Somoza García, Anastasio (1896–1956)

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Somoza García, Anastasio (1896–1956)

Anastasio Somoza García (b. 1 February 1896; d. 29 September 1956), Nicaraguan dictator (1936–1956) and patriarch of the Somoza dynasty. Born in San Marcos, "Tacho" Somoza dominated Nicaragua from 1930 to 1956. Born in Carazo, department of San Marcos, Tacho was the grand-nephew of Bernabé Somoza, Nicaragua's most notorious outlaw. He attended school in Philadelphia, where he gained an excellent command of English. Upon returning to Nicaragua, Somoza embarked upon a military career that would result, with the support of the U.S. representatives in Nicaragua, in his meteoric and violent rise to the presidency. He married Salvadora Debayle, the niece of leading Liberal and president Juan Bautista Sacasa, and gained entrance to the upper circles of Nicaraguan society and politics. During the 1927–1933 U.S. military occupation of Nicaragua, Somoza came to the attention of U.S. Secretary of State Henry Stimson. Based on his command of English and charismatic enthusiasm for the United States, he was named Stimson's envoy and also nicknamed "el yanqui." In 1927 the United States gave him command of the newly created National Guard. The guard was created to maintain order in the violent world of Nicaraguan politics, thus allowing the withdrawal of the U.S. Marines.

Under Somoza's tutelage, the guard became increasingly powerful, placing him in a position to challenge and surpass even the political and legal authority of the Nicaraguan president. Not surprisingly, he became embroiled in a struggle for political power with President Sacasa, his uncle-in-law, and increasingly used the guard to exert his influence and control over Nicaragua. In 1934, after Sacasa had completed peace negotiations with the guerrilla commander Augusto César Sandino, Somoza arranged for Sandino's murder. It has been suggested that he was forced into the plot to maintain his control over the guard. Somoza's authorization for the murder, however, was representative of his methods. Using the guard as a power base, Somoza ousted Sacasa from the presidency in 1936.

Backed by the guard, Somoza came to the presidency with more personal power than any other president in Nicaraguan history. Despite legal blocks to his becoming president—he was barred from the position as a relation of Sacasa and as commander of the National Guard—Somoza was "elected" to the presidency in December 1936. Although described as charming, astute, and ambitious, Tacho Somoza used guile, opportunism, and ruthlessness to maintain and build a political and economic dynasty. As president he maintained supreme command of the National Guard. He reestablished the Nationalist Liberal Party as a personal political machine, dusted off at election time to ensure his candidacy. The Conservative opposition was bought off with the 1948 and 1950 political pacts that guaranteed them one-third of congressional seats and a place on the Supreme Court while ensuring their compliance with Somoza's domination of Nicaragua.

His economic control of the country increased steadily. He came to power with the proverbial "ruined coffee finca," and died leaving personal wealth estimated between $100 and $150 million. His attitude toward Nicaragua was summed up in a single line, "Nicaragua es mi finca" (Nicaragua is my farm). His exploitation of foreign aid and technical assistance (a substantial amount due to his very pro-U.S. stance) and his opportunism during World War II increased his private holdings dramatically. Under the pretext of combating Nazism, he confiscated German and Italian-owned properties. By 1944 Somoza was the largest private landowner and the leading producer of sugar in the country. His holdings soon expanded to include meat and mining companies, cement works, textile mills, milk processing, and state transport facilities, many of which were monopolies. There were also the "dirty" businesses of gambling, brothels, racketeering, illegal alcohol production, and monopoly control of export-import licensing, much of which occurred with National Guard participation.

Somoza's ability to stay in power stemmed from his control over the National Guard but also from political astuteness. When the winds of political change began to favor prodemocracy movements and rising discontent resulted in democratically elected governments in Guatemala and El Salvador in the 1940s, Somoza enacted a new labor code in 1944 and an income tax law in 1952, and established a development institute in 1953. This "social progress" coincided with an economic boom from the expansion of the cotton industry. Somoza's support was also bolstered by Washington. His pro-U.S. line brought funding for infrastructure development. Despite increasing discontent with his economic and political domination and repressive tactics, the United States saw him as a staunch ally in a region that was fast becoming a concern for U.S. policy. His heavy-handed methods were cause for President Franklin D. Roosevelt's famous description of Somoza as "a son of a bitch, but our son of a bitch." Other Central American leaders became increasingly concerned with his power. In 1954 the Organization of American States (OAS) had to intervene to prevent Somoza from supporting Costa Rican exiles in launching a coup attempt on President José Figueres Ferrer from Nicaraguan soil.

Ultimately, the repressive nature of Somoza's economic, political, and military dictatorship resulted in his assassination. On 21 September 1956, a young Nicaraguan poet, Rigoberto López Pérez, shot Somoza in León. Somoza had been in the city to receive the presidential nomination from the Nationalist Liberal Party. U.S. Ambassador Thomas Wheaton, with support from President Dwight D. Eisenhower, airlifted Somoza to the American military hospital in Panama, where he died. He was survived by his wife, a daughter, and three sons (one illegitimate). Two of his sons, Luis and Anastasio, would continue the dynasty for another twenty-three years.

See alsoNicaragua; Sacasa, Juan Batista; Sandino, Augusto César; Somoza Debayle, Anastasio; Somoza Debayle, Luis.


Richard Millet, Guardians of the Dynasty (1977).

Eduardo Crawley, Dictators Never Die (1979).

Anastasio Somoza and Jack Cox, Nicaragua Betrayed (1980).

Bernard Diedrich, Somoza and the Legacy of U.S. Involvement in Central America (1981) and Somoza (1982); Thomas Walker, Nicaragua: The Land of Sandino (1986).

David Close, Nicaragua: Politics, Economics, and Society (1988).

Anthony Lake, Somoza Falling (1989).

Additional Bibliography

Clark, Paul Coe. The United States and Somoza, 1933–1956: A Revisionist Look. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1992.

Crawley, Andrew. Somoza and Roosevelt: Good Neighbor Diplomacy in Nicaragua, 1933–1945. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Walter, Knut. The Regime of Anastasio Somoza, 1936–1956. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993.

                                   Heather K. Thiessen