It was like a brush fire fanned by a gale. In little more than a week of bitter fighting that left hundreds dead and half a dozen cities pockmarked by smoking ruins, Sandinista guerrillas opposing the dictatorship of President Anastasio Somoza had won control of large areas in northwestern and southern Nicaragua.
At the weekend they were still stubbornly defending their gains despite all the efforts of Somoza’s 7,500-strong National Guard to dislodge them; and, though the colonial city of Leon was retaken, there were reports that U.S. President Jimmy Carter had decided in effect to seek Somoza’s resignation in order to prevent further bloodshed and the threat of a wider conflagration in Central America.
If so it would be a belated though timely recognition (Nicaragua celebrated the 157th anniversary of its independence from Spain on Sept. 15) of a 42-year-old injustice.
The current violence is rooted in a silt of grievances that has accumulated since 1936, when the U.S. Marines plunked the Somoza dynasty into place. Nicaragua has become a byword for oppression and corruption. But under the thumb of “the last U.S. Marine in Nicaragua”—as the guerrillas call Somoza—the family dictatorship became too oppressive to bear.
The business community’s loyalty wore thin while Somoza busily cornered profits in virtually all areas of commerce. The people were alienated by the brutality of the National Guard, which the Catholic church accused of rape and murder on a large scale. It behaves “like an occupying army,” said one commentator.
Somoza’s opponents have maintained a steady barrage of criticism since Jan. 10, when an opposition newspaper publisher was murdered, and heads have been broken almost daily since in scuffles between demonstrators and National Guardsmen loyal to the dictator. But the Sandinistas’ dramatic Aug. 22 raid on the National Palace and their subsequent escape to Panama with released prisoners and booty were the sparks that set off the real explosion.
Teen-agers armed with pistols and black powder bombs took to the streets of Matagalpa, near the capital, on Aug. 27, and though they were swiftly overcome by the National Guard hundreds demonstrated in two other towns— Masaya near Managua, and Esteli in the north—soon after. They were only dispersed after the guard moved in with tear gas.
The top blew off the pot on the night of Sept. 9. Acting almost simultaneously, guerrillas raided five police stations in Managua and National Guard posts in the cities of Leon, Masaya, Esteli, Diriamba, Chinandega and Granada.
“There is no longer any doubt. It is a
civil war,” said Alvarro Chamorro, an opposition party leader, as the battles raged into Monday. Refugees fled the embattled cities by the hundred. Martial law was declared in two provinces, giving troops the right to shoot suspected terrorists on sight. The Central Bank halted conversion of the cordoba into other currency, apparently to prevent the flight of wealth. Postal services were cut off—the staff pressed into the military—and government workers
were told there was no money left for their paycheques.
By Tuesday, the guerrilla’s stayingpower had become clear. Fighting continued in Leon, Chinandega, Masaya, Esteli and parts of Managua, where the central market closed for the first time. Somoza came under pressure from neighboring Costa Rica, which claimed a National Guard airplane bombed its territory while chasing Sandinistas back to their Costa Rican hideouts.
By Wednesday, the insurgents were said to be in complete control of northwestern Nicaragua. Somoza’s men, weary after five solid days of fighting, lugged their American-supplied weapons northward, only to run into barricades thrown across the Pan-American highway. Then fresh fighting broke out in the southern city of Rivas, just 15 miles from the Costa Rican border, and Somoza declared full martial law.
While the president was in his steelbarricaded compound predicting victory within the week, thousands of his subjects were streaming north to Honduras and south to Costa Rica. But Somoza’s familiar refrain, that he is the only defence against a Communist takeover, was refuted by the thousands of non-Communists—children, youths and old men—who joined the guerrillas at the barricades. Foreign reporters in Esteli were besieged by self-proclaimed Sandinistas who denied being Communists. One prominent opposition coalition of doctors, lawyers and businessmen proclaimed “We are Sandinistas, like all of the people.”
In Leon, Thursday, the rebels braced for a counter-attack from the National Guard, but took time to open the central market and let people take food. The guerrilla’s policy of shooting looters apparently upset nobody but looters. New rebel attacks were launched against the southern cities of Diriamba and Penas Blancas, while the stench of burning bodies—ignited by the Red Cross to avoid infection—floated over many other towns.
Friday brought Somoza’s men back to Leon, attacking with armored vehicles and helicopters. Anything that moved became fair game for both sides, and a helicopter over the city broadcast that the “National Guard is not responsible for what happens if you leave your houses.” Rebels were reported trying to take control of territory along the Costa Rican border, to set up a provisional government.
As the internal battle raged, Nicaragua’s neighbors were worriedly taking sides. Honduras Defence Minister Lieutenant-Colonel Diego Landa Cerano spoke for Somoza’s supporters—other military regimes in Latin America— in suggesting forces might be sent to help put down the rebels. In the other camp, Costa Rica and Venezuela were hoping
that the United States or the Organization of American States would intervene before the fighting spread farther. On Friday the U.S. asked Somoza to agree to a mediated solution. But its attitude was generally low-profile.
Costa Rica has a particularly large stake in the outcome. Its traditionally stable democracy would be threatened if war broke out in nearby Guatemala, Ei Salvador, Honduras and Columbia, where guerrillas are already active and might be encouraged to intensify their
fighting by continued anarchy in Nicaragua. In Panama—a bitter enemy of Somoza—a brigade of volunteers is poised to fight against the president should he accept outside help.
Thus at week’s end the fighting showed no signs of abating. But for the rebels, there were signs aplenty of encouragement; it seemed they had the support of most Nicaraguans who, as one diplomat put it, see in the struggle a “battle for national dignity.”
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