A History of U.S. Intervention in Nicaragua

By Conor Sanchez

Most Americans remember Nicaragua from the nineteen-eighties, when this small Central American nation became a staging ground for the global ideological struggle being waged between two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union. By supplying covert funds to an armed resistance intent on toppling the leftist Sandinista government, the United States helped sustain a very bloody civil war. The resistance fighters, known as the Contras, were mostly former national guardsmen who served under the American-backed Somoza regime until the Sandinistas took him out in 1979.

What Nicaragua was actually like or what its people really wanted was of very little concern to those in charge. In his book Blood of Brothers, Stephen Kinzer describes how William Casey, CIA director at the time, couldn’t even pronounce the word Nicaragua (the best he could muster was “Nicawawa”). During a congressional committee meeting, one staff aide reportedly told Casey, “You can’t overthrow the government of a country whose name you can’t pronounce!” But that didn’t matter to Casey, nor did it matter to President Reagan, who were primarily concentrated on defeating yet another Latin American group that had aligned itself with Marxist ideology to gain power.

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William Walker

This wasn’t the first time Americans interfered with domestic affairs. That would be William Walker, an eccentric Tennessee-born racist, who described himself as an instrument of divine justice and some how got it into his head that he was meant to “liberate” Spanish-speaking people by granting them a white leader. In 1856, with a team of 48 men called the “Immortals” Walker led a four-month campaign through western Nicaragua until he captured Granada. Within a year, he capitalized on his popularity among Nicaraguan liberals (who thought he might usher in an era of democratic idealism similar to what was espoused by the United States’ founding fathers) by announcing his candidacy for presidency. At 33 years old he became president of Nicaragua, establishing English as the official language and reinstating slavery. Unsurprisingly, most Central Americans thought this was really weird and before long, they decided to get the foreigner out. Joined by soldiers from Costa Rica, Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, an armed force finally attacked Granada and Walker fled, leaving the city in flames. About four years later he was executed by a firing squad in Honduras.

Walker was part of a growing movement in the United States called filibusterism – an offshoot of manifest destiny, which saw the entire continent of North America as a place waiting to be explored and conquered. While technically illegal, filibustering operations in the late 1840s and early 1850s were romanticized in the United States. The Democratic Party actually endorsed William Walker’s filibustering in Nicaragua and wealthy American expansionists often financed expeditions based out of New Orleans, New York, and San Francisco. It was also around this time when the United States began to operate more and more under the so-called “Monroe Doctrine,” which viewed efforts by European interference with countries in the Western Hemisphere as acts of aggression against the United States. Somehow, the doctrine came to be interpreted as the United States could do whatever it pleased in Latin America, especially after President Theodore Roosevelt intervened to end a blockade imposed by several European nations against Venezuela in 1902. His actions took the Monroe Doctrine a step further by justifying such interventions in what became known as the “Roosevelt Corollary.” Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Nicaragua would all fall victims to this misguided policy.

After the Walker-affair, interference took a brief pause, but by the turn of the century, it was apparent that Nicaragua was increasingly out of step with America’s growing influence over the region. In 1909, President Taft decided President José Santos Zelaya López (perhaps the country’s first stalwart nationalist) wasn’t being friendly enough toward U.S. business interests in the country and ostensibly forced his resignation. After whiffs of growing resistance, U.S. Marines invaded in 1912 and occupied the country for the next 21 years, inspiring a schoolteacher named Benjamín Zeledón to form a military regiment to fight the gringos. After he was killed, a mineworker named Augusto César Sandino took the baton by leading a six-year campaign against the Marines, igniting what would become one of the most symbolic and legendary fights between the Latino world and the United States. This David-versus-Goliath struggle would reach epic proportions, even resulting in the Western Hemisphere’s first military bombardment from the air in a small mountain village called Ocotal, until President Herbert Hoover eventually decided to pull troops out in 1933.

