I. Somoza Apparatus

September 25, 2007

"Instability" has plagued Nicaragua for over a century. Despite 21 years of almost uninterrupted U.S. military occupation, followed by 42 years of U.S. - sustained Somoza rule, the problem persists. Two fundamental factors are behind the current crisis which has left the Nicaraguan people preparing for armed insurrection against this tyranny.

First, imperialist interests took an early and eager interest in Nicaragua due to its strategic geographic location. Secondly, imperialist penetration distorted the country's economy and thwarted the development of a strong, domestic bourgeoisie. As a result, successive military "solutions" were imposed to forge a political framework that did not coincide with the economic strength of the dominant class. Needless to say, it bore no relationship to the demands and needs of the Nicaraguan people. U.S. control and the historical inability of the bourgeoisie to consolidate itself are the keys to the crisis Nicaragua faces today.

To briefly explain. Nicaragua's development was late even by Central American standards. By the 1870s, there were no strong links to the world market and subsistence agriculture remained dominant. Throughout the 19th century, the native elite had been bitterly divided into two regional-family clans which, though separated by less than 200 miles, evolved out of distinct economic enclaves.

Centered in Granada were the traditional latifundists and regional merchants, closely tied to the old colonial order and to primitive forms of economic organization. They were dominated by the Chamorro family and politically represented by the Conservative Party. In Leon was a more dynamic, incipient agroexport bourgeoisie, with the Sacasa family and the Liberal Party at its center. This sector favored free trade, modernization of the country's infrastructure, appropriation of communal lands and the creation of a mobile labor force. Continual civil wars reflected fierce conflict over forms of agricultural production and the role of the state.

Inter-imperialist rivalries compounded these internal antagonisms. Central America had long been a British stronghold, but the emergence of the United States as an imperialist power threatened this hegemony. Nicaragua was not particularly rich in raw materials, nor was it developed enough to sustain significant agricultural production. But it did have one valuable resource: its lake-and-river system provided an easy trans-isthmian route, making it a desirable canal site.

Foreign attempts to gain exclusive rights over the passageway added fuel to the Conservative-Liberal feud, as Britain and the United States competed to supply and support one side and then the other.

Toward the end of the century, the spread of coffee cultivation and export to the world market stimulated basic changes in the economy. The advent of the Liberal regime of Jose Santos Zelaya in 1893 stabilized the political situation for a time. Zelaya expropriated communal lands, creating the nucleus of a rural proletariat, and redistributed them to private coffee producers. Railways, telegraphs and state banks were introduced for the first time and foreign capital flowed into the country.

Finally, an agrarian bourgeoisie began to coalesce and play a more dynamic role in moving the country toward capitalist development. Politically, however, they exceeded the limits of the role circumscribed by U.S. imperialism. Zelaya, after accepting U.S. aid to oust the British from Nicaragua's Atlantic coast, refused to grant canal rights and imposed restrictions on U.S. investors. In 1909, the United States moved to oust Zelaya. Diplomatic and eventually military support was shifted to the retrograde Conservative Party, which accepted the permanent presence of US. troops in the country and placed the economy under the control of New York banks. The development of a dynamic domestic bourgeoisie was effectively blocked.

Nicaragua's transformation into a U.S. military and financial protectorate aggravated internal social pressures. U.S. support for the ruling Conservatives helped forge a nationalist bond between the old Zelayista Liberals and the dispossessed peasantry, resulting in at least ten armed uprisings between 1913 and 1924.

When U.S. Marines were withdrawn in 1926, Conservative attempts to retain power met with armed Liberal and popular resistance. Within a matter of months the Marines were back in Nicaragua in force. Not unlike its stance in the present conjuncture, the United States was determined to both reconcile Liberal and Conservative interests and to exterminate the popular resistance to U.S. domination. A political accommodation was arranged between the two parties with only one hitch: severalLiberal leaders, led by Cesar A. Sandino, would not lay down their arms.

As Sandino's armed resistance grew stronger and more radical in its demands and anti-imperialist sentiment within the United States itself heightened, Conservative-Liberal infighting continued. Thus, the United States faced a contradiction of its own making. In the absence of a consolidated bourgeoisie in Nicaragua, there was no domestic force able to overcome the rebels.

