IV. U.S. Strategy

September 25, 2007

"My friends have told Carter not to continue on this course if he wants their support on many future questions. This battle is being fought in the U.S."

Somoza, September 5, 1978 (1)

"I don't think there will be a test of wills in made in Whashington because Nicaraguan destiny is made in Nicaruagua.

Somoza, October 23, 1978 (2). ________________________________________

The subject of these recent remarks was Somoza's powerful lobby in Washington, which has worked hard in the past year to stem the erosion of support for his dictatorship. But beneath the unthinking contradiction lies the essential dilemma for the United States. A battle is indeed being fought in the U.S. over how to mediate the crisis of bourgeois leadership in Nicaragua, but more than at any time since the country became a U.S. ward in 1909, Nicaraguan destiny is being forged in Nicaragua.

As our analysis has already demonstrated, the intransigent General, and somocismo itself, has come into serious conflict with their very reason for existence in imperialist terms-to provide a stable outpost of regional domination. As we have also discussed, the U.S. is principally responsible for the absence of a viable bourgeois alternative.

Given this, the task for the U.S. now appears to be to reform somocismo enough to be acceptable to the bourgeois opposition. and in time to prevent a precipitous expansion of revolutionary influence. In order to understand U.S. participation in the coming period, we must first examine the nature and extent of U.S. interests in Central America and locate the Nicaraguan family dynasty within that historically.


With a close ally to the north, and vast oceans east and west, the United States has always been most sensitive to its southern vulnerability. As it expanded its hegemony southward, this quickly encompassed protection of potential trans-isthmian crossings. The specifics of U.S. geopolitical concerns in the hemisphere have shifted in the past century, but the "stability" and "friendliness" of the Central American/Caribbean region remains crucial to U.S. security.

Losing control of any link in the narrow chain of countries that makes up Central America would be particularly threatening. Almost all have both Atlantic and Pacific access, and thus could threaten the entire regional security system. Additionally, a regime hostile to U.S. domination could provide critical ideological and material support to struggles in neighboring countries.

Tacho Somoza quickly recognized the indispensable role he could play in serving U.S. regional interests-a role that suited his own expansionist interests as well. Since the 1930s, the Somozas have been fine-tuned to the twists and turns of U.S. policy. One of Tacho's most frequently employed tactics was "the identification of all opposition, actual or potential, with whatever foreign threat currently preoccupied the United States. In the 1940s, this was the Nazi movement; later it would be the Communists."(3) Though he held Hitler and Mussolini in high esteem and formed his own team of black shirts in 1936, he dutifully declared war on Japan and Germany two days after the U.S. In appreciation he received substantial shipments of military equipment under the U.S. Lend-Lease Agreement, although the Nicaraguan military never confronted the Axis powers in battle.

When Tacho astutely sensed the impending Cold War pragmatism of the United States in 1948 he offered to make Nicaragua a "stronghold and breakwater against the communists who diligently seek to infiltrate Central America," thus cementing the dynasty's role as regional watchdog.(4) In this capacity the Nicaraguan government was complicit in the three major U.S. military incursions in Latin America during the past 25 years. In 1954, Somoza allowed Nicaragua to be the main staging area for the CIA-sponsored invasion of Guatemala, which overthrew the progressive Arbenz government.

In 1961, Nicaragua again served as an anti-communist outpost. Cuban exiles were trained there and launched their attack on the Bay of Pigs from Nicaraguan bases. And four years later, Nicaraguan troops participated in the U.S. Marine invasion of the Dominican Republic. Not wishing to limit their solidarity to the hemisphere, Tacho and son respectively offered troops to support U.S. involvement in Korea and Viet Nam.

Institutionalizing his father's watchdog role, Tachito played a key role in the creation of CONDECA (the Central American Defense Council) in 1964. Under Pentagon tutelage, CONDECA's task is to coordinate counterinsurgency efforts among all the Central American armies.