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Augusto César Sandino

It is difficult to overstate the enormous role Sandino’s resistance towards a world superpower played and continues to play on the Nicaraguan psyche – or for all Latinos for that matter. Before there was a Fidel or a Che – there was Sandino. He accused the United States of imperialism, who in turn called him a “bandit.” He became a hero to many Latin Americans precisely because he stood up to the United States and (in a way) called them out on the hypocrisy of the Roosevelt Corollary, which claimed to intervene in the interest of limiting European influence, but instead merely served to protect U.S. business interests by justifying military action to install ruthless dictators who were obedient to U.S. policy.

In the eyes of Nicaraguans, Sandino had single-handedly kicked out the gringos. The truth probably had more to do with the Great Depression and the fact that the United States government couldn’t afford foreign adventurism anymore, however, policy toward Latin America did indeed begin to shift in a significant way after troops were pulled out. The Roosevelt Corollary was replaced with President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Good Neighbor Policy,” which not only wanted Latin Americans to think better of Americans but also wanted Americans to think better of Latin Americans. The idea was to facilitate more trade partners as Europe spiraled into war. FDR even enlisted Hollywood to help by getting them to produce movies and hire actors that depicted Latin Americans in a good light (and helped create some long-lasting stereotypes of Latinos that we still see today).

After 1945, this warm and fuzzy attitude toward Latin America changed when Europe became our trade partners again and the Cold War started. The United States needed friends who were willing to stand up to communism, which once again meant they were willing to tolerate brutal dictatorships if it meant they would suppress communist movements within their borders. In Nicaragua, a man named Anastasio Somoza García had taken control of the country (he had also assassinated Sandino) and turned out to be just the man for the job. FDR (or Truman – it’s unclear who) was once quoted in reference to Somoza, “[He] may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.” Other books I’ve read say he was referring to Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic, but the fact still remains; we tolerated his regime despite some grisly human rights abuses. The Somoza family would go on to dominate Nicaragua for the next three decades ending with the removal of his son Anastasio Somoza Debayle at the hands of the Sandinistas (FSLN) in 1979. Today, the Sandinistas, the socialist political party we tried to overthrow, are still in power.

Fortunately, relations between Latin America and the U.S. have changed dramatically and we are even seeing warming relations between countries that used to be considered foes. The change is evident here in Nicaragua. In fact, to a millennial like me who wasn’t even around throughout most of the Contra War, it wouldn’t be something I knew much about unless I read about it. It doesn’t come up in conversation often. It’s certainly not on the news. People don’t look at me suspiciously or think I secretly work for the CIA. To the contrary, Nicaraguans are super warm and welcoming to Americans. Young people talk to me about the Internet, learning English, and how they can attract more tourists to their communities. Likewise, there are now an abundance of intercultural-exchange programs being offered by the U.S. government, including opportunities for low-income students to learn English, professional development programs for high school teachers to study in the U.S., and, of course, the chance to work with Peace Corps volunteers like me!

But I wouldn’t say its forgotten history. Political rhetoric here still harks back to the days of Sandino and the “yanqui, enemy of mankind” (lyrics from the Sandinista anthem). To me, Nicaragua represents a micro-example of how the U.S. treated parts of of Latin America throughout most of the 19th and 20th centuries. The dictatorships we tacitly (or sometimes explicitly) condoned, the revolutions they inspired, and the brute force we exercised demonstrated why these policies were shortsighted. It is reassuring to see that this has changed and hopefully what’s in our past can stay there.

We may not have been the “good neighbors” FDR had hoped we’d be during the last century, but things are looking good this time around.

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4 comments

  1. Mason Wiley · March 24, 2016

    Great post, Conor. I thought I was decently well read on the historical relations of Central America and the United States, but this post actually taught me a few new things. It’s a great disservice that this portion of United State’s history isn’t more prominent in primary and secondary school text books. From memory, I think the United States went directly from defeating slave masters in the Civil War, to defeating Nazis in World War II, to defeating communism with Reagan at the helm.

