The first infamous Somoza was Anastasio, a Nicaraguan general and then president from 1937 to 1947 and then from 1950 to 1956 when he was assassinated. Anastasio, who was born in 1896 to a moderately wealthy coffee grower, initiated the line of dictators who ruled Nicaragua with US support for 43 years. He was born in San Marcos, was educated at the Instituto Nacional de Oriente and then moved to the United States to get his degree from the Pierce School of Business Administration in Philadelphia. Somoza, an intelligent, outgoing, persuasive, and very ambitious guy, married Salvadora Debayle, a member of one of Nicaragua's important aristocratic families, and learned the English language and customs perfectly while in the US. When Somoza returned to the US in 1926, he joined the Liberal revolution and began climbing the political party ladder. When the departing US forces began setting up the National Guard, Somoza, who because of his Americanization got along well with the Americans there, became heavily involved in its creation. Somoza took over as chief of the National Guard in 1933 and seized control of the country in 1936.
Somoza managed to grow in power by using a three-fold formula: using the National Guard as a power base; keeping the United States happy; keeping the domestic opposition in line by paying them off politically. He managed to work this system perfectly for 20 years and his sons continued it after him. On September 20, 1956, at a campaign reception, Rigoberto Perez slipped in and shot Somoza five times at point-blank range and was in turn killed by Somoza's bodyguards. Rigoberto sent a letter to his mother, to be opened at his death, which said, "What I have done is a duty that any Nicaraguan who truly loves his country should have done a long time ago." In spite of his hope that his actions would free Nicaragua from the Somoza influence, he merely made way for Anastasio's two younger sons.
The first element of the Somoza strategy, keeping the National Guard fat, happy, and supportive, was ensured by isolating the guardsmen from the rest of the people and then encouraging bribes and quid pro quo. With Somoza's encouragement, the guardsmen ran gambling houses, prostitution rings, and smuggling rings in order to bring in profits and their loyalty to him was thus ensured.
The next element, keeping the US happy, was easy for the US-educated Somoza and his sons. They always made sure that visiting diplomats were happy and always backed US policy, at least nominally. During World War II, Nicaragua obviously opposed the Axis and powers and the Communists after that. Somoza also allowed the US to use Nicaragua as a staging ground for international operations and was consequently adored by Washington. Franklin Roosevelt once described Somoza by saying, "He may be a son of a b---h, but he's our son of a b---h."
As for keeping the opposition happy, after eliminating the Sandino threat, Somoza began to give out political appointments to his more powerful opponents in exchange for their silence. Somoza was the real ruling power throughout his entire career even though he sometimes let others take the presidency as puppet leaders. Although Somoza did multiply his personal wealth by hundreds of times while in office, he supported economic policies that strengthened the national infrastructure and wealth of the nation to a certain extent.
Luis Somoza Debayle, the politically-oriented eldest son of Anastasio Somoza Garcia, who was educated at Louisiana State University, the University of California, and the University of Maryland, assumed the presidency under a provision in the constitution for the possible sudden death of his father. Luis, who ruled from 1957 to 1967, believed in modernization and a lower family profile. Luis encouraged new leaders to emerge in the Liberal party and even had the constitution amended to keep his younger brother, Anastasio Somoza Debayle, from running for president in 1963. While ruling through puppet presidents, he created new jobs but they mainly profited the already rich without helping the poor. This obviously provoked a few revolts which were strongly suppressed with the help of the National Guard under the command of Luis' younger brother, Anastasio. Luis hated the idea of his younger brother becoming president but died of a heart attack just a few months before a rigged election in which Anastasio assumed the presidency.
Anastasio and Luis differed in many ways, but their most important differences were in the ruling styles. Luis wanted to consolidate the family fortune, but Anastasio wanted to expand it by whatever means possible. And where Luis wanted to strengthen the Liberal party by bringing in new supporters and advisors, Anastasio replaced the experienced professional government employees with his opponents in exchange for their silence. Anastasio also relied on his beloved National Guard and helped to draw them even more securely into his support by allowing the officers to have free reign in their actions. Consequently, the general populace had no love for Somoza and his civilian support had deteriorated significantly by 1970. He lost even more popularity when he amended the constitution so that his term would last a year longer. In 1971, Somoza made an agreement with his Conservative opposition to step down for two years and let a three-man committee rule while a new constitution was written. Although he lost the title of president, Somoza undeniable ruled behind the scenes during those two years until he was "elected" again in 1974 for another seven year term.
See a picture of Anastasio Somoza Debayle.
In 1972, disaster struck the country in the form of the 1972 Managua earthquake which leveled a huge portion of the city and consequently destroyed a huge percentage of the country's businesses because 90% of them were in Managua. Many countries around the world as well as international organizations sent millions of dollars to help rebuild the country. Sadly, however, the reconstruction never took place and the city was left in ruins while the money disappeared. The Managuans who were expecting new markets, roads, buildings, etc. realized that they had been ripped-off and they blamed Somoza.