Nicaragua's strategic importance overshadows the level of U.S. economic involvement. Direct foreign investment is modest even by Central American standards-about $130-170 million, three-fourths of which comes from the United States.(5) Nicaragua's small local market, its lack of mineral resources, and the breadth of Somoza's own control have made it a secondary haven for U.S. capital. The U.S. Commerce Department describes investment policy in Nicaragua as more open and receptive than in any other country in Latin America, yet foreign investors often echo the complaints of their domestic counterparts: Somoza is too greedy, and will use ruthless tactics to eliminate competition. Says one American businessman: "You just don't do business here without offering the General a share in it from the beginning."(6)

Nonetheless, foreign and particularly U.S. companies dominate some of the most dynamic sectors of the economy: food processing, agrichemicals, lumber and tourism. Major investors include Exxon, United Brands, U.S. Steel, and Adela, a transnational based in Luxembourg. (See Appendix B for listing of U.S.-based firms and banks.) The foreign debt of $1.1 billion is 55% of gross national product, and about one third of it is loans from U.S. banks.(7)

Investment in Nicaragua grew markedly with the creation of the U.S.-dominated Central American Common Market (CACM) in 1960. Foreign assembly plant operations were set up to take advantage of the expanded and protected market, strong fiscal incentives and cheap labor. More recently the Somozas have instituted "duty-free zones" to provide U.S. companies with a base for production, transport and power facilities.(8)


Notwithstanding the family's historical willingness to serve U.S. interests, its ability to do so has often come in contradiction with the dynastic nature of somocismo itself. Created, armed and financed by the United States, somocismo has achieved a relative independence, occasionally damaging broader U.S. objectives in the region and internally as it pursues its own narrower interests.

Moving from the economic plane to the strategic, Somoza governments have often played an interventionist and ironically destabilizing role in the region, contrary to U.S. purposes. They have been implicated in attempts to overthrow moderate regimes in good standing with the United States, but hostile to Somoza, such as Figueres in Costa Rica, and Betancourt in Venezuela. Tachito has consistently thrown his weight behind the most reactionary sectors of the Salvadorean, Honduran and Guatemalan militaries, even where the United States might have preferred a more moderate civilian basis for repression.(9)

By far the greatest liability of somocismo is its inability to contain the political and social contradictions of Nicaraguan society, which ultimately has regional implications as well. The United States has long recognized this liability, and throughout the near half-century of the dynasty has tried to pressure the Somozas to broaden the social base. Each effort, however, has been nullified by the need to respond to threats to short-term "stability" in Nicaragua. In a self-perpetuating cycle, the U.S. has funded capitalist expansion in an effort to incorporate new bourgeois sectors with one hand, then with the other bolstered the repressive capacity of the Somoza apparatus to put down incipient mass movements or bourgeois challenges.

In 1947 the U.S. carried out a diplomatic attack on Somoza's heavyhanded tactics that has not yet been matched during the current crisis. Responding to Somoza's successful ouster of President Arguello, the United States refused diplomatic recognition to his hand-picked replacement and persuaded the rest of Latin America to do the same. It also halted all military aid and training, demanded the return of all ammunition from the military mission and recalled the American military director. Although it took a year, Tacho's ingratiating anti-Communist declarations finally brought the hemispheric bloc around.


Throughout the forties and fifties, the United States pressured the regime to make political and economic concessions to the bourgeoisie. But despite its relative unresponsiveness, U.S. military aid expanded greatly in this period, including agreements for an Air Force mission, an Army mission, and initial funding through the Military Assistance Program in 1954.(10) Motivated in part by the spectre of the Arbenz government in Guatemala, U.S. military aid had the secondary effect of entrenching somocismo and precluding the evolution of an acceptable alternative.

The early 1960s saw the rise of this two-edged sword throughout Latin America. Millions of dollars were poured into Alliance for Progress reforms on the one hand, and into costly counterinsurgency on the other. The military buildup in Nicaragua was particularly massive. By 1969, U.S. training of the National Guard gave Nicaragua the highest per capita armed forces training and the third highest ratio of American military advisers in all of Latin America.(11) Most of the training was in jungle operations, military intelligence and interrogation.(12) This time the threat was the rise of a new revolutionary movement - the FSLN - and the fear of more Cubas to come.

By the 1970s, the growth of mass discontent with somocismo had reached unprecedented proportions; within the bourgeoisie the growth of independent finance capital gave new impetus to their demands for participation in the structuring of the expanding economic system. But even in the chaotic and utterly corrupt aftermath of the earthquake, the U.S. government chose once again to defend Somoza's rule-with 600 crack U.S. troops and millions in reconstruction aid. It turned a deaf ear to complaints that aid pouring in from public and private sources was getting funneled to, and not through, Somoza. This short-sighted solution was not unlike U.S. responses to popular offensives throughout Latin America from Brazil to Chile. If the United States was no longer in a position to directly intervene in Latin America, it was certainly willing to support any counterrevolutionary offensive that promised to stifle class struggle.


By 1974, the United States was willing to cautiously explore the possibility of new options. The global capitalist crisis was compelling new approaches. Somoza could not continue to subvert the economy, and the growing popular and revolutionary movements could not be met by a divided bourgeoisie.

President Ford dispatched James Theberge to Nicaragua with a new ambassadorial mission: end the "old-boy" collaboration with Somoza, cultivate ties with the bourgeois opposition and isolate the more radical elements in the newly-formed UDEL. The maximum that the U.S. could hope for was the development of UDEL into a coherent organization with a broader base of support by the 1981 elections-six years away.

In the meantime, expediency called for U.S. approval of Somoza's imposition of martial law after the Christmas kidnappings and an almost 100% increase in military arms supplies in 1975 to eradicate the FSLN. (See chart Appendix C). With $3 million in military sales credits, Somoza purchased the very weapons (C-47 transports, utility helicopters, armored cars, etc.) that would lead the bloody assault on Nicaraguan cities in September 1978.(13)


The Carter human rights rhetoric inserted a new dynamic into Nicaragua's internal situation, inspiring confidence in the opposition that the United States would support its initiatives to oust Somoza. During the 1976 presidential campaign, the Fraser Subcommittee Hearings on Human Rights in Nicaragua released reports of massive arrests, disappearances and atrocities committed by the Guard against peasants in retaliation for the FSLN offensive. These reports were corroborated by Amnesty International, religious orders in Nicaragua, and a variety of other groups. Carter's declarations would be put to a public test.

For the first nine months of the new administration, Congress became a battlefield. Since the early seventies, Somoza had taken care to deepen his contacts with sympathetic Congress people and poured money into what has become a powerful and insidious force in Washington - the Nicaragua lobby. As a result, $3.1 million in military aid and $15.1 million in "humanitarian" economic aid to Nicaragua for fiscal year 1978 were volleyed back and forth between the pro-Somoza forces, headed by Rep. Charles Wilson(D-Texas) and John Murphy(R-NY), and the human rights group, at this moment led by Rep. Edward Koch (D-NY). Also in the fray were several State Dept. officials who argued that the aid package should be approved, but that its release be at the discretion of the Administration, subject to continuing human rights "improvements" by Somoza. This general position ultimately carried.(14)

Meanwhile Carter appointed Mauricio Solaun, a Cuban-American sociology professor, as the new ambassador to Nicaragua. Within weeks of Solaun's arrival in early September 1977, Somoza lifted the three-year-old martial law and press censorship, in return for which the State Dept. quickly signed a $2.5 million arms credit agreement, part of the larger military aid package.

In the ensuing year the U.S. press has alternately reported the cutoff of economic and military aid, its reinstatement, the suspension of shipments, etc. This is in part testimony to contradictions within the State Dept. and within Congress itself, but also results from the carrot-and-stick tactic Carter and his expediter Warren Christopher have been using to get dictators to clean up their images. Among the carrots Carter now can use on Somoza is more than $20 million in military and economic aid approved by Congress and held in suspension, as well as pre-1977 appropriations in various stages of delivery. (This suspension of "pipeline" aid was announced after the cessation of fighting in September.)(5)

Amid the on-again, off-again nature of the military appropriations, certain conclusions can be drawn. It is a fact that monies appropriated to the Military Assistance Program have been severely reduced in the past two years, but concurrently military sales for cash and credit have been substantially increased, as have approvals for private commercial sales (see Appendix C). Not until fiscal year 1979 did the Defense Dept. reduce its request for military assistance to Nicaragua.

