Pre-Revolutionary Nicaragua

Discovery and Independence

 Spanish conquistadors discovered and explored the country between 1502 and 1522.  Hernandez de Cordoba founded the towns of Leon and Granada, but other than this, Spain showed little interest in the country.  The riches to be found in Mexico and Peru led to the forced exportation of indigenous Nicaraguans to the mines in Peru and to South America as slaves between 1528 and 15401.  Guerilla warfare was used against the Spaniards until they grew tired of it and moved to the western half of the country2.  Nicaraguans gained their independence from Spain in 1821 and joined the Union of Central American States in 1823 to exert its autonomy apart from Mexico.  It was a member until the Union was dissolved in 18393.

 U.S. Imperialism and Sandino

 The 1840s Gold Rush made many in the United States interested in finding a quicker route to the west.  A contract between Cornelius Vanderbilt and the Nicaraguan government was signed in August of 1849 and it gave Vanderbilt exclusive rights to build a transisthmian canal within twelve years.  Great Britain was unhappy with this prospect and blocked construction operations.  The two countries then signed the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty in April of 1950, which said that neither country would claim exclusive power over any future canal.  The Nicaraguan government was not consulted about this treaty.  The late 1850s were turbulent times for Nicaragua.  The Liberals invited the filibuster William Walker into the country in 1855.  By 1856, he had declared himself the president, re-instituted slavery, and made English the official language.  Walker intended to annex Nicaragua to the American South in order to protect the slave system’s interests.  He was executed in Honduras in 18604.  This irritated many Nicaraguans who began to feel as though the United States was constantly trying to impose a foreign system of government upon them.  The Nicaraguan government also began to call upon the United States to settle domestic disputes more frequently, which eventually had an adverse impact upon the country with the rise of Somoza in the 1930s.

     During the 1920s, however, the premier family of Nicaragua was the Chamorros; all of the main offices of the government were filled with members of only the Chamorro family.  For example, in 1921, the president, minister of Interior, President of the Congress, chief of police, director of internal revenue, and three important consuls were all Chamorros5.  The financial control of the country was in the hands of a “small group of New York capitalists,” and changes made in the currency system benefited American investors and ruined the country’s business6.

 Augusto Cesar Sandino was born in 1895.  According to, he helped a group of miners attack a military garrison at El Jicaro.  The attack failed, but it taught him that he needed better weapons.  He then joined the Liberal revolution against Adolfo Diaz and Emiliano Chamorro in 1926.  He was a deeply spiritual man who believed himself to be a sort of Messiah figure.  This did not translate into a peaceful, turn-the-other-cheek attitude for Sandino; instead, he conducted guerilla campaigns from 1927 to1933 against the U.S. marines in the country to make them leave, which shows his anti-imperialism.  Sandino worked with peasant recruits in Segovia for the guerilla campaigns and acted as a regional authority figure.  In 1933, he tried to get the Salvadoran president to recognize him as a provisional authority of Nicaragua instead of President Sacasa.  During this time, Anastasio Somoza Garcia was installed as the head of the National Guard, a U.S. creation.  When the Marines withdrew in 1933, Sandino quit fighting and was killed in 1934.  Anastasio Somoza Garcia most likely had much to do with Sandino’s murder, but was never implicated in the killing of his chief opposition.  Sandino’s many writings later influenced a primary leader of the FSLN, Carlos Fonseca Amador.

The Somoza Dynasty

Anastasio “Tacho” Somoza Garcia was chosen as head of the National Guard when the United States left Nicaragua7.  There was a power struggle between Sacasa and Somoza, which ended with Sacasa’s resignation when Somoza led a coup d’etat backed by the power of the National Guard.  Congress chose Carlos Brenes Jarquin, Somoza’s puppet, to finish Sacasa’s term.

 In 1936, Somoza ran for president without significant opposition.  He put together a powerful coalition to provide him with votes; this coalition would support him for the next twenty years.  If elected, Somoza promised “peace, orderly democracy, nationalism, social justice, education, and work for all through a government of institutional and constitutional renovation”8.  He did not follow through on these promises.  National Guard members were given leadership positions in various government bodies.  He expropriated many alien businesses for the country, but many of them ended up in the hands of Somoza and his friends, instead of in those of the common Nicaraguan.  When students peacefully gathered on June 27, 1944 to protest Somoza's  desire for reelection, he had 500 people imprisoned for a night.  Women marched on June 29 to demand the release of those still in jail.  There were demonstrations at the Embassy building on July 4; shopkeepers threatened to close their stores on the 5th.  To defuse the situation, Somoza issued a statement on July 7, saying that he would not seek the nomination and that the elections would be free and fair in 1947.  The students involved became known as the Generation of 44.  Later that year, he passed legislation to restrict freedom of expression despite his earlier promises for democracy.

