Zelaya, José Santos (1853–1919)

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Zelaya, José Santos (1853–1919)

José Santos Zelaya (b. 31 October 1853; d. 17 May 1919), president of Nicaragua (1893–1909). Zelaya came to the presidency of Nicaragua in September 1893 by means of a revolution. His presidency was important to Nicaragua from several points of view. Politically, Zelaya's presidency constitutes the only substantial interval of rule by the Liberal Party in Nicaragua's history until the 1930s and the arrival of the Somozas. Liberal rule resulted in several important measures to secularize and modernize Nicaraguan society. Economically, Zelaya presided over a commercial expansion that had considerable effect on Nicaragua's citizens. Internationally, his administration coincided with the period of Nicaragua's greatest influence on its Central American neighbors.

Although critics often make light of the ideological commitments of Central American political figures, there is no doubt that Zelaya was committed to Liberal reforms. The Constitution of 1893 strengthened municipal government, separated church and state, prohibited convents and monasteries, guaranteed lay education, established a unicameral legislature, and abolished the death penalty. Like other positivist Latin American leaders, Zelaya was dedicated to bringing economic progress to his country, even by authoritarian methods. He undertook measures to promote export agriculture and granted concessions for the purpose of exploiting natural resources. Railway construction and the building of steamships for use on lakes Managua and Nicaragua received particular attention. Zelaya's zeal for reform, his commitment to economic progress and education, and his youthful cabinet contributed to making Managua an important headquarters for Liberals from northern South America and Central America during his presidency.

Despite democratic procedures outlined in the Constitution of 1893, Zelaya managed elections and ruled as a dictator. He faced approximately fifteen serious efforts by Conservatives to overthrow him. Having modernized and strengthened the Nicaraguan army, Zelaya had little difficulty suppressing his opponents. Unsuccessful rebels were jailed, received amnesty, and often fought again. He was not unusually repressive compared with other Central American presidents of the time.

It was in the field of international affairs that Zelaya made his most significant mark. Sympathetic to the alluring idea of restoring the Central American confederation, he lent his support in 1895 to the creation of the República Mayor, a union of Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Honduras. Although he was an admirer of Justo Rufino Barrios, the Guatemalan president who attempted to restore the confederation by force in 1885, Zelaya took no military measures to preserve the union of the three states. When a coup in El Salvador threatened the union, Zelaya counseled nonintervention, and the union collapsed. During the period 1902–1905, he promoted numerous international peace conferences among the Central American states.

Nicaraguan relations with Honduras and Costa Rica, Nicaragua's immediate neighbors, were primarily peaceful in the early years of Zelaya's presidency, although they deteriorated in 1907–1909. Zelaya initiated negotiations resulting in the signing of a treaty that, when it was finally accepted long after Zelaya's presidency, ended a border dispute between Honduras and Nicaragua. The border with Costa Rica, which had been determined by treaty in 1858 but was not marked, also occupied Zelaya's attention. Negotiations with Costa Rica led to the marking of the border in 1898.

Problems with Great Britain and the United States were not so easily resolved. In his first year in office Zelaya determined to recapture Nicaraguan sovereignty over the Miskito Coast, which had been yielded formally by Great Britain over thirty years earlier but which was still subject to British influence over the Miskito Indians. Zelaya sent troops to Bluefields, headquarters for the Miskitos, and expelled the British consul, provoking British wrath and a brief British blockade of the port of Corinto. In the end Zelaya prevailed. A treaty accepting full Nicaraguan sovereignty was signed by Great Britain in 1904. The Miskito Coast was appropriately named the Department of Zelaya in recognition of his bold action.

The United States sided with Nicaragua on the issue of Miskito sovereignty, but other problems steered Nicaraguan relations with the United States on a perilous course. In the late 1890s, when it appeared that engineers preferred a Nicaraguan route for the proposed isthmian canal, negotiations stalled over Zelaya's resistance to Washington's demand for extraterritorial jurisdiction over the canal zone. When canal construction began in 1904 in Panama, the United States closely watched Zelaya, who was rumored to be courting other nations for possible construction of a rival canal. In 1907, when rivalry between Nicaragua and Guatemala spilled over into Honduras and El Salvador, threatening the stability of the Central American isthmus, Washington began to consider Zelaya a meddler and a threat to peace. An incident in 1909 involving the execution of two U.S. mercenaries led to a decision by Washington to support a rebellion against Zelaya. Recognizing that he could not stay in office against the opposition of the United States, Zelaya resigned and went into exile in December 1909.

See alsoNicaragua, Constitutions; Panama Canal.


Charles L. Stansifer, "José Santos Zelaya: A New Look at Nicaragua's 'Liberal' Dictator" in Revista/Review Interamericana 7, no. 3 (1977): 468-485, is the principal English-language source on Zelaya. Dana G. Munro, Intervention and Dollar Diplomacy in the Caribbean, 1900–1921 (1964), tracks the relations of the Zelaya administration with the United States, but always taking the point of view of the United States. A dissertation by John E. Findling, "The United States and Zelaya: A Study in the Diplomacy of Expediency" (University of Texas, 1971), provides more detail on the relations between the United States and Nicaragua in the Zelaya era than is available in Munro. Neither Munro nor Findling has much to say about domestic issues. Of the Spanish-language sources, José Dolores Gámez, Remembranza histórica del General J. Santos Zelaya (1941), and Enrique Aquino, La personalidad política del General José Santos Zelaya (1945) are the best.

Additional Bibliography

Baracco, Luciano. Nicaragua, Imagining the Nation: A History of Nationalist Politics in Nicaragua from 19th Century Liberals to 20th Century Sandinistas. New York: Algora Pub., 2005.

Gobat, Michel. Confronting the American Dream: Nicaragua under U.S. Imperial Rule. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005.

Gutiérrez, Harim B. Una alianza fallida: México y Nicaragua contra Estados Unidos, 1909–1910. Mexico City: Instituto Mora, 2000.

Paredes, Melvin Javier. Zelaya y el protestantismo: Génesis de los evangélicos en el Pacífico de Nicaragua. Managua: CIEETS-Editorial: UPOLI: Sirviendo a la comunidad Visión Mundial Nicaragua, 1995.

                                     Charles L. Stansifer

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