History Dialogue
Mural by Daniel Pulido.

Colonization and the failure of the Central American Union-

In a small town in the United States Genoveva asked her father about the history of her native country. Ricardo, her father, narrates the brief yet bloody history of Nicaragua, meanwhile her mother reads at earshot distance.

GENOVEVA- Dad, where is Nicaragua?

RICARDO – Well, dear, Nicaragua is in the middle of the Americas. We live in North America. There is another, big continent, South America, and there is this big sea, the Caribbean, a place of pirates, smugglers, adventurers and conquerors, and its fate made the fate of our countries, which are in Central America. There’s gold, and oil, and diamonds, and sugar there, and those riches have brought the greedy to our land and to all of Central America. The first to come were the Spaniards, as I told you, but it was not to stay. We will speak about them some other day.

GENOVEVA – Yes, well. But, what happened with the Spaniards?

RICARDO - Well, Central America managed to pass from Spanish rule into formal independence with almost no violence. Central America merely followed Mexico's lead and broke with Spain in mid-1821. In January of 1822, Central America joined the Mexican empire of Agustin de Iturbide.

GENOVEVA – Mexican empire? My God! Was Mexico ever an empire? Like the British empire?

RICARDO – Well, no, but bad enough, as all empires are. Shortly after that, Central America decided it was tired of its relationship with Mexico and all but the province of Chiapas, which chose to remain united with Mexico, declared themselves independent once again.

GENOVEVA – Was that good for them?

RICARDO – Well, it’s like you becoming independent from us, your parents, if you are weak and young you won’t be able to take care of yourself, but once you are thirty I sure hope you don’t want to live under your parents roof. Or hopefully we won’t decide to keep you like Cinderella, a step daughter who is used to cook and clean.

JULIA- Oh, Ricardo, you and your crazy notions. Don’t pay attention to your extremist father Genoveva. Anyway, the story goes like this from independence until 1838, the region was supposedly unified into a federation called the United Provinces of Central America. At first, the union seemed like a great idea and everyone was excited about the possibilities. They reasoned that Central America would be politically and economically stronger as one unit instead of five small pieces.

GENOVEVA – That was better for them.

RICARDO - However, from the very beginning, powerful forces worked to destroy the fragile relationship. First of all, the resentment that most of the nations held for Guatemala grew even larger when Guatemala dominated policymaking. Second, the Constitution of 1824 declared each state to be "free and independent" in their internal affairs. So they were never united like the American States, for instance.

GENOVEVA – Dad, here in the US we are strong economically because the states are united, right? Also, because the country is big.

JULIA- However, their Constitution also contained contradictions, which supported nationalist—ideas that supported national independence— and centralist ideas. These ideas tended to hamper the freedom which each country sought in their "internal affairs."

RICARDO - Finally, two parties, the Liberals and the Conservatives, began to emerge out of the ruling elite and their rivalry threatened the union.

GENOVEVA – That’s even worse. When two kids want to be team captains, there’s never peace in the schoolyard.

RICARDO – Oh, honey. You are so young and so smart.

JULIA– And so it was, once again. Liberals and Conservatives not only disputed within their own provinces, but also across borders. As a result, meddling in neighbor's affairs has become a common practice of Central American leaders.

RICARDO – Meddling is the name of politics in Central America.

JULIA– How about giving her a little more of the story and a little less of your opinions?

RICARDO – Right. These three factors worked together to create tension and civil war. Everything just blew up in 1838 when first Nicaragua and then the other members went their own way. Several more attempts were made to reunify the countries, but none were ever successful.

GENOVEVA – Oh, what a pity. Did they not know that union makes strength?

JULIA– The history of Nicaragua has a lot to do with the idea of a water route to connect the Pacific and the Atlantic oceans. Its geography made its tragedy.

Foreign involvement –

When we last left our feuding family they were thinking about how the geography of a region can transform it into a disputed terrain. Lets listen in again…

JULIA– The history of Nicaragua has a lot to do with the idea of a water route to connect the Pacific and the Atlantic oceans. Its geography made its tragedy.

RICARDO - That was the idea in 1847, when British sailors landed in San Juan del Norte. And that’s why, since the 1850's the US government has been interested in Nicaragua numerous times, setting up puppet governments, to secure its economic and political interests. By 1850, the US and the British signed a deal, the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty, by which they ignored Nicaragua and her rights, and decided to build together a canal in Nicaragua’s land.

JULIA– Yeah, but there was constant strife in Nicaragua. Leon went on to become the center of the Liberals (Los Liberales), and Granada became the political center of the Conservatives (Los Conservadores). Always fighting among brothers, like dogs and cats. If you ask me Nicaragua needs the support of the US. The country is doing better now with the privatization of industry. It is a fact that now Nicaragua is the fastest growing economy in Central America.

GENOVEVA- I don’t know…is Nicaragua old enough to be separated from parent countries?

RICARDO – That’s Daddy’s girl. Always thinking things through. You will figure out what you think all on your own Genoveva and whatever you decide will be fine as long as you can respect your countries most valuable resource: freedom of speech.

JULIA– There he goes again, the idealist, the dreamer. I say come back to earth Ricardo and get your head out of…the clouds. And so, Genoveva, faction-based strife began to heat up as the Liberals fought to establish an independent nation and declared themselves an independent republic in 1893. It’s sad to say this, but this strife became characteristic of Nicaraguan politics and still continues today in a different form.

RICARDO – Yeah. We learned those vices from the Spaniards. That’s the sad fact. Anyway, by 1854, gold was found in our country, and a lot of bad people came after it. Of course, many of them were greedy Americans.

JULIA– Oh, come on! There are plenty of Americans, like ourselves now as citizens of this country that has given us everything Nicaragua never did, there are plenty Americans who are not greedy. It is only the few that are greedy in any country. The majority are like us, hard working good folks. Besides, that’s no fair, Germans came too, and people from all over Europe. You cannot say that…

RICARDO – O.K. Dear. I won’t say it. But then again, what happened next?

JULIA– I don’t remember. What was it?

RICARDO – Come on. No tricks now.

JULIA– Well, alright. What happened was that, in 1855, William Walker, an American adventurer with a small band of followers, was hired by the Liberals to head their forces in opposition to the Conservatives.

RICARDO – Yes. And Walker captured and sacked Granada and then set himself up as president of Nicaragua in 1856 and sought US statehood. His first law was set to impose slavery in Nicaragua

JULIA- However, Walker made a fatal mistake when he seized the property of Cornelius Vanderbilt because Vanderbilt retaliated by backing the Conservatives, who forced Walker to leave the country in 1857.

GENOVEVA – Who was Cornelius Vanderbilt?

JULIA– Cornelius, Cornelius… What a nice name!

RICARDO – He was a robber baron.

GENOVEVA – A robber baron?

RICARDO – Yeah. That’s how they called the very, very rich in this country by then. If you have some free time, why don’t you look in the dictionary? Remember: robber baron. Cornelius' interest in Nicaragua was due to his Accessory Transit Company, which he founded in 1849 to take advantage of the California Gold Rush.

GENOVEVA – Here it is. It’s the Webster’s Dictionary. It says: "Robber Baron: One of the American industrial or financial magnates of the latter 19th century who became wealthy by unethical means, such as questionable stock-market operations and exploitation of labor.

RICARDO – That’s an American dictionary, right?

GENOVEVA – Of course.

RICARDO _ That’s good to show that times change, you see? There are no more robber barons today, thank God…Well, let’s go on. By 1870, Nicaragua tried to protest through a diplomatic note and asked for reparations after the damage caused by the marines in 1854. Nothing happened next.

GENOVEVA – Not even a word?

RICARDO – None. And by 1893, Lewis Hanke, an American envoy , takes his place to conspire and help the Conservatives against a popular uprising. But he failed.

JULIA– Yes, because the Liberals brought about a successful revolution which placed their leader Jose Santos Zelaya in power.

RICARDO – He came to like that business of power: Zelaya remained president for the next 16 years, ruling as a dictator. Until, in 1907, American warship arrived to stay in the Gulf of Fonseca.

GENOVEVA - And there they remained forever?

JULIA– Almost. By 1909, Nicaragua, under a nationalist government, shot two American mercenaries that were conspiring to overthrow that government.

RICARDO – Americans didn’t like that. They sent a diplomatic note, the Knox Note, by which they declared their right to intervene in Nicaragua whenever and wherever they saw it fit. Now, that was a shame, I must say.

GENOVEVA – It surely was. Indeed it was, but maybe there is just as much internal problems as external.

RICARDO - Anyway, Zelaya was forced out in 1909, after Adolfo Diaz was made provisional president. One year later, American warships came to help him start a new regime. And it was Diaz who requested United States military to maintain order after a revolt in 1912. They came for good. They were everywhere and they killed another of our national heroes, Benjamin Zeledón.

GENOVEVA – You were right when you said this is a sad story, Mother.

JULIA– Well… There’s always two sides to every tale…

RICARDO - Yeah, but what’s a fact is that by 1914, Emiliano Chamorro signed the Chamorro-Bryan Treaty, and this time the US bought its right to do whatever it pleased in Nicaragua.

GENOVEVA – Bought it? Like when you buy …

RICARDO – In this world, dear, you can always buy everything. If you have the money, of course. If you don’t…

JULIA– Well, who are the crooks inside Nicaragua, who make these decisions? I believe it was a diplomatic coup: the US paid $3 million dollars to Nicaragua for the right to build a canal across the country from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean, to lease the Great and Little Corn Islands, and to establish a naval base in the Gulf of Fonseca.

GENOVEVA – So the whole of Nicaragua would have been worth…. How much?

JULIA- That’s not the point, dear. You seem to misunderstand…

RICARDO – It was also a horrible political mistake: The agreement was extremely unpopular with many elements and it aroused anti-American guerrilla warfare in Nicaragua as well as protests from other Central American countries.

GENOVEVA – I can understand that. What if they sold our house for a penny or two?

RICARDO – That is, if we had a house, which we don’t.

JULIA– The fact is that, when the American marines left in 1925, rebellions began and the marine forces returned to quell the disturbances just a year after its departure. What a violent story, my God!

RICARDO - Under American supervision, General Jose Maria Moncada, a Liberal, was chosen in 1928. Moncada had fought against the marines before, but this time he made a deal with Henry L. Stimson, a personal envoy of President Coolidge.

GENOVEVA – Right. If you cannot beat the, join them. I heard this at school.

JULIA– He was right. Nobody can live with eternal war.

RICARDO – War was better, I tend to believe. By 1927, one Liberal leader, Augusto Cesar Sandino, created a guerrilla army, the Army to Defend the National Sovereignty, and fought five hundred battles against the marines until, by 1934, they left the country.

GENOVEVA – Wow!

RICARDO – But they also left Anastasio Somoza after they had made him commander of the National Guard. Somoza, following the good advice of Ambassador Arthur Bliss Lane, worked hard until somebody assassinated Sandino that very same year.

GENOVEVA – Shucks. What a coincidence.

JULIA– That’s just a rumor…

Somoza

Things are just beginning to heat up at the Ricardo and Julia household. We are just about to hear what happened with the dictator Somoza…

JULIA– That’s just a rumor…

RICARDO – Yes, and cows can fly. In 1936, Anastasio Somoza, with a lot of American dollars, founded a brutal dictatorship that was passed from father to son to brother for 43 years. Thus began the Somoza dynasty.

JULIA– But Somoza was elected president in 1937. Legally. Free elections and all that.

RICARDO - Yes, dear. Any way, Pearl Harbor was bombed, and on December 9, 1941, Nicaragua entered World War II. We were ready to defeat the Japanese, by golly!

GENOVEVA – The Japanese?

RICARDO – That’s another, long story. Ask me about it next Monday.

JULIA– By 1945, Nicaragua became a charter member of the United Nations. That was good.

RICARDO - And by 1948. Somoza sent his troops to meddle in Costa Rica. That was not so good.

JULIA– On the other hand, Nicaragua joined the Organization of American States in 1948 and the Organization of Central American States, created to solve common Central American problems, in 1951. That was also good.

GENOVEVA – Why?

RICARDO – We could add our vote to the American vote, so that we could help them. Democracy was in mortal danger, remember that.

JULIA- It's a fact: The free world was in a deadly war with the Nazis and with the Japanese. Thank God we won.

RICARDO - WE won?

JULIA_ Yes, we did. Imagine the world under Hitler and Tojo… Imagine.

RICARDO – One of these days, you and your imagination will… Let’s go on, please.

Nicaragua sent mercenaries to overthrow Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala…

JULIA– He was a Red, a Communist, the Devil in underpants!

RICARDO – Yes, but he was legally chosen. That’s democracy, you know…

JULIA_ Oh, Shut up! Who can believe such a…

RICARDO - In 1955 Somoza sent his military to have a say in en Costa Rica… And, together with the marines, he sent a few of his own men to the Dominican Republic also in 1955, just to give a hand, you know. When they were captured they sang and said that they had been trained in Nicaragua. One year later, Anastasio Somoza, who had resumed the presidency, was assassinated. Maybe he was not so popular as you say, dear.

GENOVEVA _ It looks like he wasn’t.

JULIA- Poor soul. Next day he was succeeded by his son, Luis Somoza Debayle.

RICARDO – By 1960, the American Fleet of the Caribbean shows its guns to help the governments in Guatemala y Nicaragua, which were anything but popular. Those guns are quite impressive, you know, dear.

JULIA- But those presidents were not democratic, as you very well know.

RICARDO – How democratic is a warship gun?

JULIA– Well, if you ask me…

GENOVEVA – This is just like Nicaragua: Liberales against Conservadores forever. Shame on you, RICARDO and Julia.

JULIA- You do not understand these things, my child. What good is there in keeping these tiny banana republics alive? It had been better if we had one big, organized country all over the three Americas… That way, trade would be easier.

RICARDO – Oh, God. Forgive them for what they say, because they do not know what they do... Or something like that.

GENOVEVA _ What next?

RICARDO – Action, action of course. In 1961, Luis Somoza sent from Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua, his mercenaries to invade Playa Girón, Cuba. He is defeated with every other invader, most of which were Cubans from Miami. Somoza learned nothing. In 1966, René Schick, made president by Somoza, came to the4 US to offer his country as a launching pad for another Cuban invasion. It seems the idea was not so cool. People forgot it as soon as he closed his mouth.

GENOVEVA – You were quite right, Mother. This IS a sad story.

JULIA- Then, in 1967, Anastasio Somoza Debayle, the younger son of the former dictator, was made president.

RICARDO – First think he did, he offered his National Guard to fight in Vietnam. Second thing he did, he sent his agents to put a tragic end to president Arnulfo Arias, en Panamá. That was in 1968.

GENOVEVA – Shish.

JULIA– Well, you know, he was… I mean, Somoza Junior was a military-minded autocrat and he repressed his opposition with the aid of the National Guard. That seems almost natural. By 1971, his legislature abrogated the constitution and dissolved itself, and in 1972, Somoza's Liberal party won in a landslide. Even his mother voted for him.

GENOVEVA – He must have been a very handsome man.

RICARDO – Yes, yes…the marines are back in Nicaragua to help Somoza after our horrendous 1972 earthquake. So we had to deal with Somoza, the marines and the earthquake. Now, that was a hard day.

JULIA– Do not forget, please, that in May, Somoza stepped down to the post of chief of the armed forces; political control was assumed by a trio of two Liberals and one Conservative. It was not all his fault.

GENOVEVA – What a man. Oh, what a man.

RICARDO - One example of the corruption and brutality, which led the people to organize for change, was the steeling of international relief moneys by the Somoza dictatorship after a huge earthquake devastated Managua in 1972.

JULIA– God have pity of us… The forces of nature struck and devastated Nicaragua on December 23, 1972 when a massive earthquake virtually leveled the city of Managua. The earthquake left 6,000 dead and 20,000 injured in its wake. Martial law was declared, and Somoza in effect became chief executive again.

RICARDO – He always had a good eye for chance and opportunities. Sadly, however, Somoza did not use the international aid which he received to rebuild the country in a prudent manner and the opposition to his regime grew even stronger.

JULIA- So, he formally became president again with his re-election in 1974.

RICARDO – But by the late 1970s, the economy of Nicaragua was stagnant and the people were ripe for a revolution.

JULIA- Then in 1978, Joaquín Chamorro, an editor of the anti-Somoza newspaper La Prensa was assassinated and the people blamed Somoza.

The Nicaraguan Revolution -

Last we checked the situation in Nicaragua was culminating, coming to a head. It seems like something big is about to happen. Lets find out…

RICARDO - The anti-Somoza guerrilla forces under the leadership of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) began to violently oppose the military and the country was plunged into a virtual civil war.

GENOVEVA – Another one?

JULIA- The United States was so worried that a Communist regime would emerge from the chaos that had taken over Nicaragua that they urged Somoza to resign so that a moderate group could take power.

RICARDO – Nice guys… No matter: in 1978, the US and the OAS failed in mediation attempts with Nicaragua and the US suspended military aid to Somoza.

GENOVEVA – It was about time! Don’t you think so, Mother?

RICARDO- Somoza resigned on July 17 of 1979 and flew to Miami, Florida and then to Paraguay in exile. In 1980, some radicals found him and assassinated him in Paraguay.

GENOVEVA – The end of Junior….

JULIA– Poor man!

RICARDO – Indeed, dear. Well, after many years of bloody battle the Somoza dictatorship was finally toppled on July 19,1979 by the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN). On July 20, the Sandinistas entered Managua to the triumphant celebrating of hundreds of thousands of Nicaraguans.

GENOVEVA – Was it a popular movement?

JULIA– No. Half of the population was against them. The wealthy, the landowners, the Church and uncle Blas.

RICARDO -…. the Sandinistas were very successful in implementing programs to achieve the people's self-determination for the first time in their history. These programs achieved worldwide recognition and included gains in the areas of literacy, health care, education, childcare, unions and land reform.

JULIA- However, as Nicaraguans struggled to become more self sufficient and independent, the Reagan-Bush administration began funding the Contra War against the Sandinista government in the early 1980's.

RICARDO - This war cost 60,000 lives and destroyed the infrastructure and economy of the country. If put in US. Dollar amounts, the damages from this ten-year war would total 178 billion dollars.

GENOVEVA – How much?

RICARDO – More money than all Nicaraguans will see in their whole life.

JULIA- Control of the country was shifted to a junta of five people, one of which was Violeta Chamorro, the widow of that editor murdered by Somoza, or so they said.

RICARDO - This junta ruled Nicaragua from 1980 to 1985.

JULIA- The junta began to lean more and more toward left-wing policies, and Chamorro resigned in disgust and turned her late husband's newspaper into an opposition voice to these policies.

RICARDO - Around this time, a group of opponents to the Sandinistas sprang up and became known as contras. In 1981, the US began to fund the contras in their guerrilla war against the Sandinistas in order to continue the US foreign policy of suppressing communism. Facing enormous economic difficulties, the junta made an agreement with the former USSR for an aid package.

JULIA- Of course the US became even more desperate, fearing that another Cuba was in the making.

RICARDO - In 1985, Daniel Ortega, the FSLN's presidential candidate, took office and declared a state of national emergency, suspending civil rights.

JULIA- At this time, what has become known as the Iran-Contra Affair occurred, dear child, and it was an operation in which funds were secretly channeled to the contras, directly violating the Boland Amendment.

RICARDO - By 1988, the country was a social and economic disaster zone as a result of the civil war and Hurricane Hugo so President Ortega agreed to the first peace talks with the contras and a temporary truce was achieved in March.

GENOVEVA – Peace in the end. That’s very good.

RICARDO – God have pity of us. In 1990, Violeta Chamorro became President of Nicaragua as a result of the elections and she was able to maintain peace in the land throughout her term of office and improve relations with the US….or so they say.

JULIA- In 1990 Nicaragua held its second democratic elections. The Nicaraguan people, after suffering the ill effects of ten years of war and a US trade embargo, voted for the US backed UNO Coalition candidate Violeta de Chamorro.

RICARDO – Many Nicaraguans felt pushed against the wall by their dire conditions and saw no other way to end the US's aggression. Yet, despite this coercion, the Sandinista Party still received 41% of the total votes. Today, the FSLN is still the largest, most popular party in the country.

JULIA_ But, since the UNO coalition took office, they have severely cut government spending on Sandinista-implemented social programs, such as health care and education.

GENOVEVA – The poor must pay, as always, right?

RICARDO - In July 1991 the right wing sectors attacked the Sandinista land reforms, which gave land to peasants and small farmers. The results have been detrimental to every aspect of people's lives. One example is the neighborhood, Barrio La Primavera, in Managua. The people living on small plots of land and in makeshift houses, are now threatened with eviction due to UNO's actions.

JULIA_ Well, yes… But life goes on… In 1997, the conservative candidate of the Liberal Party, Arnoldo Alemán Lacayo, was elected over Daniel Ortega, 49 percent to 39 percent, and Arnoldo's party gained a majority in the National Assembly as well. The transfer of power from Chamorro to Alemán was the first peaceful transfer of power from one democratically elected president to another in Nicaragua's history.

RICARDO - God be blessed! The New World Order is here, at last!

JULIA- I don’t care what you say… The new administration stated that it is committed to further reforms that would ensure sustainable economic growth. These reforms include improving the business climate through the privatization of the few state enterprises that are left, strengthening law enforcement, resolving private property disputes, reconstructing tax and investment laws as well as the judicial system.

GENOVEVA – Just like in New York City. Good.

RICARDO – So, by May of 1997, a demobilization accord was reached with the many armed bands that have been operating in remote areas of the country.

JULIA– As I was saying… Reforms of the Tax and Commercial Justice Law have been made to reduce income tax rates, widen the tax base, lower average import tariffs, and increase the tax contribution from consumption….

RICARDO – What consumption?

JULIA- …International trade and exchange controls have been vastly reduced inviting more and more trade. Let me read this from a last report I got in 1997: "The government appears to be succeeding in its effort to improve economic conditions, because the GDP growth rate has reached almost 6%, the highest in Central America. The IMF has accepted Nicaragua's structural adjustment plan (ESAF) and the Paris Club has renegotiated the payment of over a billion dollars of the national debt."

What do you say to that?

RICARDO - Well, dear, I’d say…. My child, today, the Nicaraguan people are organizing to help one another survive. As they are building on the Sandinista successes they are looking forward to the future for positive changes, despite the severe conditions that UNO and US. Aid policies have produced. And… God bless Nicaragua… What else can I say?