Within Guatemala: to AD 1821
Within the Spanish empire the long narrow strip of central America is known as Guatemala. It is among the earliest of colonial conquests on the mainland. Pedro de Alvarado, a leading member of Cortés’ small party in the conquest of Mexico (1519-21), is sent south in 1523 to subdue the smaller area now known as Guatemala. In 1524 he pushes on into El Salvador. In the same year Spanish conquistadors enter Costa Rica and Nicaragua from the east, invading from Panama.
Honduras, the buffer region between east and west, is disputed between the rival groups of Spaniards. An advance guard from Panama gets there first. Cortés sends a force from Mexico, which eventually prevails.
These rivalries persuade the Spanish crown to treat central America as a special case. In 1539 it is established as the captaincy general of Guatemala. This is part of the wider viceroyalty of New Spain (administered from Mexico City) but the captain general, operating from his own capital at Antigua, has considerable autonomy in local affairs.
The arrangement survives until the end of the colonial period (except that the capital moves to Guatemala City after Antigua is destroyed by an earthquake in 1773), and it is this larger region of Guatemala which declares independence on 15 September 1821 – just three weeks after neighbouring Mexico, under Agustín de Iturbide, has won freedom from Spain.
Yanqui imperialism: AD 1912-1933
Disorder in Nicaragua prompts President Taft to send a contingent of US marines in 1912 (he has sent them to Honduras the previous year). They stay, beginning two decades of direct American involvement in Nicaraguan politics.
Presidents approved of in Washington are supported in power by US troops, who also undertake the training of the Nicaraguan National Guard. US bankers are given a major role in controlling the Nicaraguan economy. This involvement, resented by many as yanqui imperialism, escalates to the point, in 1927, where 2000 US marines support an American-approved presidential candidate in warfare against forces loyal to other Nicaraguan politicians and generals.
One of these politicians is Juan Bautista Sacasa, and among the generals is César Augusto Sandino. Sacasa soon comes to a compromise arrangement with the US Special Commissioner in Nicaragua, but Sandino refuses to lay down his arms. Instead he withdraws to the mountains of northern Nicaragua with several hundred followers to launch a guerrilla campaign.
US marines and the National Guard fail to capture him (giving him a heroic reputation in Nicaragua as a rebel), and he is still at large when the marines finally leave in 1933. By then Sandino’s friend Sacasa is president. Sacasa’s nephew, Anastasio Somoza García, is commander of the National Guard.
Sandino and his men lay down their arms and make their peace with the Nicaraguan government. On 21 February 1934 he and several of his aides dine with President Sacasa. As they leave after dinner they are gunned down by members of the National Guard, the very troops who have failed to find and kill them in the mountains. The order for the assassination comes from the guard commander, Somoza.
President Sacasa, unable to protect his dinner guests from his nephew, soon falls victim himself to the young man’s ambition. Somoza bundles him out of office in June 1936, and after some constitutional niceties assumes power himself.
The Somoza years: AD 1937-1979
Somoza’s formal induction as president, on 1 January 1937, launches more than four decades in which he and his two sons rule Nicaragua (not invariably as presidents, for they alternate in that office with trusted friends in a system which becomes known as continuismo). They do so with economic support from the USA, even though their regime is a corrupt and venal dictatorship. By the end of their time in power it is calculated that the family has amassed a fortune in the region of $1000 million.
Somoza is assassinated in 1956, during a visit to Panama, and the presidency is assumed by his elder son, Luis Somoza Debayle. He is somewhat less repressive than his father, but he dies in 1967. He is followed in power by his younger brother.
Anastasio Somoza Debayle is in some ways the worst of the trio. His dynasty’s greed is revealed in shocking and vivid fashion after an earthquake devastates Managua in 1972. Much of the international aid ends up enriching the regime and its close supporters, through the judicious allocation of contracts for the task of national recovery.
By now opposition to Somoza rule is beginning to gather strength. A moderate group is headed by Pedro Joaquín Chamorro, editor of Managua’s main newspaper (La Prensa). A radical opposition exists already in a guerrilla group, the Sandinistas, formed in 1962 and named in memory of Augusto Sandino.
The final crisis escalates from the beginning of 1978. In January assassins, presumably from the Somoza camp, kill Chamorro. In August Sandinista guerrillas make a surprise attack on the National Palace in Managua, taking more than 1000 people hostage. When their demand is granted (the release of fifty-nine political prisoners), they march out of the city to the cheers of crowds on the streets.