The U.S. response to this situation was the creation of a native, "non-partisan" force called the National Guard. The Guard was to replace the Marines in their role as political arbiters, protectors of U.S. interests and exterminators of popular resistance. Over the past 45 years, the National Guard of Nicaragua has become infamous for its zealous attempts to fulfill the role carved out by U.S. imperialism.(1)


Appointed to head the National Guard (GN) was one-time used-car salesman in Philadelphia and all-time hustler, Anastasio Somoza Garcia. Although he was acting Foreign Minister under the last years of U.S. occupation and was married to the niece of the subsequent Nicaraguan President Sacasa, his greatest qualification seemed to be that he had no strong allegiance to either political faction in Nicaragua.(2) In addition, Somoza was described by Time magazine as being "well disposed" toward the United States and appropriately nicknamed "El Yanqui."(3) Thus he was chosen by the U.S. Ambassador for the most powerful post in the country.

After Juan Bautista Sacasa assumed the presidency in 1932, he attempted to enforce civilian control over the Guard. But Somoza clearly had other things in mind. He maneuvered within the Liberal Party to gain support for his presidential ambitions, promising lucrative political appointments in return. By 1935 Somoza was ready, and let it be known that he was to win the upcoming elections.

Sacasa and the Conservative Party strongly objected, appealing in vain to the United States to either discipline Somoza or send back the Marines. But Somoza was well positioned. With the opposition boycotting the contest, and the National Guard counting the ballots, Somoza won handily.(4) Until his assassination twenty years later, Anastasio ("Tacho") Somoza ran the country like a personal estate.

The indispensable prop to Somoza's accession to power was the National Guard, its loyalty firmly secured by special privileges and its complicity in Tacho's use of state power for personal enrichment. Today, the Guard continues to be the power base of Somoza's rule, with members of his family maintaining strict day-to-day control over its operations. In fact, while the Somozas have occasionally relinquished direct control of the presidency, not once has the commanding post of the Guard been outside of family hands.

Over their four decades of dynastic rule, the Somozas have also created an independent civilian-political base to reinforce their control over the Guard and the country. A complicated web of inter-relationships connects military, bureaucratic and business elements to the Somozas, tying their economic and political survival to the family's fate.

We now turn to an examination of the different elements of that system, one by one, in order to understand the regime's resiliency over the last 42 years, and to evaluate its ability to confront the unprecedented challenges of the present period.


When Tacho first took power in 1936, he owned little more than a broken-down coffee estate. By the time of his assassination in 1956, conservative estimates placed his worth at some US$60 million. His assets were said to include 10% of the nation's arable land, 51 cattle ranches, 46 coffee plantations, extensive real estate holdings in Managua, and interests in a number of business enterprises.(5)

The Somoza fortune grew as other family members succeeded each other in power. Today, it is calculated at US$400-500 million, and constitutes a full-blown, international conglomerate. Nearly one sixth of the national territory of Nicaragua and 25-30% of all arable land is in the hands of Somoza family members,(6) as well as the country's 26 largest companies.(7) A partial listing of holdings owned or controlled by the Somoza estate includes the following:

-Agricultural estates: tobacco, sugar, coffee, rice; -Processing industries: dairy, meatpacking, salt, fishing, refineries and distilleries; -Industrial enterprises: cooking oils, all cement production, construction materials, textiles, packaging; -Distributorships: motor vehicles; -Communications: newspapers, radio stations, the country's only television station; -Transportation: airlines, shipping, ports; -Banking and insurance: savings and loan companies, construction and industrial finance.(8)

In addition, the Somoza empire extends to other Central American countries, but the exact investments remain hidden under different or partial ownership, thereby obscuring the extent of their wealth.

In the United States, at present, Somoza is believed to hold shares in U.S. Steel, Pan American, Inter-Continental Hotels and a Miami-based publishing company, as well as real estate in California, the Southwest and Florida.(9)

The sources of family wealth have varied over the years, but the accumulation strategy has not. Since the 1930s, the Somozas have made systematic use of their political power to eliminate competition in the economic arena and to use government funds and institutions for personal enrichment.

