandinista government signed an agreement that stated that elections where going to be held the following year. In those elections, the Sandinistas were overpowered against all expectations.
This, for many, was the end of the revolution. A major part of the Nicaraguan population started to reject the Sandinista movement due to many mistakes made by its leaders. However, the FSLN continued to be one of the strongest Nicaraguan political parties, even though many of its historical leaders have left the party as a result of political differences.
We would like to thank Oscar Navarrete for facilitating several photos.