    Why do you think the United States interferes less in Central America today? Do you believe it’s because we’ve changed as a society or is it that our geographic priorities have shifted? If the political situation changed, could you imagine the United States going back to that part of the world with less than good intentions?

    • Conor Sanchez · March 25, 2016

      Thanks, Mason. I think it’s a little bit of both. Geographic priorities have turned our attention more towards the Middle East. But even if things turned our attention back over here, I think (I hope) we’d act a little differently. There was a big rebuke of tactics and policies of the past and, as Stacy mentions in his comment, we started to embrace more constructive engagement in the 1990s which were pretty successful. Hopefully we can remember how helping in earnest actually serves our own interests as much as it does the other country.

  2. Stacy Rhodes · March 25, 2016

    Conor: great to see your excellent post on the history of U.S. – Nicaragua relations, and the good piece on why Augusto Sandino is such an important figure (and the reason the rebels who threw out the Somoza dynasty named themselves “Sandinistas”). The ignominious role of the U.S. in Nicaragua (from William Walker to our support of the long-ruling Somozas) is indeed worth remembering, even highlighting as part of our too-lengthy history of shameful U.S. interventions in Central America (see especially Guatemala in 1954). But for balance (your post implies the Sandinistas have been in power since 1979), please don’t forget the importance of the U.S. role in helping to “restore” and support democracy in Nicaragua, with our strong support for democratic elections of 1990, in which the candidate of the “United Opposition Front” (opposing a dictatorial Daniel Ortega), was victorious. The Sandinistas so (mistakenly) believed in their popularity and ability to control Nicaragua that they agreed to compete in a democratic election, and Violeta de Chamorro defeated the incumbent Ortega to become the first elected female head of state in Latin America! She restored constitutional government to Nicaragua and dismantled many of the Sandinistas’ abuses and non-democratic institutions during her 6 years in power, with very strong U.S. support during the Clinton Administration, through State, USAID and other agencies. Ortega ran again in 1996 as the candidate of the FSLN and actually lost again, in a close election to Managua’s Mayor Arnoldo Aleman. So after Dona Violeta left power in 1997, a difficult, highly imprefect but highly competitive democracy lived on in Nicaragua for another 10 years under several presidents, some of whom were corrupt and made personal fortunes as well as highly compromising political deals with the Sandinistas (who continued as strong political force in ‘democratic Nicaragua’). The Sandinistas (and Daniel Ortega) only returned to power some 17 years after being ousted by the popular vote, in 2007, winning over a divided field of candidates by a very modest plurality (something around 37% if I remember correctly). Fortunately this later version of Ortega and the Sandinistas has been more moderate in its policies, but has taken many steps to strengthen a de facto political’stranglehold’ in order to remain in power in Nicaragua indefinitely, if possible.
    Would love to discuss all this further with you sometime, maybe when you get back home! Stacy

    • Conor Sanchez · March 27, 2016

      Stacy, thank you for reading and for sharing some insight. You’re absolutely right and I feel like I should change the title to “a history of u.s. meddling” and follow up with a post called “a history of u.s. constructive engagement”, because as you stated, there have been many times when our involvement has helped for the better – especially after 1990 as you describe. But even before that, there were instances when he gave support. Where we live provides a good example. Nueva Guinea was in part founded because JFK’s Alliance for Progress provided funding for land reform that gave a lot farmers from the north property in this region. And a lot of people (older generations mostly) still remember that. The same program provided funding for victims of the earthquake in Managua in 1972 and Cerro Negro’s eruption in 1973 to resettle in Nueva Guinea. In the next post, I’ll try to flesh this out a bit as well as our support in the 1990s. As for the elections this year, I’m restricted from commenting on it, but we definitely have a great to deal to discuss once we are back stateside! -Conor

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