Tacho, for example, freely employed the National Guard to intimidate the owners of properties he coveted, forcing them to sell below market prices. Recalcitrants faced bureaucratic if not physical harassment. Foreign traders in key raw materials (rubber, wood and gold) were obliged to pay a fixed percentage of their profits directly to the tyrant. Public works employees labored on Somoza ranches, while the National Railway and Power Companies serviced his properties.(10)

Somoza took advantage of World War II to expropriate German-owned coffee estates and to exploit emergency trade restrictions. By monopolizing the sale of export and import licenses, Somoza stockpiled basic goods until a hefty profit could be turned on the black market.

As he consolidated his political power, Somoza found it more convenient to leave the rackets (gambling, prostitution and contraband) to his subordinates and concentrate his own efforts on more "respectable" endeavors. Government institutions and U.S. aid became vehicles for expanding and centralizing his personal fortune, and for moving from predominantly agricultural investments into industrial sectors. Somoza and his associates obtained loans from the National Bank that no other citizen could obtain.(11) He used the National Development Institute (INFONAC), created in 1953 with U.S. aid, to modernize and expand family holdings. At one point, the Somoza family owed US$35 million in out-standing loans to INFONAC.(12)

During the 1960s, the Somozas used funds from the Alliance for Progress and the Central American Common Market to establish several new industries for the regional market with maximum fiscal incentives. Foreign and domestic investors stood to receive similar incentives in areas of the economy not dominated by the family, but only in return for allowing a member of the clan to become a stockholder. However, this escalating fortune needed protection.


Early on, Somoza saw the importance of nourishing a secondary political elite to partake in the spoils and thereby broaden and institutionalize the family's control. In the forefront of the Somocista elite is the National Guard-the dynasty's strongest card against the opposition.

The National Guard is an army of 7,500 recruits-not draftees. Most of the rank and file come from rural areas with high levels of unemployment. Officers come from the petty bourgeoisie, usually the sons of older officers. No officer is allowed a rank higher than Major General and family control over the highest echelons is complete: today, Somoza Debayle (Tacho's son) keeps the rank of Division General and Chief Director of the Guard; Tacho's half-brother, Jose'Somoza, is Inspector General; Tacho's grandson heads an elite counterinsurgency corps of 1500 men, which operates as an army within an army. This elite force has its own separate chain of command and budget, and an intelligence network specifically designed to root out internal dissidence.

Since its creation, the National Guard has received extensive and advanced training from the United States. But much to the dismay of its U.S. advisors, the Guard has not acquired institutional coherence or a tradition of professionalism. On the contrary, the Somozas have consciously created a personal instrument with no allegiance to a particular party or even to the bourgeois class as a whole.

Separate schools, hospitals, stores and residential areas are reserved for the National Guard. Yet the basic pay for both soldiers and officers is low, and promotions are slow and arbitrary. Advancement comes only through appointment to government posts -- personally distributed by the Somoza in power in exchange for unfailing loyalty. Tacho brought these posts -- immigration, police, traffic, customs, provincial commands-under military jurisdiction and part of the bargain is a license to steal.

Payoffs and profits from gambling, prostitution, blackmarketing and land seizures trickle down the ladder from high command to soldier. Exceptionally loyal officers can expect positions in Somoza-controlled enterprises upon retirement. Others get their share as agents for government financial dealings, and many become overnight millionaires. Officers known to favor "modernization" of the military corps soon find themselves out of favor with their superiors and exiled to remote provincial posts.

Propelled into corruption then, members of the Guard have developed a vested interest in the Somoza system. Officers in particular are well aware that they only stand to lose from any change in the political structure. Additionally, the Guard's dependence is reinforced by the resentment with which the bourgeois opposition regards the military's illicit profiteering at their expense. The fear is very real within the Guard that it might be severely purged and reduced to an ineffectual police force at the hands of the bourgeois opposition. Moreover, hated by a people incensed by its cruelty and corruption, the Guard is left with little alternative than to back Somoza. Even if the dictator is forced to step down, the military will certainly seek to insure that his successor has respectable somocista credentials. By the same token, the role and structure of the National Guard explains why revolutionary forces in Nicaragua have made the dismantling of the Guard one of their most basic demands.


