José Santos Zelaya

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José Santos Zelaya

The Nicaraguan president José Santos Zelaya (1853-1919) instituted improvements in education and transportation which, unfortunately, were accompanied by tyrannical methods. His ambition to dominate Central America and his conflicts with United States policy contributed to his downfall.

José Santos Zelaya was born on Oct. 31, 1853, in Managua to a wealthy coffee planter, José Maria Zelaya, and Juana López. After attending school in Granada, Nicaragua, young José and his brother went to France for advanced study. Returning home in 1876, Zelaya participated in many conspiracies against the Conservative administrations of the "Thirty Years" (1863-1893) and once was exiled for such activity.

When the Conservative regime of Roberto Sacasa was ousted because of division within his party, there followed political confusion from which Zelaya, heading a Liberal group, emerged as president in July 1893. Through manipulated elections and ability to play one faction against another, Zelaya retained power for 16 years. During his administration he created new schools, provided new school furniture and instructional material, increased teachers' pay, and established an office of inspector of public education. He built roads, extended the railway system and steamer service on Nicaraguan lakes, improved agriculture, and started transformation of Managua from a village to the nation's first city.

While some of Zelaya's policies were progressive, others were repressive. He and his associates used their positions for enrichment by selling concessions and demanding tribute from persons doing business in Nicaragua. Zelaya often exiled or imprisoned enemies and confiscated their property.

Desirous of dominating Central America, Zelaya supported a Central American union under his leadership and frequently interfered in neighboring countries. In 1907, after he had encouraged an unsuccessful revolutionary attack on the Honduran government, Nicaraguan troops defeated the Honduran army, along with a force from EI Salvador, and occupied Tegucigalpa. A general Central American war threatened, for which the U.S. State Department blamed Zelaya. Mexico and the United States through the Central American Conference in Washington (1907) supported treaties which aimed at stabilizing Central America. Despite the treaties, Zelaya's meddling continued.

In October 1909 a revolution against Zelaya broke out on Nicaragua's east coast. After two Americans aiding the revolutionists were captured and executed on Zelaya's orders, the United States broke relations with Nicaragua. Facing insurmountable odds, Zelaya resigned on Dec. 16, 1909, and went into exile in Mexico.

Zelaya eventually went to Spain and in 1913 came to the United States. When charges were brought against him for murdering two Americans many years earlier, he spent 8 days in jail. After charges were dropped, he went back to Spain but returned to New York in 1916, where he died on May 17, 1919.

Further Reading

There is no biography of Zelaya in English. Dana G. Munro's The Five Republics of Central America (1918; repr. 1967) and Munro's Intervention and Dollar Diplomacy in the Caribbean, 1900-1921 (1964) give good brief accounts of Zelaya. □

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Jose Santos Zelaya

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