José Santos Zelaya

José Santos Zelaya
José Santos Zelaya

The president of Nicaragua from 1893 to 1909, José Santos Zelaya was leader of the Liberal Party in Nicaragua for many years and a critic of U.S. foreign policy in the region.

Zelaya was born on November 1, 1853, and on May 20, 1893, he became one of the three members of the junta, with Joaquín Zavala and Eduardo Montiel, that took power in Nicaragua, ending the presidency of Roberto Sacasa.

The conservatives had taken over after the defeat of William Walker, and prominent families had rotated the presidency around a small oligarchy largely occupied with plans for a canal through Nicaragua, at the time thought of as easier than the route running through Panama. The overthrow of the government in Nicaragua in May 1893 was also ammunition for people supporting the Panama route.

On June 1 Salvador Machado became the acting president, followed on July 16 by Joaquín Zavala. On July 31 Zelaya became president, and, inspired by the Mexican revolutionary Benito Juárez, he tried to carry out some of the measures introduced by Juárez in Mexico in the 1860s and 1870s.

This led to a new constitution for the country on December 10, 1893. This for the first time unequivocally separated church and state. The supporters of Zelaya quickly became the Zelayistas, the name of his political movement. In Washington, D.C., lobbyists supporting the canal through Panama painted Zelaya as an extremist radical bent on ending contact with the United States.

In fact, Zelaya was a keen social reformer and anxious to make up for the previous decades, when little money had been spent on the infrastructure of the country. Zelaya immediately increased spending on public education and on erecting government buildings, roads, and bridges.

Political rights were also extended to all citizens of the country, including women, who were allowed to vote. Civil marriages and divorce were both made legal, and strong moves to end bonded servitude were enacted.

Zelaya oversaw the paving of the streets of Managua, Nicaragua's capital, and the erection of street lights. In January 1903 Zelaya was the first living Nicaraguan to appear on one of that country's postage stamps, commemorating the 10th anniversary of the revolt against Sacaza.

Zelaya encouraged foreign trade but sought relations with more countries than just the United States and Mexico. An early foreign policy problem for Zelaya was not dealing with Britain. For the previous 300 years, British settlers, descendants of Britons, and former British-owned slaves had been settling on the Mosquito Coast—Nicaragua's Caribbean coast.

Britain had ceded sovereignty in 1860, but the area was an autonomous part of Nicaragua. Zelaya managed to get the area formally incorporated into the Republic of Nicaragua in 1894, but until 1912 the area continued to use a different currency. Good relations with Britain resulted, and Zelaya even brought over British businessmen to survey for a canal through Nicaragua.

In February 1896 the first coup attempt to overthrow Zelaya failed. It ensured that he was more careful about personal security. Another coup attempt by soldiers in 1904 failed, and in 1905 the Rebellion of the Great Lake was also unsuccessful.

In 1906 Zelaya decided not to send delegates to the San José Conference, which was being held in Costa Rica to discuss ways of maintaining peace in Central America. Instead, Zelaya was keen on pushing forward with his plans for a united Central America.

Zelaya's idea did not include Costa Rica and was to be a merging of Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Honduras. The only concrete results were the establishment of a Central American Bureau in Guatemala City and a teacher training institute in San José, Costa Rica—both places outside Zelaya's planned country.

Nicaraguan soldiers invaded Honduras, overthrowing its president, Policarpo Bonilla, and then were involved in plans to start a revolution in El Salvador. The United States and Mexico intervened, and at the Washington Conference of 1907 Zelaya and the presidents of Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras all signed an agreement whereby they pledged themselves to the maintenance of peace in their region.

Zelaya, still worried about the potential domination of Nicaragua's economy by U.S. interests, believed that the U.S. government was encouraging a revolt in the east of the country. By this time U.S. cartoonists were caricaturing him; he was an easy target with his penetrating eyes and elegantly twirled moustache.

Zelaya moved against some U.S. lumber and mining companies, either canceling their concessions or reducing the scope of their activities. The U.S. chargé d'affaires in Managua was recalled in 1909, when Zelaya made moves to end a lumber concession that had been granted to a Massachusetts-based company, G. D. Emory.

Some Nicaraguan conservatives did try to stage a putsch to get rid of Zelaya, hiring U.S. mercenaries. These forces were led by one of Zelaya's former allies, Juan José Estrada. Zelaya managed to overcome the rebels, but he made the tactical mistake of executing the U.S. mercenaries.

As a result, the United States broke off diplomatic relations with Nicaragua, which led to the collapse of Zelaya's government. On December 1, 1909, U.S. secretary of state Philander Knox sent a letter to the Nicaraguan ambassador in Washington pledging U.S. government action against the Nicaraguan government.

Zelaya offered to compromise and in a telegram to Taft on December 4 said he was prepared to resign and go into exile if that would solve the problem. He resigned on December 21, and in the following year he escaped to Mexico.

In Nicaragua his supporters opposed the U.S. marines who were sent into the country, some under Benjamin F. Zeledon, and in 1912 waged a small-scale guerrilla war inspired by the Mexican Revolution. In exile Zelaya wrote The Revolution in Nicaragua and the United States.

The largest province in the country, along the east coast of Nicaragua (formerly the Mosquito Coast), was named Zelaya after the president, who died on May 17, 1919, in New York City.