Leaving no stone unturned, Somoza transformed civilian institutions to complement the military and economic foundations already laid. These civilian institutions are important for several reasons. First, by creating a parallel bureaucratic network tied to the family, they limit the relative political influence of the military. Secondly, they provide a mechanism for marshalling support from diverse sectors or, alternatively, for undercutting the strength of independent organizations. And finally, these institutions lend an illusion of constitutional democracy to a dynastic regime.

The first step toward acquiring a civilian underpinning was to seize control of the Liberal Party. As described earlier, the Liberal Party became a civilian appendage to the military apparatus at a very early stage, dominated by the Guard, with somocistas receiving important patronage positions in government and special privileges. With Congress in his pocket, the first Somoza was able to arrange for constitutional changes allowing him to extend his presidential term until 1946.

By the mid-1940s, however, it became apparent that Somoza's power could not depend exclusively on the Liberal Party-National Guard nexus. Party members challenged Somoza's bid for a new term, and anti-Somoza sentiment spread among workers, students and a business community resentful of Somoza's ruthless tactics for enrichment.

While employing the Guard to repress his opponents, Somoza also sought to broaden his base of support and divide the opposition. He created government-sponsored labor unions and promulgated a labor code that was remarkably progressive by Central American standards. However, the code, which guaranteed collective bargaining and an 8-hour day, was invoked only when it prejudiced the interests of Somoza's business opponents. In other circumstances, it remained a dead letter.(13)

Somoza's actions served to split the young labor movement internally and to divorce it from the bourgeois opposition. In the absence of mass support, both the economic and political groupings of- the opposition were no match for Somoza. He was able to reinforce his position within the Liberal Party and the National Guard.

Yet the turmoil of the mid- 40s left the Somoza apparatus badly shaken. To forestall further opposition, and as a concession to U.S. pressure for at least the appearance of constitutionality, Somoza renounced his plans for re-election in 1947. Instead, an electoral farce was staged to place Leonardo Arguello, Somoza's hand-picked candidate, in the presidency. Unexpectedly, however, Arguello tried to remove Somoza from his military post. Twenty-eight days after the inauguration, Somoza ousted his own candidate and replaced him with a family member.

A period of massive repression ensued, directed most fiercely against labor and left forces. Somoza was faced with two options at this time: to implant an outright dictatorship and close Congress, or to negotiate with his opponents in order to obtain a more "legitimate" basis for his rule. Somoza opted for the latter.

By 1950, the pact was sealed. The Conservative Party of Nicaragua, led by Emiliano Chamorro, was given one-third of the seats in Congress and various governmental posts. Indepent commercial and ranching interests were granted greater freedom of competition in the economy, and the establishment of independent banking entities was permitted. In return, the Conservatives (PCN)-accepting the status of a "loyal opposition"-approved yet another constitutional change allowing for Somoza's re-election. With these agreements, the most powerful sector of the Nicaraguan bourgeoisie lent a semblance of legitimacy to the regime, and recognized Somoza's power as the centerpiece of the country's political and economic system.(14)

Throughout the 1950s, reformist challenges were neutralized by rigged elections and a compliant Congress, while armed plots and uprisings (most of which lacked a mass base) were easily crushed by the U.S.-supported National Guard. Somoza's ability to institutionalize his rule, and to combine repression with tactical flexibility, explains the inability of the bourgeois opposition to exploit the excellent opportunity provided in 1956.

On September 21, Rigoberto Lopez Perez, acting independently of any political organization, assassinated Somoza. The opposition meekly allowed Tacho's sons, Luis and Anas tasio ("Tachito"), to assume the presidency and command the National Guard respectively. Within a few months, more than 12,000 people were arrested and for the next three years, a series on internal plots and armed invasions were brutally crushed.

By 1960, however, as a result of external pressure from the United States and the need to regain the support of the opposition, Luis Somoza was forced to resurrect the "liberalization" program of his father. He promised "honest elections" and announced that he would serve only one term. Constitutional articles prohibiting immediate re-election or succession to the presidency by a relative of the incumbent were restored.

