Biography of Anastasio Somoza García

Somoza, with Argentine President Juan Perón
Somoza (left), with Argentine President Juan Perón. By Unknown - Revista "PBT" Año 19 nº 891. 16 de octubre de 1953. Buenos Aires, Argentina., Public Domain, Link

Anastasio Somoza García (1896-1956) was a Nicaraguan General, President, and dictator from 1936 to 1956. His administration, while being one of the most corrupt in history and brutal to dissidents, was nevertheless supported by the United States because it was viewed as anti-communist.

Early Years and Family

Somoza was born into the Nicaraguan upper-middle class. His father was a wealthy coffee grower, and young Anastasio was sent to Philadelphia to study business. While there, he met a fellow Nicaraguan, also from a wealthy family: Salvadora Debayle Sacasa. They would wed in 1919 over her parents’ objections: they felt that Anastasio was not good enough for her. They returned to Nicaragua, where Anastasio tried and failed at running a business.

U.S. Intervention in Nicaragua

The United States became directly involved in Nicaraguan politics in 1909, when it supported a rebellion against President Jose Santos Zelaya, who had long been an opponent of US policies in the area. In 1912, the Unites States sent marines to Nicaragua, to bolster the conservative government. The marines remained until 1925. As soon as the marines left, liberal factions went to war against the conservatives: the marines returned after only 9 months away, this time staying until 1933. Beginning in 1927, renegade general Augusto César Sandino led a revolt against the government which lasted until 1933.

Somoza and the Americans

Somoza had gotten involved in the presidential campaign of Juan Batista Sacasa, his wife’s uncle. Sacasa had been vice-president under a previous administration, which had been overthrown in 1925, but in 1926 he returned to press his claim as the legitimate president. As the different factions fought, the U.S. was forced to step in and negotiate a settlement. Somoza, with his perfect English and insider’s position in the fracas, proved invaluable to the Americans. When Sacasa finally reached the presidency in 1933, the American ambassador persuaded him to name Somoza head of the National Guard.

The National Guard and Sandino

The National Guard had been established as a militia, trained and equipped by the U.S. marines. It was meant to keep in check the armies raised by the liberals and conservatives in their endless skirmishing over control of the country. In 1933, when Somoza took over as head of the National Guard, only one rogue army remained: that of Augusto César Sandino, a liberal who had been fighting since 1927. Sandino’s biggest issue was the presence of American marines in Nicaragua, and when they left in 1933, he finally agreed to negotiate a truce. He agreed to lay down his arms provided that his men be given land and amnesty.

Somoza and Sandino

Somoza still saw Sandino as a threat, so in early 1934 he arranged to have Sandino captured. On February 21, 1934, Sandino was executed by the National Guard. Shortly thereafter, Somoza’s men raided the lands that had been given to Sandino’s men after the peace settlement, slaughtering the former guerillas. In 1961, leftist rebels in Nicaragua established the National Liberation Front: in 1963 they added “Sandinista” to the name, assuming his name in their struggle against the Somoza regime, by then being led by Luís Somoza Debayle and his brother Anastasio Somoza Debayle, Anastasio Somoza García’s two sons.

Somoza Seizes Power

President Sacasa’s administration was severely weakened in 1934-1935. The Great Depression had spread to Nicaragua, and the people were unhappy. In addition, there were many allegations of corruption against him and his government. In 1936, Somoza, whose power had been growing, took advantage of Sacasa’s vulnerability and forced him to resign, replacing him with Carlos Alberto Brenes, a Liberal Party politician who mostly answered to Somoza. Somoza himself was elected in a crooked election, assuming the Presidency on January 1, 1937. This began the period of Somoza rule in the country that would not end until 1979.

Consolidation of Power

Somoza quickly acted to set himself up as dictator. He took away any sort of real power of the opposition parties, leaving them only for show. He cracked down on the press. He moved to improve ties to the United States, and after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 he declared war on the Axis powers even before the United States did. Somoza also filled every important office in the nation with his family and cronies. Before long, he was in absolute control of Nicaragua.

Height of Power

Somoza remained in power until 1956. He stepped down briefly from the presidency from 1947-1950, bowing to pressure from the United States, but continued to rule through a series of puppet presidents, usually family. During this time, he had the complete support of the United States Government. In the early 1950’s, once again President, Somoza continued to build his empire, adding an airline, a shipping company and several factories to his holdings. In 1954, he survived a coup attempt and also sent forces to Guatemala to help the CIA overthrow the government there.

Death and Legacy

On September 21, 1956, he was shot in the chest by a young poet and musician, Rigoberto López Pérez, at a party in the city of León. López was instantly brought down by Somoza bodyguards, but the president’s wounds would prove fatal a few days later. López would eventually be named a national hero by the Sandinista government. Upon his death, Somoza’s eldest son Luís Somoza Debayle took over, continuing the dynasty his father had established.

The Somoza regime would continue through Luís Somoza Debayle (1956-1967) and his brother Anastasio Somoza Debayle (1967-1979) before being overthrown by the Sandinista rebels. Part of the reason that the Somozas were able to retain power for so long was the support of the U.S. government, which saw them as anti-communist. Allegedly, Franklin Roosevelt once said of him: “Somoza may be a son-of-a-bitch, but he’s our son-of-a-bitch,” although there is little direct proof of this quote.

The Somoza regime was extremely crooked. With his friends and family in every important office, Somoza's greed ran unchecked. The government seized profitable farms and industries and then sold them to family members at absurdly low rates. Somoza named himself director of the railway system and then used it to move his goods and crops at no charge to himself. Those industries that they could not personally exploit, such as mining and timber, they leased to foreign (mostly U.S.) companies for a healthy share of the profits. He and his family made untold millions of dollars. His two sons continued this level of corruption, making Somoza Nicaragua one of the most crooked countries in the history of Latin America, which is really saying something. This sort of corruption had a lasting effect on the economy, stifling it and contributing to Nicaragua as a somewhat backward country for a long time.