Chamorro, Violeta (1929—)

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Chamorro, Violeta (1929—)

Nicaraguan political leader, president of Nicaragua from 1990 to 1996, who was thrust into politics as a result of her husband's assassination and the triumph of the Sandinista revolution. Born Violeta Barrios in Rivas, Nicaragua, on October 18, 1929; daughter of Carlos Barrios and Amelia (Sacasa) Barrios; married Pedro Joaquin Chamorro Cardenal; children: Pedro Joaquin ("Quinto"); Carlos Fernando; Claudia Chamorro; Cristiana Chamorro.

For over a decade, the impoverished Central American nation of Nicaragua was the subject of countless newspaper and magazine articles, television reports and books in the United States and Europe that often differed sharply in their explanations of what was taking place in an area of the world heretofore largely ignored. A land of great social contrasts, Nicaragua was where the Panama Canal had almost been built had it not been discovered that the area was seismically very active and thus unsuitable for a safe path between the seas. A typical "banana republic," it had experienced in the late 1920s and early 1930s a temporarily successful uprising against its socially indifferent landowning oligarchy. Led by General Augusto César Sandino, this popular insurrection terrified not only the Nicaraguan elite classes but their American business allies as well. The murder of Sandino in 1934 ended the threat of social revolution as the Somoza clan established themselves at the top of the semi-feudal pyramid that was Nicaraguan society. United States corporate interests breathed a sigh of relief with the restoration of "order and normalcy." What was restored, or more correctly retained, was a plantation economy in which the vast majority of the people remained landless, illiterate and exploited.

Anastasio Somoza, the founder of the dynasty that was to rule and mercilessly exploit Nicaragua for the next 45 years, received the seal of approval of Franklin D. Roosevelt and succeeding Washington administrations. Roosevelt once admitted that Somoza "is a bastard, but he's our bastard." For decades, U.S. policy was to back the ruling oligarchies in Latin America, including the Somoza family, which ignored the needs of their nation's impoverished masses, enriching themselves, their friends and cronies to an obscene degree. When bribes did not quiet potential opponents, terror and murder invariably did. The onset of the Cold War and the appearance of a revolutionary government in Cuba in 1959 enabled the Somozas to argue more than ever that only their kind of rule would keep Nicaragua from succumbing to Marxism.

It was into this world of glaring social injustices that Violeta Barrios was born in 1929 in Rivas, a small town near the Costa Rican-Nicaraguan border. Both of her parents were members of the landowning elite. She grew up on a sprawling cattle ranch, enjoying a carefree life with numerous servants and total economic security; her early years were pleasant and intellectually unchallenging. Few in her circle ever questioned the social or economic system that gave them so much abundance, while most of their fellow Nicaraguans lived in conditions of squalor.

When the time came for decisions to be made about Violeta's education, it was clear that, since she had shown little evidence of strong intellectual interests, the best course would be to prepare her for the traditional role of marriage and motherhood. She spent two years at a Roman Catholic girls high school in San Antonio, Texas, and then went to Blackstone College in Southside, Virginia, where she took some secretarial courses. Despite her exposure to English during these years in the United States, Violeta Barrios never mastered the language, and could only speak it in broken fashion in later years. In 1948, her father died, and Violeta dropped out of college to return to life on the ranch in Rivas.

That year the life of Violeta Barrios changed forever when she met a charming and dynamic young man named Pedro Joaquin Chamorro. Five years her senior, he was descended from one of Nicaragua's most distinguished families. A great-uncle had been the country's first president, and three other Chamorros at four different times had held the highest office, one of them as recently as 1926. Pedro's family was wealthy and highly influential, his father being publisher of La Prensa, the only afternoon daily in the capital city of Managua. Although only a few years older than Violeta, Pedro's life had been infinitely more exciting. When they met, he and his family had recently returned to Nicaragua from an extended period of political exile. In 1944, while he was a law student, he had participated in a failed uprising against the Somoza dictatorship. The regime's punishment for the impetuous rebel from the prominent family was to shut down La Prensa and banish the entire family from Nicaragua. While Pedro's parents lived in New York City, he completed his legal studies in Mexico City.

Violeta Barrios and Pedro Chamorro were married in 1950. The same year, with the full backing of the landed interests and the United States, General Anastasio Somoza Garcia, known as "Tacho," was reelected president in an election that was a travesty of democracy. With his father's death in 1952, Pedro became publisher of La Prensa. His strong, religiously based sense of justice quickly became apparent both in the editorials of his paper and his own political actions. He joined the Internal Front, an organization of liberals from the ruling class who believed the nation needed both democracy and fundamental social reforms. Impatient with the pace of change and convinced that the Somoza clan would never relinquish control, in 1954 Pedro Chamorro joined an ill-fated rebellion. Confident in their hold on power, Somoza decided to punish Chamorro with mild sanctions. Sentenced to two years in jail, Pedro was able to spend the second year of his term under house arrest.