The liberalization process had clear limits, of course. For a full 80% of Luis' tenure, the country was under martial law.(15) Repression of popular forces never ceased. Conservative Party demands for a greater role in government decision-making, and for OAS supervision of elections, were denied. As a result, the Conservatives withdrew from the 1963 elections, the Somoza-puppet Rene Schick ran against the "loyal" Conservative Party faction known as the Zancudos(16) ("Mosquitoes"--Somoza's nickname for his minor irritant), and the National Guard supervised the elections.

Schick followed the course charted by Luis some referred to as "parallelization." Once again an array of civic, social, professional and trade union organizations was created, all affiliated with the Liberal Party, to counteract the influence of independent movements. The civilian apparatus was expanded in size and sophistication, sustained by mass propaganda, family enterprises and the rapid growth of the public sector from revenues provided by U.S. development programs. Lacking an organic social base of its own, the apparatus attempted to create one from the top down. The aim was to transform somocismo from an instrument of family interests to one of class rule, as the best guarantee against a growing revolutionary movement.


Luis Somoza was considered by many to be the most politically astute member of the family.(17) His brother, Tachito, a West Point graduate and hard-liner, opposed his civilian-oriented tactics and heated disputes were reported within the family. Tachito insisted that power remain directly and entirely in family hands, specifically his own hands, with the National Guard playing a key role. As early as 1965, Tachito began to prime the party machinery in preparation for his own election in 1967. The campaign was marked by harassment of the opposition and culminated in the massacre of student protesters in January, 1967. Within months of Tachito's election, Luis' death of a heart attack resolved the family dispute.

As President, General Somoza returned to the heavy-handed tactics of his father in the 30s, including the undisguised use of office to expand his financial holdings and installing relatives and Guardsmen in key positions for which they had no experience. With their chief in command, officers of the Guard expanded their traditional abuse of authority and their illegal financial dealings.

The government was run as an extension of the Guard, with little regard for other components of the apparatus and none whatsoever for the masses. Opposition escalated in 1972, when Somoza ordered a constitutional change that would make him eligible for two consecutive 6-year terms. A faction of the Liberal Party (headed by one-time minister Ramiro Sacasa) broke with Somoza. Other opposition leaders refused to approve the maneuver, but they were unable to block its implementation.

More than ever, Somoza's power rested on the Guard and U.S. support. But even there, things were not going well. Notwithstanding pay increases and opportunities for illicit enrichment, Somoza's determined efforts to keep power in his own hands had created frictions within the Guard. The rapid promotion of Somoza's half-brother, Jose Somoza, angered the officer corps. Drug-trade scandals involving the military, and even shootouts between officers, affected morale.(18)

These developments, in conjunction with falling cotton and coffee prices, severely eroded Somoza's power base and strained his links with the bourgeoisie. His response was to create an inner circle of military and civilian cronies, and to allow them to accumulate millions of dollars through a policy of pervasive graft.

Somoza's relationship with the bourgeoisie approached a breaking point with the massive earthquake of 1972. With the city of Managua in ruins, the government's failure to deal with mass dislGcations, its inability to counter popular protests, and its uninhibited misuse of relief funds were painfully exposed. The aftermath of the earthquake accentuated these contradictions. Somoza exploited the natural disaster to expand his financial empire. Sectors previously independent of family control were swallowed up, particularly banking and the booming construction industry.


The elaborate apparatus, forged by decades of dynastic rule, has rapidly deteriorated since 1974. But the ongoing crisis in Nicaragua indicates that bourgeois sectors have been unable to develop a coherent alternative to Somoza. Moreover, the revolutionary challenge to somocismo has assumed new dimensions in the present period of crisis.

An immediate explanation lies in Tachito's ruthless drive to consolidate his political power and increase his personal fortune. The current political crisis, however, involves much more than the incompetent megalomania of a single individual. Rather, the crisis must be set in the context of a prolonged world-wide recession, engulfing Nicaragua's own weak economy. The contraction of the world economy has sharpened the conflict between social classes and within the capitalist class. In Nicaragua, Somoza's monopolistic methods of capital accumulation have irreparably alienated other sectors of the bourgeoisie.