The problems began again in 1974, when Sandinista guerrilla groups began to mount very successful operation against Somoza. One popular example was the time when a group of Sandinistas took some elite people hostage at a party and received all of their demands from Somoza in exchange for their release. Somoza reacted by terrorizing the countryside and many innocent women and children were raped and killed. In the small, outer cities were these crimes were being committed, Catholic priests and missionaries were present and witnessed all the details. They sent out reports to their superiors in Rome and the world, and a Somoza was subsequently denounced by the Roman Catholic Church and others internationally. The House of Representatives and Amnesty International even mounted an investigation into his alleged civil rights violations.
The final stage began in 1977 when Jimmy Carter, with a foreign policy of promoting human rights internationally, became president of the United States. Carter began to press Somoza to change his image and Somoza had to order his National Guard to stop the terrorizing or face losing US support. Somoza had suffered a heart failure in July and had been out of the country for three months. Consequently, many of his allies and enemies began plotting to take over. So when he returned he found his own political forces in disarray. The people were very unhappy with Somoza and newspapers like Pedro Chamorro's La Prensa expressed these views and reported on the evils of the Somoza regime. As a result, the Sandinistas became even more confident and more aggressive in their attacks.
On January 10, 1978, Pedro Chamorro, La Prensa's editor and a very vocal opponent of the Somozas and a beloved hero of the Nicaraguan people, was professionally assassinated on his way to work. The people revolted against who they thought had done it--Somoza--and began burning his personally owned buildings and marching in the streets. The people later learned that the murder investigation was going to be falsified and the entire country moved into a general strike in which 85% of the entire country closed down for more than two weeks. This, however, was politically unsuccessful because Somoza's power lay in the military, not the people, and he didn't need their support. The strike did serve, however, to give the people more energy and boldness. The FSLN (the Sandinista party) made more successful attacks on the National Guard and students began to stage urban uprisings. In one city, as in many others across Nicaragua, the citizens attacked the national guard with 22-caliber rifles and homemade weapons like bombs made out of leftover fireworks, machetes, and rocks. They couldn't hold out forever, so they eventually retreated and the towns would be decimated by the overpowering strength of the National Guard's arsenal of gunships, artillery, and manpower. However, they were able to hold out against unimaginable odds for more than a week in many cases and they never gave up hope in spite of the fact that they and their families were being killed.
Resistance and violence continued, uninterrupted, well into July of 1978 when the most daring operation of all was undertaken by the FSLN. Operation Pigpen, which was led by Eden Pastora, succeeded in taking the equivalent of the US Capital Building hostage and the commandos received all of their desired concessions from Somoza. The people became even more bold because of this success and more urban resistance and strikes ensued. Somoza began to realize that his system might be doomed and he began to transfer his assets, calculated at $.5 billion, out of Nicaragua. By September, the Carter administration had begun to feel that Somoza might not last until the end of his term and they removed US personnel from Managua. The whole Washington connection revolved around the fear that, if Somoza came down, a communist regime would take its place and the US was ready to do almost anything to prevent that. However, in May 1979, the US approved an IMF loan of $66 million to the Somoza administration.
By 1979, Nicaragua had realized that individual city uprisings would not be enough to take out Somoza. Each time a city would revolt, Somoza would concentrate his arsenal on it, the warriors would hold out for a while and then retreat, leaving the city defenseless. The National Guard would enter, kill all those males who were of fighting age and destroy the city and violate the women and children. So, the FSLN mounted a massive campaign to train warriors for a mass-offensive. Men and women, alike, were recruited from student communities in the cities and the FSLN regular army grew to several thousand members. Meanwhile, FLSN supporters traveled around the world and begged for funds and support. They received much of it from Socialist countries in Europe and Latin America, and used the funds to purchase new weapons on the black market. The FSLN had become politically united by March and everything was ready for the attack.
So, in June of 1979, the stone roads were dug up in cities across Nicaragua and used to make barricades and the fight was on. Unable to fight them all at once, the National Guard lost position after position until their control had shrunk drastically. At the same time, people around the world and everyone in the US with a television witnessed the execution of Bill Stewart, an ABC newsman, by Somoza's National Guard and their sympathies consequently turned to the Sandinistas. The United States tried to reach an agreement with FSLN leadership for a compromise on the National Guard and Somoza, but the FLSN wanted only complete and utter surrender. July 17, Somoza flew to Miami and on the 19th, the FSLN entered Managua and declared complete and unconditional victory. They accepted the surrender of most of what was left of the National Guard and a unanimous national celebration ensued. Somoza eventually moved on to Paraguay and was assassinated there in 1980 by a Nicaraguan rebel.