During the early years of her marriage, Violeta Chamorro showed little interest in politics, concentrating on raising her family of four, two boys and two girls who arrived in quick succession; a fifth child, a daughter, had died soon after birth. In 1956, only months after Pedro had resumed full control of La Prensa, Tacho Somoza was assassinated. As expected, he was succeeded by his son, Luis. Within hours, both Violeta and Pedro Chamorro found themselves under arrest. She was soon released, but Pedro was found guilty by a military court of having known about the assassination plot and failed to report. As punishment, he was to be banished for 40 months to the small town of San Carlos del Rio on the shores of Lake Nicaragua.

After leaving her children in the care of her mother-in-law, Violeta joined Pedro at his isolated place of exile, but he had no intention of spending over three years cut off from the world. One midnight, he and Violeta fled by canoe, eluding searchlights sweeping across the San Juan River, the boundary between Nicaragua and Costa Rica. After three hours, they entered a river tributary and thus escaped to freedom.

In San José, Costa Rica, the family was reunited. Besides writing fierce denunciations of the Somoza tyranny for the local press, Pedro also wrote a book-length indictment of their bloody, corrupt rule. He believed that only an uprising would topple the dynasty that ruled his country, and he now organized a military rebellion. Violeta kept in the background but did not try to stop him. Pedro went to Cuba to get arms from Fidel Castro, who had recently led a successful guerilla campaign against the corrupt Batista dictatorship, but was rebuffed. Undiscouraged,

Pedro led a small band of rebels into Nicaragua, but the rebellion was quickly snuffed by the better armed Somoza forces and Pedro and his men were forced to surrender. A sentence of nine years in prison was handed down by a military tribunal.

In the arbitrariness that was central to his and his clan's regime, Luis Somoza declared a general amnesty in 1960 that resulted in Pedro Chamorro being released from prison. He no longer plotted armed insurrection but continued during the next years to attack the regime on the pages of La Prensa. Violeta agreed with her husband. For several years in the 1960s, the Somozas were content to respect the letter of the constitution by ruling the country through puppet presidents. But in 1967, General Anastasio Somoza Debayle, known as "Tachito," announced he would run for the highest office. Mass protests followed and Pedro was arrested on the basis of "evidence" of involvement in terrorist activities found at his La Prensa office. He was released in 45 days.

Few were surprised when Tachito won the election, nor when, at the end of his term in 1972, Somoza turned over power to a hand-picked triumvirate guaranteed to do his bidding. Nature intervened at this point to dramatically alter the course of Nicaraguan history. A devastating earthquake destroyed Managua in December 1972, and both the corruption and incompetence of the Somoza dynasty was now revealed to the eyes of the world. Little reconstruction took place for years and vast sums of assistance funds from abroad was stolen by the Somozas and their cronies. In the middle of this situation, Tachito once more ran for the presidency, an election he of course won handily. Once in office, he brutally suppressed all stirrings of opposition. An outraged Pedro Chamorro now founded a coalition of anti-Somoza elements as the Democratic Union of Liberation (UDEL), organizing meetings throughout the country.

As Pedro Chamorro's political activism increased, his wife became ever more supportive. She often traveled with him to rural areas where they attended meetings and met with the poor. A novelist throughout his career, Pedro's book Jesus Marchena reflects his concern for the poor peasants, and is set in the area in which Violeta grew up. A passionate man, Pedro became increasingly impatient with the slow pace of change and his rhetoric became angrier. He was aware of the dangers involved in being leader of the opposition in a cruel dictatorship, often telling his wife that he expected to be killed. On January 10, 1978, Violeta was in Miami, shopping for a trousseau with her daughter Cristiana when a telephone call from her brother-in-law told her that Pedro had been assassinated by gunmen while driving to work.

Violeta returned home for the funeral, and despite her grief displayed strength and fortitude during the days of mourning. She turned her husband into a martyr, parking the bullet-ridden Saab he had been driving on the patio of their home; his blood-stained clothes were displayed in a glass case inside the house. Both remained there decades after Pedro Chamorro's martyrdom. The political consequences of the murder were immediate and dramatic. UDEL called for a general strike, which was largely successful in shutting down economic life. Somoza cracked down by proclaiming a state of siege. But what had been a spark of rebellion now turned into a strong flame of revolution, with bourgeois moderates seeking to collaborate with the decade-old Sandinista Liberation Front (FSLN).