Secondly, the crisis reflects a tactical shift in U.S. foreign policy-a carefully measured withdrawal of support away from a regime functionally dependent on the United States, and toward the search for a suitable alternative.

Third and crucial in eroding U.S. and bourgeois support for Somoza is the linkage of the aspirations of the Nicaraguan people to the political and armed organization known as the Frente Sandinista de Liberacion Nacional. _________________________________________________


1933-36 Juan B. Sacasa elected president and U.S. Marines withdraw; Anastasio "Tacho" Somoza Garcia has most powerful post in Nicaragua as director of National Guard (GN).

1936.47 Tacho Somoza elected presidentafter ousting Sacasa.

1947 Leonardo Arguello, hand-picked candidate of Somoza, elected president. Remains in office 28 days till overthrown by Somoza for attempting to act independently. Benjamin Lacayo Sacasa selected by Somoza-dominated Congress as provisional president; not recognized by U.S. Ousted by Somoza after three months.

1947-50 Victor Roman y Reyes (Somoza's uncle) selected by constituent assembly; serves till death 2 weeks before elections. Somoza unanimously chosen by Congress to succeed him.

1950-56 Tacho Somoza "re-elected" after pact with Conservative Party; term ends with assassin's bullet.

1956-57 Luis Somoza, Tacho's eldest son and president of the Senate, serves out presidential term; second son Anastasio "Tachito" Somoza, heads GN.

1957-63 Luis Somoza elected president..

1963-67 Rene Schick, hand-picked candidate of Somoza family, elected president.

1967-72 Tachito Somoza elected president

1972-74 Somoza-dominated triumvirate in nominal power after pact with opposition; following December 1972 earthquake, Tachito Somoza assumes absolute power.

1974-? Tachito Somoza elected for term ending 1981; election boycotted by all major opposition parties.

1977 Tachito Somoza has massive heart attack, remaining in control with help from his designated successors. Anastasio Somoza Portocarrero (son) and Guillermo Sevilla Sacasa (brother-in-law) ____________________________________________________



1. For historical background on Nicaragua see: Edelberto Torres Rivas, "Sintesis Historica del Proceso Politico," in Torres Rivas et. al., Centroamericana.: Hoy (Mexico: Siglo XXI, 1975); NACLA Report "Nicaragua," Vol. X, No. 2 (February 1976). For back- ground on the U.S. role see: Dana G. Munro, Intervention and Dollar Diplomacy in the Caribbean 1900-1921 (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1964).

2. For background on Somoza see: Richard Millett, Guardians of the Dynasty, A History qf the U.S. Created Na- tional Guard and of the Somoza Family (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1976).

3. Time, May 15, 1939.

4. Millett, op. cit., p. 181.

5. NACLA Report, op. cit., p. 10.

6. Center for International Policy, Human Rights and the U.S. Foreign Assistance Program, Fiscal Year 1978, Part 1-Latin America (Washington, D.C.: 1978), p. 58.

7. Penny Lernoux, "Nicaragua's Civil War," The Nation, September 16, 1978, p. 230.

8. NACLA Report, op. cit., p. 12.

9. Latin America Economic Report (LAER), Vol. VI, No. 4, January 27, 1978; Gaceta Sandinista, various issues.

10. Time, July 8, 1946 andJune 9, 1947.

11. Inter-American Bank for Reconstruction and De- velopment, The Economic Development of Nicaragua (Wash- ington, D.C.: 1952), p. 116.

12. NACLA interview, NACLA Report, op. cit., p. 11.

13. William Krem, Democracias y Tiranias en el Caribe (Habana: 1960, selected reprint of 1949 edition), p.37.

14. Jaime Wheelock Roman, Imperialismo y Dictadura: Crisis de una Formacion Social (Mexico: Siglo XXI, 1975), p. 186; Humberto Ortego S., 50 Anos de Lucha Sandinista (Nicaragua: FSLN publication, 1978), pp. 78-79.

15. Center for International Policy, op. cit., p. 55.

16. Millett, op. cit., pp. 189-191: 17. Ibid., p. 230. 18. Ibid., p. 235.

Tags: Somoza dynasty, repression, economic struggles, instability, US role

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