Inside Nicaragua: Somoza’s final days

William Lowther July 23 1979

Inside Nicaragua: Somoza’s final days

William Lowther July 23 1979

Inside Nicaragua: Somoza’s final days


William Lowther

“The boys are back. ” That terse phrase circulating in the devastated slums of Managua, coupled with a Sandinista guerrilla radio announcement that a provisional government would shortly be set up in the Nicaraguan capital, seemed at week ’s end to herald a final onslaught on embattled dictator Anastasio Somoza. But behind the brief newsagency reports of the progress of the civil war lies a largely untold story of official corruption and the suffering of innocent people. Maclean’s Washington Bureau Chief on Saturday filed this onthe-spot report:

A big blue DC-8 jet, its markings mysteriously painted out, lands at Managua International Airport

at about 10:30 every morning. Government workers scurry out to load it with frozen beef which it flies to San Salvador in the afternoon. The meat comes from a ranch house owned by Nicaragua’s President Anastasio Somoza. The profits from its sale go into one of his many foreign bank accounts.

Officially this trade does not exist, partly because just 12 miles from the airport, in the Nicaraguan capital, the president’s people are starving. At least 250,000 refugees are relying on the Red Cross or the church to feed them. At about the same time as the blue jet takes off with its cargo of meat, 8,000 of the wailing, ragged poor who seek shelter in the National Seminary are

being issued with their second and last meal of the day. Like the first it consists of a single tablespoon each of grain, rice and beans.

This is just one of the numbing horrors of the latest phase of the civil war now going into its eighth week. Down by the shore of Lake Managua there is another. This is where Somoza’s National Guard executes those whom it suspects of having connections with its guerrilla opponents—the Sandinistas—and bodies lie rotting in the sun. Back at the airport there’s a near riot as hundreds of middle-class Nicaraguans claw, scratch and punch their way to the head of the lineup for a ticket that will take them to safety.

Here, too, Somoza takes his cut. He owns the Nicaraguan airline, Lanica, which has chartered extra planes to help deal with the rush. Somoza is said to be making $15,000 a day from the exodus. The irony is painful. Even in defeat—for Somoza’s future as dictator can be counted in days rather than weeks—he profits. American sources say he is worth half a billion dollars and is the fifth-richest person in the world.

For Somoza, the end is near after 18 months of popular rebellion. As many as 12,000 Nicaraguans (some say 20,000) have died since the guerrillas launched their “final offensive” on May 27. Only a few generals know how large the National Guard is now. One military authority says there are no more than 7,000 of them left, and most of these are

“bambinos” or untrained boys of 12 to 15 years old, their rifles sometimes as big as they are.

You frequently hear the phrase, “while the fighting continues, the war is over.” And it’s true. Of the major cities, only Managua, Chinandega and Rivas are still controlled by the government. The terms of peace are being decided by U.S. diplomats, representing the Somoza regime, and Sandinista junta leaders in San José, Costa Rica. A few days ago Somoza sent 35 new passports to the U.S. embassy to be stamped with entry visas. They were for himself, his son, his top officers and a few politicians.

The dictator recently told American journalists that he is ready to leave as soon as he can negotiate a good deal for the national guardsmen he must leave behind. The reality is different. The guardsmen know that the Sandinistas will show them no mercy. So they are making sure Somoza stays in Nicaragua until they have a line of escape.

The masses of the poor, however, know nothing of this. To them, Somoza preaches over the radio that he will “always defend our fatherland, without truce or rest, from the unjust aggression of international communism.” While he stays secure in his concrete bunker, however, they run their daily gauntlet: the desperate search for something to eat, the desperate struggle to avoid getting killed while searching.

One incident, witnessed by a Dutch photographer last week, serves as an example: members of the guard were being chased across country by Sandinistas when they came across a farm. On their way through they shot a mother

and her two babies as she tried to shelter them in the kitchen. A maid who had run into another room was raped and then shot.

