A review of Death of Somoza by Claribel Alegria and Darwin Flakoll, Curbstone Press, 1996.
When the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua finally succeeded on 19 July 1979, and tens of thousands celebrated in the square in front of Managua’s ruined cathedral, there were nagging worries that the triumph was incomplete. President Anastasio Somoza Debayle, one of the most notorious dictators in the history of Latin America, had left the country two days earlier and escaped to Miami. He hadn’t been brought to justice for tens of thousands of deaths, for the mass imprisonment and torturing of revolutionaries and of suspected sympathisers, for his indiscriminate bombing of built-up areas in the months before he finally gave up power, or for the fortune that he’d amassed at the expense not only of Nicaragua’s poor but even of its middle classes.
The Somoza dynasty lasted 43 years. It began when Anastasio’s father, Anastasio Somoza Garcia, who had been responsible for the treacherous assassination of Nicaragua’s emblematic rebel leader Augusto Sandino in 1934, forced his way into office in1936. From the start he had the backing of the US government, which had already had marines stationed in Nicaragua for more than 20 years. Anastasio senior, known as ‘Tacho’, was the subject of President Roosevelt’s possibly apocryphal remark made when confronted by the horror of Somoza’s cruelty: ‘He may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch’. He eventually met his downfall at the hands of an assassin, Rigoberto Lopez Perez, in 1956. But Lopez Perez was a brave individual not a member of a revolutionary vanguard, and Tacho was simply replaced by his eldest son, Luis. The youngest son, known after his father as ‘Tachito’, took power when Luis died in 1967 and held it for 12 years until toppled by the Sandinista uprising.
Although he fled to Miami, the last Somoza had to cancel his plans to stay in Florida when President Carter made it clear that he was unwelcome; Carter might even have responded positively to an extradition request from the Sandinistas. Somoza left quickly for the Bahamas, then moved on to Paraguay, a country quietly festering under the control of the almost equally unpleasant President Alfredo Stroessner. After 25 years in power, he held the distinction of being Latin America’s longest-standing dictator.
In May 1979, a group of revolutionary Argentinians, exiled in Spain, were called on by the Sandinistas to help their final offensive against Somoza’s National Guard. They had been hoping to join the revolutionary struggle at its height, only to see events move far more quickly than anyone thought possible. Five of the group managed to join forces in the south of the country that were fighting their way north. And three women members of the group arrived a few days after Somoza’s departure, carrying medical supplies. In the early stages after the revolutionary takeover, remnants of the National Guard were still fighting on and order needed to be restored on city streets. The experienced Argentinians helped organise commando squads to restore order, a task which continued for several months while the government established new army and police forces.
The Argentinians, led by the charismatic ‘Ramon’ (real name Enrique Gorriaran Merlo), saw themselves as committed to revolution across Latin America. That Somoza was still alive was testament to the continuing power of reactionary forces throughout the continent. Furthermore, counter-revolutionary forces had already started to group on Nicaragua’s northern border. Initially inspired by Somoza and hoping to return him to power, these forces were to become the ‘Contra’ that the Reagan government would finance illegally throughout most of the 1980s and which brought many thousands more Nicaraguan deaths.
Ramon and his compañeros, increasingly convinced that their work inside Nicaragua was complete, and concerned they were losing their skills as active combatants, began to plot to bring justice to Somoza in his retreat in Asunción, capital of Paraguay. Deciding not to compromise the Sandinista government by revealing their plan, they transferred to Bogota in Colombia, where the training of the group that would attempt the assassination began. After many weeks, group members began to travel to Paraguay to collect intelligence on Somoza’s movements. Usually they in were ‘couples’ behaving as holidaymakers or honeymooners.
Eventually a plan was put in place. A luxury home was rented a few hundred metres from the Somoza residence, in a residential area full of the houses of Stroessner cronies and where the president himself lived. One group member managed to establish a newsstand almost opposite the Somoza house. He was the one who triggered the final action on 17 September 1980 by alerting the group by radio that Somoza and his bodyguards were heading in two cars along a busy avenue towards the house that held the assassins and their cache of arms. As Somoza’s entourage came into view, one Argentine drove a pick-up through the gates of the house onto the main road to block the traffic, while others opened fire and (at the second attempt) destroyed Somoza’s car with a bazooka. Despite the pick-up then breaking down in a side street and having to be abandoned, most of the group eventually escaped across the borders to Argentina or Brazil. Only ‘Santiago’ (real name Hugo Alfredo Irurzun) was caught and killed in a shoot-out with Paraguayan forces.
The book ‘Death of Somoza’ is dedicated to the fallen Santiago as well as to Rigoberto Lopez Perez, the 1956 assassin of Somoza’s father. The authors met Ramon and the other surviving protagonists in the aftermath of the Falklands war (or more accurately, the war in Las Malvinas), when the Argentine military regimes finally gave way to civilian democracy. For various reasons publication was delayed until 1996. By that time the Sandinistas had lost power in the second general election held after the revolution, but the book was reprinted in 2006, the year when Daniel Ortega recovered the presidency (retaining it in the election of 2011). The revolutionary fervour of the 1980s may have ebbed, but vigilance is still needed against the groups in Latin America that are always looking for opportunities to recover the positions they have lost. The coups in Venezuela in 2002 and Honduras in 2009, and the attempted coup in Ecuador in 2010, all against left-wing governments, are forceful reminders of the continuing thirst for power of the oligarchies that were created by and supported the old dictatorships.
I read this book in Masaya, Nicaragua, where I have lived for ten years and where the final insurrections against Somoza began. My wife Abi comes from a divided family: most were and are Sandinistas, and her eldest brother died fighting during the final weeks of the Sandinista offensive; but her father was a sergeant in the National Guard, imprisoned for a short time in 1979 and eventually dying of old age many years later. ‘Death of Somoza’ is about the killing of a man who not only held enormous power and created vast personal wealth in a small and impoverished Central American country, but also held much of the population in a kind of spell. Although the spell was broken when the Sandinistas seized power in July 1979, it was perhaps only finally destroyed more than a year later and many thousands of kilometres away, by a bazooka fired in a residential suburb of Asunción.