Anastasio Somoza Debayle

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Anastasio Somoza Debayle

Anastasio Somoza Debayle (1925-1980) became president of Nicaragua in an election in 1967 which was marred by fraud. His rule was marked by corruption and repression. Opposition to him grew until he was forced to flee to the United States in 1979.

Anastasio Somoza Debayle was born in Leon, Nicaragua, on December 5, 1925, the last of three children of Salvadora Debayle and Anastasio Somoza Garcia. The family moved to Managua, where his father rose rapidly in politics, becoming commander of Nicaragua's only armed force, the National Guard, in 1933. In 1937 General Somoza Garcia used his position to install himself as president of Nicaragua.

After a few years of primary education, Anastasio Somoza Debayle was sent to the United States to study, first in Tampa, then at La Salle Academy in New York. While there he was commissioned a lieutenant in the Guard and promoted to captain when he graduated. In 1943 he entered West Point, graduating from the war-shortened course in 1946. Returning to Nicaragua he was promoted to major and, shortly thereafter, to lieutenant colonel and made the Guard's chief of staff. In 1950 he married Hope Portocarrero. This union produced five children.

In 1956 Anastasio Somoza Debayle was made a colonel and became acting commander of the Guard while his father, who had dominated Nicaragua for 20 years, prepared to run again for president. But in September 1956 General Somoza Garcia was shot, dying a few days later. While Anastasio Somoza Debayle held command of the military, his older brother, Luis, was installed as president and nominated by the Somoza-controlled Liberal Party for the 1957 presidential elections. In the aftermath of his father's death, Anastasio supervised the brutal interrogation of opposition political leaders, but failed to locate evidence of their participation in the assassination.

In 1963, over Anastasio's objections, Luis Somoza allowed a hand-picked political supporter, Rene Shick, to become president. Luis, responding to U.S. pressures, favored a slow loosening of family controls and a liberalization of the regime, while Anastasio wanted full family control and his own turn in the presidency. In 1967, having promoted himself to major general, Anastasio fulfilled his ambition, becoming president in an election marred by fraud and violence. That same year Luis died, removing the major check on Anastasio's power and ambition.

General Somoza Debayle's first term as president was marked by increased corruption, conflicts within the National Guard and the Liberal Party, and growing opposition to Somoza rule. The president appointed relatives to numerous key posts. His illegitimate half-brother, Jose Somoza, became the Guard's inspector general. The Somozas used their positions to expand the family's dominance over the economy and increase their already huge personal fortunes. A Marxist guerrilla group, the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), launched several assaults against the government, but all were crushed by the National Guard. General Somoza Debayle's ability to retain control was facilitated by a period of rapid economic growth which saw the per capita GDP (gross domestic product) increase by 8 percent between 1968 and 1971.

Responding to internal and external pressures, General Somoza Debayle reached an agreement with part of the political opposition, providing for the installation of a three member junta, including one opposition member, to govern the nation from May 1972 until December 1974. This agreement reflected a classic Somoza tactic of dividing and co-opting the political opposition. The junta was installed, but General Somoza Debayle, who remained Guard commander, held the real power in the nation.

This arrangement was disrupted in December 1972 when an earthquake devastated Managua. The general, supported by the U.S. ambassador, brushed aside the junta and took direct control of the nation. The Somozas and the Guard took advantage of the earthquake to further enrich themselves, extending their interests into areas such as banking which they had previously ignored. These actions produced widespread resentment and drove much of the middle and upper classes into open opposition. The Roman Catholic Church also became critical of the regime.

In 1974, in a rigged election, Somoza won a six-year presidential term. A few months later, FSLN guerrillas took numerous prominent Nicaraguans hostage, forcing the regime to release political prisoners and pay a large ransom. Somoza responded to this humiliation by instituting a state of seige and press censorship. Relations with the United States deteriorated, especially when Jimmy Carter became president in 1977.

In July 1977 Somoza suffered a major heart attack. Although he recovered, this emboldened his opponents to increase their attacks on the regime. In January 1978 the opposition's most prominent leader, newspaper editor Pedro Joaquin Chamorro, was assassinated. While no direct evidence of the general's involvement was ever found, this produced massive public demonstrations and a business-sponsored national strike. Somoza refused to step down, but ultimately made some concessions to domestic and international pressures, including lifting the state of seige. In August 1977 FSLN commandos seized the National Palace, taking the entire Congress hostage. They negotiated the release of several more prisoners and were flown to Panama. Almost immediately, armed uprisings broke out in several cities. General Somoza used the Guard to crush the rebels, but the brutality of these actions increased domestic and international opposition. Trying to retain power, he agreed to a U.S.-sponsored mediation process with the opposition, but this collapsed when he refused the mediators' proposals for a national plebescite on his future. Responding to this, the United States suspended aid and reduced its presence in Nicaragua.

General Somoza's efforts in early 1979 to shore up his regime proved unavailing. In late May FSLN guerrillas launched a major offensive and foreign governments began to withdraw recognition. In June the Organization of American States (OAS) adopted a resolution calling for Somoza's resignation. While proclaiming his intention to finish his term, Somoza began negotiations with the U.S. ambassador to obtain asylum in the United States. On July 17, 1979, he turned over the presidency to Francisco Urcuyo and fled to Miami. When Urcuyo balked at transferring power to a FSLN-designated junta, the Carter administration blamed Somoza and threatened to deport him. After the FSLN took power, Somoza, with his half-brother and his mistress, moved to Paraguay. There, on September 17, 1980, he was assassinated by Argentinian radicals. He was buried in Miami.

Further Reading

The only full treatment of Anastasio Somoza Debayle's career is Bernard Diedrich, Somoza and the Legacy of U.S. Involvement in Central America (1981). Anastasio Somoza Debayle and Jack Cox produced a distorted defense of the regime in Nicaragua Betrayed (1980). For a history of the Somoza dynasty through 1976 see Richard Millett, Guardians of the Dynasty (1977). A description of the 1978-1979 revolution which toppled Somoza is found in John A. Booth, The End and the Beginning: The Nicaraguan Revolution (1982). □

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Anastasio Somoza Debayle

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