As publisher of La Prensa, Violeta Chamorro continued to attack the Somoza regime. But it was deeds, not words, that counted now. A small force of FSLN rebels dramatically seized the National Palace in August 1979, forcing Somoza to release political prisoners, pay a ransom, and guarantee safe conduct. He agreed to their demands but soon attacked FSLN outposts in rural areas. He also burned down the La Prensa building. Violeta continued to publish in another city and returned to Managua some months later. Respected by anti-Somoza Nicaraguans as the "noble widow," she was neither an intellectual nor a leader, but her honesty and courage in the face of the dictatorship was nevertheless an inspiration when hopes seemed to fade.

Somoza wanted the United States to save his regime, but the Carter administration refused to assist him, and thus the butcheries and thieving that he and his family had presided over for more than a generation ended in July 1979, when he fled to Miami. The new "government of national reconstruction" was dominated by the radical Sandinistas, but they asked the more moderate Violeta Chamorro to join it as a member of its provisional executive junta. The prestige that she, the memory of her martyred husband, and La Prensa represented were all desired by the new government led by Daniel Ortega. But her view of the new, increasingly militant Ortega administration soon soured, and she resigned from the junta after only nine months.

After 1980, the situation within Nicaragua became part of international power politics and an increasingly tense renewed Cold War. The ultra-conservative administration of Ronald Reagan perceived the Sandinistas as Moscow's tool in the Americas, and Washington's response went far beyond verbal bursts of moral outrage. Full-scale economic warfare was declared to bring a defiantly radical Nicaragua to its knees, and the manpower and treasury of the Central Intelligence Agency were tapped to create a counter-revolutionary force, the Contras, comprised mainly of the remnants of Somoza's brutal National Guard.

The drawing of political lines both within Nicaragua and outside impacted strongly on the Chamorro family. While Violeta became increasingly disenchanted with Sandinista policies, criticizing them caustically in La Prensa, her son Carlos became an enthusiastic supporter of Daniel Ortega's line, becoming editor of the Sandinista party paper. Daughter Claudia Chamorro also became an enthusiastic Sandinista. Violeta's brother-in-law, Xavier Chamorro, also broke ranks with her by resigning from La Prensa to found a pro-revolutionary journal. Two of her children, however, were not swept up in the revolutionary currents of the day. Son Pedro Joaquin (known as "Quinto") and daughter Cristiana Chamorro and her husband Antonio became well-known anti-Sandinistas. Eventually "Quinto" became a Contra leader based in Miami. Despite these bitter political divisions, the family remained close, largely due to the strong personality of Doña Violeta, who remained an enduring symbol of clan stability and continuity.

After the 1984 election of Daniel Ortega as Nicaraguan president, pressure against La Prensa increased significantly. The paper was frequently shut down for brief periods, culminating in a major crackdown that began in 1986 when it was banned for fifteen months. Refusing to bow to the pressure, Violeta Chamorro published her critiques in other journals, demanding that the outside world exert pressure to bring about "a civilized government in Nicaragua, based on the right to free elections and respect for the fundamental rights of man." A hard-pressed La Prensa was kept afloat with substantial funding from the American Central Intelligence Agency.

Violeta realistically accepted the fact that massive intervention by the United States would not evaporate, but at the same time tried to create attitudes that would begin a process of superpower disengagement from Nicaraguan internal affairs. In an open letter to President Ortega published in The New York Times, she argued that "the grave crisis affecting Nicaragua must be resolved among ourselves, the Nicaraguans, without the interference of Cubans, Soviets, or Americans." Relaxation of Cold War tensions resulting from the appearance on the international scene of Mikhail Gorbachev made possible a resolution of the bloody and destructive unrest and social chaos that were destroying Nicaragua.

The Sandinistas, who had been immensely popular with the Nicaraguan masses in the first years of their rule, now had little to offer but more uncertainty and privation. Raids by the Contras, American trade sanctions, and the devastation of Hurricane Joan in 1988 all helped to demolish an already precarious economy. Living standards by the late 1980s were lower than the abysmal situation of a decade earlier, with Nicaragua now approaching the level of Haiti as one of the poorest societies in the Western Hemisphere. By August 1989, the inflation had reached an annual rate of 11,445%. For most Nicaraguans, the basics of survival had become unaffordable.

In 1989, Costa Rican President Oscar Arias persuaded his fellow heads of state of Central America, including Nicaragua, to sign an accord calling for the disbanding of the Contra forces in return for open and free national elections as well as other concessions from the Sandinistas. Convinced that they could win free elections, the Sandinistas signed the accord. Burying past differences, the anti-Sandinista forces created a coalition of 14 parties calling itself the National Opposition Union (UNO). Although her political skills were known to be modest, UNO chose Chamorro as their presidential candidate. She in turn chose her Sandinista son-in-law Antonio as her campaign manager, to underline her hopes that she was not running for office to triumph over an enemy but was engaged in the first steps of a process of national reconciliation.