In all, in the decade 1968-78, the U.S. provided Nicaragua with almost $20 million in military aid, making it far and away the largest per capita recipient in Central America. To appreciate the U.S. militarization of Nicaragua, comparisons with Guatemala are instructive. Guatemala has a population nearly three times as large as Nicaragua and an armed force that is double Nicaragua's, yet its military assistance from the U.S. during the same period is only slightly higher ($22 million).(16)


Following the January 1978 assassination of Chamorro, U.S. hopes for an alternative leader dissolved. The general strike called by business and labor leaders that followed his death demonstrated the lack of bourgeois leadership over the masses. The United States retreated into what it called a "non-interventionist" position.

The bourgeois opposition continued to claim that the popular groundswell, if augmented by the withdrawal of U.S. support, would bring about Somoza's resignation. They let it be known that U.S. silence was tantamount to support for the monster it had created. An American official conjured up the historical magnitude of the U.S. presence: "We're like an elephant in a sitting room. Even if we don't move, you can't ignore us."(17)

In fact the United States was moving, but much more cautiously than the escalation of events or U.S. precedents in Latin America would suggest. The caution was imposed not just by the bleakness of the alternatives inside Nicaragua, but also by pressures within the U.S. So while the Administration hoped for a lucky break, through the increasingly tense period leading up to September it had no choice but to continue backing Somoza and push for incremental accommodations until the 1981 elections.

In May the International Development Bank approved a $32 million loan to build a road; it connected two military garrisons in an area where over 600 peasants had been killed by the Guard since 1975.(18) In July, prodded by the Nicaragua lobby, Carter quietly sent a letter to Somoza, praising him for the improved situation of human rights in his country.(19) Hoping to use it to pressure for the release of further aid money, Somoza's friends leaked it to the U.S. press, a tactic which backfired once the popular uprisings hit the headlines.

As the summer wore on, Washington hotly debated how to control the outcome of the crisis. Continued support of Somoza could produce a "Cuba-type solution," in which the weak bourgeois opposition would be dominated in an alliance with the FSLN. Removing him would run the risk that the opposition could not seize the opening-sometimes referred to as a Diem-type "solution."

The September insurrection severely challenged the U.S. tactic of cautious maneuvering. While there was no definitive outcome, there was a clear shift in the correlation of forces and an increased polarization of the population. Despite the pressure to resolve this highly unstable situation, the United States realized a misstep might well reverberate beyond the borders of Nicaragua itself. Already trade between Nicaragua and its neighbors was suffering, and the internationalized business sector was very worried about its investments in the region.

In turn the Pentagon began to fear that Somoza's remova! might imminently threaten the shaky military dictatorships to the north of Nicaragua. Guatemala and El Salvador have particularly repressive regimes already under heavy attack from organized revolutionary movements.(20) Although there are various tensions among these governments, Somoza would undoubtedly call on them for support in the event of a major FSLN offensive, using the mutual defense pact of CONDECA as a legalistic pretext. In fact, troops from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador were reported by the Sandinistas to be in Nicaragua during the September fighting.(21) Such participation runs the risk of escalating analogous conflicts in their own home base, and if the revolutionary organizations act in concert could spread the CONDECA troops very thin.

To the south of Nicaragua, both Costa Rica and Panama have strong legalized radical oppositions which make these regimes vulnerable to developments in Nicaragua as well. The spillover has also involved the Venezuelan government. President Perez sent planes to defend Costa Rica's territory against National Guard bombing in September. Additionally several of the Western European Social Democratic parties are reportedly providing financial and military assistance to the Terceristas. These parties have apparently pushed this alliance with the expectation that should Somoza be overthrown and the FSLN participate in a new government, they will follow a reformist course and keep the other tendencies in line.

To avoid touching off this tinderbox with an unnecessary spark, the United States appealed to the OAS to mediate the crisis, an effort to cloak its own intervention in inter-American respectability.(22) Ultimately a team of mediators from the United States, Guatemala and the Dominican Republic was agreed to by both negotiating parties.(*) _______________________________________

(*) Heading the U.S. team is William Bowdler, a former member of the National Security Council, and State Dept. official in various countries at the "right time": Cuba 1956-1961; Dominican Republic 1963-1965; El Salvador 1968; Guatemala 1971-1973; South Africa 1975-1978. [Prensa Latina Feature Service, October 5, 1978.] _______________________________________

Opposing Somoza was a three-man commission selected by the FAO and authorized to speak for "all factions" of the opposition.(23) The commission, portrayed as a signal of greater consolidation within the opposition, was composed of Alfonso Robelo, the shrewd MDN leader and businessman highly thought of by U.S. interests; Rafael C6rdova Rivas, populist UDEL leader; and Sergio Ramirez, attorney, author and member of the Twelve. Ramirez' presence on the commission was understood as providing a link with the Terceristas.

Far from being unified, the commission had all the inherent divisions of the FAO itself. Each had its own project for post-Somoza Nicaragua, none of which satisfied U.S. requirements. The mediators' next move served simultaneously to co-opt the bourgeois initiative, shift the focus from the FSLN to the United States, and polarize the most progressive elements out of the game. At the end of October, they assured the FAO that the United States would take care of getting Somoza to leave. Then they revealed the U.S. plan for a provisional government-one that included members of Somoza's own Liberal Party.(24)

The Twelve immediately pulled out of the mediations and out of the FAO itself, charging that the U.S. plan "would leave practically intact the corrupt structures of the Somoza apparatus." They also challenged the U.S. "promise" to remove Somoza from the scene, citing its continued support of somociscmo through arms supplied by countries in the U.S. "sphere of influence."(25) (Right-wing governments of Latin America were beginning to send weapons to Somoza, and Israel has already sent more than $20 million worth of arms.)(26) The PSN and one of the trade union confederations soon exited from the FAO as well.

Thus ensued a month-long test of determination. The mediation team requested that Somoza resign and leave the country with his family. But Somoza stood firm: "Ni me voy ni me van!" (I refuse to leave nor will I be forced out!) After getting the International Monetary Fund to postpone a much-needed $20 million standby credit to Somoza, the U.S. repeated its request.(27) The FSLN, training several thousand new recruits and still learning the ways of its new weaponry, agreed to honor the FAO deadline of November 21 st.

Since then the remaining participants in the mediation effort have haggled over the details and goals of a proposed plebiscite. November 21 has come and gone and FSLN strikes at military garrisons in the countryside are on the increase. There is a sense of imminent confrontation. Costa Rica has broken relations with Nicaragua and Venezuela has announced its intention to suspend oil shipments. The Carter Administration has been urged to withdraw its ambassador, urge an international boycott of arms shipments to Somoza including private U.S. sales, withdraw its five-man military advisory group still in Nicaragua, and seriously investigate U.S. mercenary activity there.(28) So far it has done none of these things.

The Carter Administration is in a very difficult spot. It is clear that circumstances in Nicaragua make more precipitous action to do away with Somoza a calculated risk. But Carter also faces multifaceted resistance at home. He is burdened with the legacy of intervention in Latin America as well as Southeast Asia. He has whipped up Liberal expectations with his human rights rhetoric which now threaten to boomerang (86 members of Congress signed a letter urging him to unequivocally suspend all aid to Somoza). And he faces a right-wing that has grown since the November Congressional elections (Rep. John Murphy was able even in September to muster 78 signatures on a letter urging support for Somoza).

Somoza surely realizes this and is driving a hard bargain. Believing that the United States, in the face of a growing revolutionary threat, will ultimately prop up his regime once again, he dared the taunt: "If Carter wants me to go, he can come and get me."(29)

The underlying imperialist objective is a class dictatorship in Nicaragua, led by the most powerful and U.S.-oriented sectors of the bourgeoisie, including the somocistas. As a State Dept. official said recently, "We've been looking everywhere for another Balaguer but we can't seem to locate him."(30) To assure that such a dictatorship (or what is euphemistically referred to these days as "controlled democracy") is viable, the escalating revolutionary threat must be eradicated and the mobilized popular sectors deactivated. Somoza has warned that the only viable alternative to his rule would be a military junta, a solution that would be perfectly acceptable to the U.S. in the short run. In any event, the quickness with which the U.S. lopped off the left/progressive arm of the anti-Somoza forces indicates that the U.S. intends to ignore the popular upsurge-it can be contained through military force, or, a la Portugal, by its rapid dissipation once the focus of the immediate militancy, the tyrant Somoza, is gone.

It is impossible to calculate the relative strength of each of the actors in this pivotal period. What is clear is that the right-wing fighting force in Nicaragua remains loyal to Somoza, and is now fighting for its own skin as well. Any bourgeois solution must accomodate mightily to somocismo, and to Somoza as well unless he conveniently suffers a "heart attack" soon. On the other hand, international intervention to militarily back up the Guard in the event of a widespread revolutionary offensive, could conceivably ignite a Central American war, bringing the contradictions of imperialism to the breaking point.

In any case it is the task of the international solidarity movement to support the struggle of the Nicaraguan people, and their vanguard, the FSLN. We urge our readers to join in that solidarity. ______________________________________________________________

About the author:

Alejandro Bendana, a Nicaraguan, has written extensively about his country under the pseudonym of Nicasio. He is currently a doctoral candidate in history. ______________________________________________________________



1.Miami Herald, September 5, 1978.

2.Newsweek, October 23, 1978.

3.Richard Millett, Guardians of the Dynasty, A History of the U.S. Created National Guard and of the Somoza Family, p. 199.

4.U.S. Dept. of State, Foreign Relations of the U.S. (1944), VIII, pp. 1400-1.

5.Wall Street Journal, February 23, 1978; NACLA Report, Vol. X, No. 2. "Nicaragua" (February 1976).

6.Business R4eek, February 27, 1978.


8.Latin America Economic Report (LAER), October 29, 1976.

9.For details of Somoza involvement in Central American internal affairs see "Ante Los Ultimos Sucesos Centroamericanos," estudios Centroamericanos, (San Salvador) 351-2 (January-February, 1978).

10.Millett, op. cit., p.213.

11.Ibid., p. 226.

12.Geoffrey Kemp, Some Relationships Between U.S. Military Training in Latin America and W4eapons Acquisitions Patterns: 1959-1969 (Cambridge, MA: M.I.T. Center for International Studies, 1970), pp. 4, 7; and Michael Klare, Supplying Repression (Washington, D.C.: Institute for Policy Studies, 1978), p. 38.

13.U.S. Dept. of Defense, Congressional Presentation: Security Assistance Program Fiscal Year 1977, p. 240.

14.Caribbean Review, Vol. VIII, No. 3, pp. 27-29.

15.WOLA, Special Update Nicaragua (October 1978), p. 2.

16.U.S. Dept. of Defense, Defense Security Assistance Agency, Foreign Military Sales and Military Assistance Facts (December 1977); and The International Institute fur Strategic Studies, The Military Balance 1977-78 (London: 1977).

17.Alan Riding, "Nicaragua," New York Times Magazine, July 30, 1978.

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

19.Latin American Political Report, Vol. XII, No. 31, p.246.

20.Los Angeles Times, Nov. 5, 1978. See also article on Guatemala in Update section, this issue. For a general summary of regional response, see LAPR, Vol. XII, No. 44, November 10, 1978.

21.Financial times London, September 20, 1978.

22.Washington Post, September 24, 1978.

23.Washington Post, September 15, 1978.

24.NACILA interview in Costa Rica.

25.Pronunicamiento de los Doce, Managua Nicaragua, October 25, 1978.

26.Newt York Times, November 19, 1978.

27.Washington Post, November 3, 1978. For an evaluation of the effects of this loan denial, see Financial Times of London, 4orld Business Weekly, Vol. I, No. 3, November 13-19, 1978, pp. 5-6.

28.The Economist. October 28, 1978; WOLA, op. cit.

29.Newsweek, October 23, 1978.

30.LAPR, September 22, 1978.

Tags: Somoza dynasty, US investment, US military aid, Jimmy Carter, US role

Like this article? Support our work. Donate now.