A review of ‘Dictators Never Die: a portrait of Nicaragua and the Somoza dynasty’ by Eduardo Crawley, 1978.
In the last century, Latin America produced a gallery of gruesome dictators, who vied with each other in their ruthlessness and their ability to cling to power for decades. Who was the worst? There were several outstanding candidates, but one of the strongest was the dictatorship created by the Somoza dynasty in Nicaragua which lasted, in different forms, from 1936 until it was finally toppled by the Sandinista revolution in July, 1979. By then three different Somozas had held the presidency, with a brief interruption when Tacho Somoza, the father, was assassinated by national hero Rigoberto Lopez Perez.
For more than four decades, the Somozas received the almost unwavering support of successive US governments. In particular, they became expert at playing the ‘communist’ card, by labelling any dissidence as a red threat and encouraging Washington to overlook the assassinations, imprisonments without trial and torture, that all became widespread. It was Tacho Somoza to whom Roosevelt was referring when he asked if that man wasn’t a ‘son of a bitch’, to which his secretary of state replied, yes ‘but he is our son of a bitch’.
In this out-of-print book, Eduardo Crawley starts his story of the dictatorship right back before the Spanish conquest in the early 16th century. This provides excellent context, and enables him to show where the Somoza family cropped up in Nicaragua’s earlier history. He also brings Augusto Cesar Sandino into the story at an early stage – the self-declared ‘General of Free Men’ who succeeded in his aim of ridding Nicaragua of US marines, but whose efforts to form an alternative type of government were thwarted by Somoza through the straightforward device of arranging him to have dinner with the then President and assassinating him on his journey home afterwards.
That ‘dictators never die’ is Crawley’s lesson from his detailed history of the period from Sandino’s death right through to 1978 when the dictatorship was on its last legs. But at that stage Crawley didn’t know that it would fall only a few months after he finished the book, nor that soon afterwards the last representative of the Somoza dynasty would be murdered in exile in Paraguay. So dictators do die, but in Nicaragua’s case, sadly not quickly enough.