If Chamorro did not grasp many details of economics or political maneuvering, there were times when she did act decisively. One such occasion was her choice of Alfredo César as her personal adviser. A businessman and politician disliked by many in the UNO leadership for his alleged opportunism, César had a good understanding of the Nicaraguan masses. He advised Violeta to run a simple campaign based on the slogan "UNO! Yes, it can change things!" The complacently confident Sandinistas relied on slick slogans that usually backfired, and despite advice from an American consulting firm that caused Daniel Ortega to abandon his army fatigues and designer glasses for contacts and casual garb, this image change also seemed to fizzle.

During the campaign, Violeta Chamorro, dressed in pristine white, was presented as an attractive grandmother with white hair. Her deeply traditional Roman Catholic piety was reflected in her speeches and appealed to conservative peasants who often linked her with Mary the Virgin , mother of Jesus. Although she would later recall with distaste being "rolled out like some traveling circus attraction," she also fully realized "the importance of symbolism and the value of making the right gestures." She told a reporter at the time, "I have enormous confidence in God. He will illuminate and show me how to do what my conscience dictates." The genuine and essentially unsophisticated faith that radiated from Chamorro appears to have made a much stronger case with potential supporters than did her virtually nonexistent resumé. One UNO leader noted that "She is an icon like the Virgin of Fatima. She doesn't have to talk; she can just lead the procession."

In order to be seen firsthand by thousands of potential voters, Violeta let herself be driven through villages in her four-wheel-drive pickup truck, equipped with a canopy to protect her from the sun and "pillows to mitigate the blows from the potholes on the road." A fractured kneecap only heightened her appeal as she campaigned in a wheelchair or on crutches, stressing her message of national reconciliation and hope for a better future.

Internationally supervised free elections held on February 25, 1990, resulted in a UNO victory with 55.2% of the votes cast. While still president-elect, she made clear that hers would not be a vindictive victory: "Here we will not have victors or vanquished." Still on crutches when she took the presidential oath of office on April 25, Violeta Chamorro invoked the memory of her martyred husband: "This is the hour that his blood has borne the fruit of his dreams. We have reached the promised land. This is the Nicaragua sought by the exiles expelled by dictators. This is the Nicaragua without tyrants, without ideologies that destroy reality, without lies that conceal our history."

Acting as both head of state and government, Chamorro began her presidency wielding great power resting on a popular mandate. Rather than using her authority to crush the losing side in the election, she took steps from the first day of her administration to heal the nation's wounds. One measure was a general amnesty for all political crimes, which included those individuals responsible for her husband's assassination. There would be no rollback on Sandinista land reforms already in place, which meant that land titles already handed out to peasants would be respected. Within a few months after assuming the presidency, Chamorro had been able to disarm the last remnants of what had been a Contra guerilla army of 17,000 men. After abolishing military conscription, she was able to pressure the commanders of the Sandinista armed forces to trim their numbers, the largest in Central America, down to a more reasonable 28,000.

The six years of Violeta Chamorro's presidency were spent in attempts to heal the wounds resulting from the bitter struggles of the 1980s. By the end of her term in the fall of 1996, her government had achieved significant constitutional reforms including a permanent prohibition of obligatory military service and guarantees of private property rights. For only the second time in Nicaraguan history (her coming to power was the first), one chief executive passed power to the next in a peaceful and constitutional fashion. These were remarkable achievements, and gave hope that political democracy had at least a fair chance of becoming permanently rooted in Nicaragua.

What remained only a dream for the vast majority of Nicaraguans when Chamorro left office in 1996 was prosperity and social justice. The national economy was still essentially stagnant, with the damage of more than a decade of civil war still weighing down the lives of most farmers, workers and traders. The oligarchic structure of society, which produced a Violeta Chamorro, a woman who wished for the physical betterment of her poorer fellow-citizens but could offer no clear map to the future, remained largely intact. The privileged were still rich, and many of the poor in the 1990s were becoming even poorer. Unemployment was more than 50% of the potential work force, with infant mortality on the level of some of the poorest African states. These problems would have to be addressed by the next generation of Nicaraguans, hopefully in an atmosphere of political stability and democratic social reform.


Chamorro, Violeta Barrios de, with Sonia Cruz de Baltodano and Guido Fernandez. Dreams of the Heart: The Autobiography of President Violeta Barrios de Chamorro of Nicaragua. NY: Simon and Schuster, 1996.

Kagan, Robert. "After the Deluge, and Before," in New Republic. Vol. 215, no. 17. October 21, 1996, pp. 36–41.

Veeser, H. Aram. "Addicted to Privilege," in Nation. Vol. 263, no. 9. September 30, 1996, pp. 27–30.

John Haag , University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia