Anastasio Somoza García

Anastasio Somoza García
Anastasio Somoza García

Founder of the Somoza dynasty, which ruled Nicaragua for 43 years (1936–1979), Anastasio "Tacho" Somoza García became chief director of the Nicaraguan National Guard (Guardia Nacional de Nicaragua) in November 1932, despite his lack of military experience. His rise to political and military prominence can be attributed primarily to his political and family connections and his capacity to charm U.S. policy makers with his fluency in English.

Born in San Marcos, Nicaragua, to a wealthy Liberal coffee planter, in his teens he traveled to Philadelphia to live with relatives. There he honed his English skills, taking classes at the Pierce School of Business Administration.

In Philadelphia he also met his future wife, Salvadora Debayle Sacasa, a member of one of Nicaragua's most prominent Liberal families. Returning to Nicaragua, he engaged in a number of unsuccessful business enterprises, including a stint as a used car salesman. With the outbreak of civil war in 1926, he joined the Liberals on the side of ousted president Juan Bautista Sacasa, his wife's uncle.

A minor Liberal chieftain who led a failed assault on the Conservative garrison at San Marcos, he gained prominence in U.S. military and diplomatic circles by serving as interpreter during U.S.-brokered negotiations between Liberal and Conservative factions.

Under the administration of José María Moncada (1928–1932), he was appointed governor (jefe político) of León department and later foreign minister and consul to Costa Rica. Principally by ingratiating himself with U.S. officials and exploiting his family ties, by 1932 he had become the assistant director of the Guardia Nacional, whose main task was suppressing the six-year insurrection led by nationalist rebel leader Augusto C. Sandino in the mountainous north.

After being appointed director of the National Guard on the strong recommendation of U.S. ambassador Matthew E. Hanna, Somoza engaged in a series of unsuccessful peace talks with Sandino. On February 21, 1934, in the capital city of Managua, he had Sandino and members of his entourage assassinated, soon followed by a series of massacres of Sandino's supporters, most notably at the Río Coco cooperative near the Honduran border.

Tensions mounted between Somoza and President Sacasa, elected in 1932. In June 1936, Somoza orchestrated a coup against Sacasa and in December, in a rigged election, was elected president with over 99.9 percent of the vote. The same year he published an important book, The True Sandino (El verdadero Sandino), demonizing Sandino as a criminal psychopath. After 1936 his Nationalist Liberal Party dominated the country's politics.

His regime can be characterized as a populist, patrimonial dictatorship that ruled through a combination of shrewd co-optation and violent suppression of opposition. Amassing enormous wealth through exploiting his political power, by the mid-1940s he had become the country's largest landowner, in part by expropriating the properties of German nationals.

A staunch ally of the United States in World War II, he responded to mounting domestic opposition in 1944 by reorganizing his ruling bloc, permitting limited opposition, and orchestrating the passage of a progressive labor code in 1945 intended to defuse opposition among the country's incipient urban working class.

In the late 1940s he ruled through a number of puppet presidents elected in his stead (Leonardo Argüello, Benjamin Lacayo Sacasa, and Victor Román Reyes) until his rigged reelection in 1950. On September 21, 1956, the poet Rigoberto López Pérez shot him dead in the city of León.

He was succeeded by his sons Luis omoza Debayle (dictator, 1956–1963) and Anastasio "Tachito" Somoza Debayle (dictator, 1963–1979), both of whom governed with strong U.S. support. The latter, more avaricious and less prone to compromise than his elder brother or father, was overthrown on July 19, 1979, in the Sandinista revolution and later assassinated in Paraguay by a Sandinista hit squad. Within Nicaragua, popular memories of Somocista rule remain overwhelmingly negative, emphasizing especially the three dictators' cruelty, corruption, and cupidity.