Somoza, by now under intense pressure to resign, refuses to do so. Civil war follows, with thousands of deaths, until in June 1979 Sandinista troops capture town after town throughout Nicaragua – usually with the help of the inhabitants. In July Somoza flees to Miami. A year later he is assassinated in Paraguay.
The Sandinista years: AD 1979-1990
The Sandinistas take power in a country ravaged by the recent civil war. It is calculated that some 30,000 have died in the fighting and that half a million are homeless. Moreover many of the defeated National Guard have escaped over the border into Honduras where, like the émigré armies of the French Revolution, they now prepare a counter-attack. They become known as the contrarrevolucionarios, or simply the Contras.
The Sandinista junta, headed by Daniel Ortega Saavedra, includes at first other opposition leaders (among them Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, widow of the murdered editor of La Prensa). The junta launches a left-wing political programme, but not of a particularly extreme kind.
The most important industrial and financial enterprises are nationalized (including anything once owned by the Somoza clan), but 50% of the economy remains in private hands. Programmes of education and land reform are undertaken. Freedom of the press is proclaimed, but elections are postponed – in response to a national state of crisis.
However exterior factors make it impossible for any form of moderate progress to be sustained. The Sandinista’s left-wing programme brings support from Russia and, more locally, from Cuba. Advisers arrive from both these Communist nations, followed subsequently by supplies of arms (the quantity of each is much disputed).
In the context of the Cold War, this is enough to convince President Reagan that Communism is sneaking into the American continent through the servants’ entrance. Seeing Nicaragua as a crucial test case, akin to Cuba two decades earlier, he takes what he considers appropriate action.
Between 1980 and 1984 all American aid to Nicaragua is ended. Funds are provided to train and equip as many as 15,000 Contras operating from camps in Honduras. And the CIA sets about crippling the Nicaraguan infrastructure. There are covert attacks on bridges and fuel depots. In 1984 the agency even arranges for mines to be laid in Nicaraguan harbours.
The mines prove something of a turning point. Inevitably they threaten neutral shipping as well as Nicaraguan vessels, and later the World Court in the Hague rules that the planting of them contravenes international law (the US rejects this interpretation).
In these circumstances congress in Washington decides that active intervention in Nicaragua is becoming too dangerous, with the inherent danger of developing into another Vietnam. The Boland amendment, first passed in 1982 and made more rigorous in 1984, bans any further provision of military aid to the Contras – and in doing so paves the way for the main scandal of the Reagan era, the Iran-Contra affair.
US and Contra activities provoke the Sandinista junta into proclaiming a state of emergency in 1982. This further delays elections. When they finally take place, in 1984, Ortega wins 67% of the vote as the Sandinista presidential candidate. International observers declare the election to have been freely held, but the USA denounces it as fraudulent.
During the second half of the 1980s the Contras keep up their pressure on the borders, while the Sandinista regime (confronted now by a catastrophically declining economy and galloping inflation) becomes more repressive in its rule. Internal opposition is mounting by the time the next election falls due, in 1990.
Regrouping and reform: from AD 1990
For the 1990 election a group of opposition parties form an alliance as the UNO (Unión Nacional de Oppositora). Their candidate is Violeta Barrios de Chamorro. To the surprise of the Sandinistas she wins 55% of the votes compared to 41% for Ortega, the Sandinista leader.
Power is handed over peacefully, and with the change of government the Contras end their guerrilla campaign. Chamorro begins to unscramble much of the Sandinista programme, privatizing where they had nationalized. She has to tread carefully. The trades unions and the army are still under Sandinista control. Yet many in her coalition object to any degree of cooperation with the country’s militant left wing.
By the end of 1992 the situation is so tense that a group from the ruling UNO alliance tries to oust Chamorro. She retaliates by allying herself with a new majority in the national assembly, formed of Sandinistas with a few loyal UNO members. By 1995 there is renewed tension when the assembly presents to Chamorro proposed amendments to the constitution. They include reducing the powers of the president. After months of resistance, she accepts.
Elections are held in October 1996. The presidential race is won by Arnoldo Alemán Lacayo (of the right-wing Liberal Alliance). Ortega again comes a strong second. Democracy seems to have emerged after the Somoza nightmare, with the Sandinistas playing a constructive role in its return.