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Chamorro Vargas, Emiliano (1871–1966)

Chamorro Vargas, Emiliano (1871–1966)

Emiliano Chamorro Vargas (b. 11 May 1871; d. 26 February 1966), president of Nicaragua (1917–1921; 1926). The Nicaraguan who led more revolutions than any other began his military career in 1903, when he commanded an uprising against the Liberal dictator José Santos Zelaya. Although unsuccessful, this armed rebellion catapulted the Conservative Emiliano Chamorro into the forefront of Nicaraguan politics. Chamorro's animosity toward Zelaya seemingly stemmed not only from party politics and personal ambition but also from Zelaya's mistreatment of Chamorro's father. Chamorro became Zelaya's primary military rival when he joined forces with Juan José Estrada and José María Moncada to overthrow the dictator. By 1909, Zelaya had resigned under pressure from Conservative and anti-Zelaya Liberal forces. Chamorro not only proved himself through this success but also solidified his position as leader of the Conservative Party, a position he maintained until his death.

After Zelaya's ouster, Chamorro served as head of the Constituent Assembly. He returned to the battlefield in 1912, when Minister of War Luis Mena revolted against President Adolfo Díaz. After Chamorro defeated Mena, he expressed his own presidential ambitions. The United States, however, supported Díaz and offered Chamorro the position of envoy to the U.S., thereby eliminating any potential challenge to its old friend Díaz.

As envoy, Chamorro negotiated and signed the controversial Bryan—Chamorro Treaty, which gave the U.S. the option on a canal through Nicaragua. After the completion of the Panama Canal, the U.S. wanted to ensure that no other country would build a canal in Nicaragua. Besides the canal option, the U.S. received a ninety-nine-year lease on the Corn Islands in the Caribbean and on a naval base in the Gulf of Fonseca that would be under U.S. jurisdiction. In turn, the U.S. agreed to pay $3 million in gold to Nicaragua upon ratification. William Jennings Bryan, the U.S. secretary of state under President Woodrow Wilson, and Chamorro signed the treaty in 1914, and the U.S. Senate ratified it in 1916.

The treaty met with strong opposition, particularly from Costa Rica, El Salvador, and Colombia. Costa Rica argued that Nicaragua had violated an arbitral award by U.S. President Grover Cleveland (1888) that bound Nicaragua not to make a canal grant without consulting Costa Rica, because of their common San Juan River boundary. El Salvador expressed outrage at the casual treatment of its territorial rights in the Gulf of Fonseca. Colombia protested Nicaragua's usurpation of the Corn Islands because Colombia claimed sovereignty over them. Chamorro maintained that the treaty provided the best means of solving Nicaragua's economic woes. Not until 1938 did he recognize his mistake in supporting and signing the treaty, for it jeopardized the sovereignty not only of other Latin American countries but also of Nicaragua itself.

Chamorro resigned his position as envoy in 1916 and returned to Nicaragua in order to seek the presidency. The U.S. had previously expressed doubts about Chamorro's military background—it preferred civilian leaders—but after his service as envoy, the U.S. supported Chamorro during the 1916 election, which he won. Upon assuming the presidency, he faced an empty treasury, a national debt, and a foreign debt outstanding since the days of Zelaya. He therefore focused his efforts on obtaining payment of the $3 million in gold promised to Nicaragua upon ratification of the Bryan—Chamorro Treaty. The U.S., however, tied its payment to the settlement of Nicaragua's foreign debt; consequently, Chamorro spent most of his term embroiled in lengthy negotiations.

Chamorro was elected president a second time in 1926, after he overthrew the Conservative government of Carlos Solórzano. Ostensibly, the coup was intended to neutralize the Liberal influence of Vice President Juan Bautista Sacasa, but Chamorro's own desire for the presidency was widely known. Once again, Conservatives and Liberals waged war against one another. Although Chamorro's forces performed well at first, he had fallen out of favor with the U.S. He therefore resigned on 30 October 1926.

During the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza García, Chamorro continued his political machinations in the form of abortive uprisings and assassination attempts against the Liberal dictator. Nonetheless, in 1950 Chamorro and Somoza signed the Pact of the Generals, which guaranteed Conservatives one-third of the seats in Congress and one seat on the Supreme Court. Thus, the Conservatives obtained positions within the government while Chamorro's action, as leader of the Conservative Party, gave a boost to the regime's image. These benefits, however, were reaped at great cost, for the Conservative Party ultimately became a mere appendage of the Somoza dictatorship. The consequences were monumental: younger Conservatives who were disenchanted with their party and its leadership sought new avenues for political expression. Their quest led to the creation of the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional, which overthrew the Somoza dynasty on 19 July 1979.

Chamorro, as head of the Conservative Party during this period, failed to provide true leadership, for in reality he represented only his personal ambitions and the interests of a small, elite class. The perennial revolutionary was merely an opportunist.

See alsoBryan-Chamorro Treaty (1914); Nicaragua; Panama Canal.


Calvin B. Carter, "The Kentucky Feud in Nicaragua: Why Civil War Has Become Her National Sport," in The World's Work 54 (July 1927): 312-321.

Sara Luisa Barquero, Gobernantes de Nicaragua, 1825–1947 (1945).

William Kamman, A Search for Stability: United States Diplomacy Toward Nicaragua, 1925–1933 (1968).

Emiliano Chamorro, El último caudillo: Autobiografía (1983).

Lester D. Langley, The Banana Wars: United States Intervention in the Caribbean, 1898–1934 (1983).

Additional Bibliography

Guido, Clemente. Emiliano Chamorro: Estadista y guerrero. Managua: Fondo Editorial CIRA, 2002.

                                    Shannon Bellamy

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