When the pursuing Sandinistas came on the scene less than an hour later the farmer, who had hidden in the fields, returned to his babies. The backs of their heads had been blown off by bullets. He tried to reshape their faces to kiss them. The guard has no monopoly on brutality, however. The Sandinistas take few prisoners and have pressganged many of their troops into action.

It takes an hour and a half to drive the 12 miles from the airport to the capital. The two-lane road—lined with banyan trees and the sort of plants Canadians grow in pots—is heavily scarred by hand-grenade blasts and dotted with paving-stone barriers set up at night by guerrilla ambush groups. Every two miles or so the National Guard mans a roadblock. Sometimes the soldiers let you pass with a quick look into the car; on other occasions you must get out, put your hands behind your head and smile as they poke into your clothing with the muzzles of their rifles, looking for concealed arms. There are long delays when the guards find young men in a car. They must all show their knees and elbows. Scratches or scrapes are taken as evidence that they may have been crouching or kneeling at barricades and they are taken away for questioning.

Just before noon each day, a flatbed truck leaves the interrogation centre behind Somoza’s bunker. On it are about a dozen blindfolded young men— stripped to the waist and bound with wire. There are also three guards, armed with Israeli-made Uzi submachine guns. At night, reports reach the barrios (slums)—another group of riddled bodies has been found on the lakeshore.

Managua has been rotting ever since the earthquake seven years ago—$300 million in foreign aid vanished, with scarcely a brick to show for it, most of it into Somoza’s pocket. This devastation has been heightened by the civil war. Three weeks ago the guerrillas held large sections of the barrios and Somoza sent his planes in to rocket and machine-gun them. The innocent poor suffered alongside the guerrillas. In hiding they were afforded no more comfort than in times of peace—a dirt floor and a zinc roof. Bullets and shrapnel tore the shacks to pieces leaving nothing for wide areas but heaps of broken plywood and twisted metal.

Down near Somoza’s bunker much of the middle-class residential area has been deserted, leaving the stuccoed houses to' be pillaged and plundered. Seven years of tropical neglect have left extraordinary scars on older structures like the presidential palace, which used to have a touch of grandeur, and the city’s main church, with its fluted pillars and arches. The vegetation is taking over.

During the dusk-to-dawn curfew the guard shoots at anything that moves. Sleep is punctuated by regular tat-tattats as nervous sentries fire into the dark. Daylight reveals the toll—dogs, cats and hens, not guerrilla infiltrators. They do not lie around for long. These days there is always a place in the cooking pot for someone else’s family pet.

The war has all but stopped the flow of food from the farms and imports are few. Emergency airlifts from the U.S. are not yet organized sufficiently to ensure fair distribution. So for the past month looting has literally been a way of life. It has now stopped because there is absolutely nothing left to take. Factories have been picked bare to the

girders. Stocks and machinery, even the roofs, walls and floors have been taken. In the barrios the peasants trade their booty for food or anything they can use. IBM computer parts are offered for chickens, boxes of cosmetics or new clothing for a bag of rice or loaf of bread. People who have never seen a bathroom are trying to sell cases of Sani Flush.

Whoever takes over will inherit a land that is devastated—and broke. The cotton crop on which Nicaragua bases its economy has not been planted this year, so there will be no income for at least 12 months. It will take many millions in aid to prevent the disaster getting worse.

It will also take more political sense than the United States, which installed the Somoza dynasty 42 years ago, has so far shown. While it is true that Nicaragua could go Communist—and that what happens there could also happen in El Salvador and Honduras, two other fiefdoms of U.S. multinational interests—it is also true that the U.S. is only reaping what its lack of sensitivity to local feelings and needs has so evidently sown.

It now has somehow to steer a mid course between the bullying interference of the past and the policy of isolation it has pursued toward Fidel Castro’s Cuba. What are the chances? Last week two conservative congressmen paid a lightning visit to Managua to promise their hero Somoza their support in his fight against communism. They also brought with them boxes of baby food and pharmaceuticals—a symbol of U.S. goodwill to a suffering people. There was only one catch. Those who saw the boxes swore afterwards that each and every one bore the burning symbol of the Ku Klux Klan.