 When it came time for the Liberal Nominating Convention, Leonardo Arguello was chosen and came to power through a fraudulent electoral process.  When he began to demilitarize many of the offices the National Guard had been in charge of, Somoza protested.  Somoza was asked to leave the country on May 25.  He requested a few days to put his affairs in order; during this time, he organized the overthrow of Arguello, who was replaced by another puppet president, Benjamin Lacayo Sacasa9.

The seed of Sandino's blood                                lashes the murderous rooftops;                                                             multiplied, in torrents,                                                 it will cover exposed rooftops,                                   and will ensure inevitable apocalypse.                                                                 It will exterminate all of the murderers,                    and each and every one                                            of the murderers' seed. 

Their treacherous embrace of Sandino                       is pregnant with biblical premonitions                      like the crime of Cain,                                            like the kiss of Judas. 

And then peace will reign...                                    and Nicaragua will be filled with olive branches and voices                                                                    that loft to the heavens                                             an everlasting psalm of love. 

Rigoberto Lopez Perez--patriot and executioner of Tacho

 A number of ex-National Guard members and civilians connected to the PRN (Partido Revolucionario Nigaraguense) attempted to revolt in April of 1954.  They planned to hit the General Headquarters of the National Guard and Somoza’s executive offices in the hopes that the entire corrupt structure would collapse without these key leaders.  The government discovered the plot, declared a state of martial law, and imprisoned the conspirators for two years10.  In 1956, Somoza was in Leon to accept his third presidential nomination and was killed by Rigoberto Lopez Perez, a poet.  The Somoza regime did not crumble with Tacho’s death, however.  It was continued by his sons Luis and Anastasio11.

 Luis Somoza Debayle became the acting president when his father was assassinated.  He became the true president in 1957.  He diversified his family’s business interests and did attempt some social reforms.  His biggest contribution, however, was the passing of a law that prohibited his reelection and kept any family member from succeeding him.  Rene Schick Gutierrez was his chosen successor, and took over in 1963.  Luis returned to the Liberal-dominated Senate.  Schick and his son, Lorenzo, were in the presidency until early in 1967, when Luis‘s younger brother, Anastasio Somoza Debayle, took over the presidency.

 “Tachito” as he was called, was even more greedy and repressive than his father had been.  Nicaraguans began to speak out against him as time went on; this greatly increased after an earthquake devastated Managua in December 1972.  World aid poured in, but was filtered through his own pocket.  His many transgressions served to alienate the middle-class that had typically supported his family.  They allied themselves with the Sandinistas, who grew in power throughout the late 60s and 70s. 

FSLN, Fonseca, and the Revolution of 1979

 Carlos Fonseca was a primary leader of the Sandinistas until his death in 1976.  He based much of his ideology upon his study of Augusto Sandino.  Fonseca helped to organize guerilla units that hid in the mountains to attack the National Guard, and allowed women to be involved vocally and militarily.  He was heavily influenced and inspired by the Cuban Revolution, and spent much of the early 70s in Cuba.  He came back to Nicaragua in 1975 to try and heal the fractures that existed in the FSLN.  A group went back into the mountains and were betrayed by a peasant who informed the National Guard that they were in the area.  The group was ambushed and Fonseca was wounded.  The next morning he was shot12.

 A large group of university and high school students marched on the 23 July “to demand respect for [Carlos Fonseca’s] life” and to protest the ambush at El Chaparral that killed six guerillas13.  They had legal permits to march from the local National Guard and university administrators.  Nevertheless, Zimmermann writes that “the National Guard attacked unarmed protesters, killing four students and two spectators and wounding nearly a hundred people14.  After this, radical students were known as the Generation of 59.


1.    Library of Congress

2.    Nogales Mendez, Rafael de, The Looting of Nicaragua (New York: Arno Press, 1970), 35-36.

3.    Ibid., 37.

4.    Ibid., 38-39.

5.    Ibid., 20.

6.    Ibid., 21, 23.

7.    Knut Walter, The Regime of Anastasio Somoza, 1936-1956 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993), 29.

8.    Ibid., 52.

9.    Ibid., 154-160.

10.   Ibid., 230-233.

11.    Ibid., 234-235.

12.    Matilde Zimmermann, Sandinista: Carlos Fonseca and the Nicaraguan Revolution (Durham: Duke University Press, 2000), 203.

13.    Ibid., 55.

14.    Ibid., 57.