U.S. Occupation 1909-1933

The United States choice of Panama for the site of a the canal catalyst for the United States Occupation. President Zelaya was angered by the choice and made negotiations with Germany and Japan for a competing canal in Nicaragua. Once this happened relations with the United States deteriorated, and civil war erupted in 1909 with that 400 United States marines landed on the Caribbean coast.

The United States kept marines in Nicaragua almost continually from 1912 until 1933.  Under United States supervision, national elections were held in 1913, but the liberals refused to participate in the electoral process. Foreign investment decreased during this period because of the high levels of violence and political instability.

A conservative, Carlos Solórzano, was elected president in open elections in 1924.  After taking office in 1925, Solórzano requested that the United States delay the withdrawal of its troops from Nicaragua. Nicaragua and the United States agreed that United States troops would remain while United States military instructors helped build a national military force. In June, Solórzano’s government contracted with retired United States Army Major Calvin B. Carter to establish and train the National Guard. The United States marines left Nicaragua in August 1925. However, President Solórzano, who had already purged the liberals from his coalition government, was subsequently forced out of power in November 1925 by a conservative group who proclaimed General Emiliano Chamorro as president in January 1926.

Fearing a new round of violence and worried that a revolution in Nicaragua, the United States sent marines, who landed on the Caribbean coast in May 1926, to protect United States citizens and property.

A rebel liberal Augusto César Sandino organized his own army, consisting mostly of peasants and workers, and joined the liberals fighting against the conservative regime of Chamorro.  Sandino staged an independent guerrilla campaign against the government and United States forces.

In 1932 Sacasa won the elections and was installed as president in 1933. Anxious to withdraw from Nicaraguan politics, the United States turned over command of the National Guard to the Nicaraguan government.  President Sacasa appointed Somoza García as chief director of the National Guard. Somoza García also enjoyed support from the United States government because of his participation at the 1927 peace conference as one of Stimson’s interpreters.

True to his promise to stop fighting after United States marines had left, Sandino agreed to discussions with Sacasa. In 1934, while leaving the presidential palace, Sandino was arrested by National Guard officers acting under Somoza García’s instructions. After Sandino’s execution, the National Guard launched a ruthless campaign against Sandino’s supporters.

Early in 1936, Somoza García openly confronted President Sacasa by using military force to displace local government officials loyal to the president and replacing them with close associates. Somoza García’s increasing military confrontation led to Sacasa’s resignation in 1936.  On January 1, 1937, Somoza García resumed control of the National Guard, combining the roles of president and chief director of the military.

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Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN)

While many Nicaraguans opposed the dictatorship, the Somoza family ruled Nicaragua from 1934 to 1979.  In 1961 a small group of Nicaraguans formed a new organization which they named after Sandino, the Sandinista Front of National Liberation, and began a new guerrilla war against the regime. The FSLN won popular support resulting in an urban insurrection that overthrew the Somoza regime in 1979. After the formal unification of the Sandinista guerrillas, heavy fighting broke out all over the country. The FSLN launched its final offensive  just as the National Guard began to lose control of many areas of the country.

The FSLN army entered Managua, culminating the Nicaraguan revolution. The fight left 50,000 dead and 150,000 Nicaraguans in exile. A five-member junta entered the Nicaraguan capital the next day and assumed power, reiterating its pledge to work for political pluralism, a mixed economic system, and a nonaligned foreign policy.

The new government inherited a country in ruins, with a stagnant economy and a huge debt. Most Nicaraguans saw the Sandinista victory as an opportunity to create a system free of the political, social, and economic inequalities of the almost universally hated Somoza regime.

Immediately after the revolution, the Sandinistas had the best organized and most experienced military force in the country. To replace the National Guard, the Sandinistas established a new national army, the Sandinista People’s Army, and a police force, the Sandinista Police.  The opponents of the Sandinistas made little attempt to develop effective mass organizations that could challenge the well organized and well disciplined Sandinista groups. The FSLN mass organizations were instrumental in consolidating Sandinista power over political and military institutions. By 1980, the Sandinistas controlled the government.

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Role of Women

Throughout the history of Nicaragua it was afflicted by a series of conflicts, civil wars, revolutions, and foreign interventions. Nicaraguan women always drawn into these conflicts as collaborators, combatants, and victims.

Many Nicaraguan women actively participated in the early Sandinista struggle. While these women played an essential role, their tasks can be defined as collaborators. They served as spies, messengers and nurses. Sandino called their actions heroic and admitted that many had died.

While some women joined the guerrilla bands, most remained at home. The women who stayed at home played an essential support role. To keep their families alive, they had to do their own daily work as well as that of their missing men. When the Sandino supportors passed through an area, they were supposed to provide them with food, which meant even more work.

By the 1970s many women became active members of the FSLN and were integrated into guerrilla warfare.  More than 30 percent of the armed combatants were women. The first women joined in the mid-1960s and by 1979 there were thousands of women guerrillas. A few of these women became officers of FSLN units.

Many more women were collaborators.  They actively supported the guerrillas by providing food, medicines, and safe houses, hiding weapons, and carrying messages. These activities were also very dangerous and many of these female supporters of the FSLN were tortured and murdered by the regime.

In July 1979 the Somoza regime was overthrown and a new government led by the FSLN was created. Most women were demobilized but many took civilian positions within the new government. But as the Sandinista Popular Army was created, many women stayed in the military. In 1980 about 6 percent of the officers and 40 percent of the soldiers were women.

After 1980, Nicaraguan women were again drawn into war. While some joined or were forced into the contras, most supported the new revolutionary government. This time, the FSLN tried to keep women in noncombat and support roles. While men were sent to the front lines, women’s battalions were formed within the militia to help protect the cities.  Thus the male FSLN leaders returned to Sandino’s vision of women as collaborators and as mothers who could give their sons to the struggle.

Nicaraguan women had been transformed and empowered by the decades of war. Their contributions to the fight against invaders and dictators cannot be denied. With the Nicaraguan people exhausted by years of war, the FSLN lost the 1990 presidential election. The fighting finally ended when the contras signed a ceasefire with the new U.S.-backed president, Violeta Chamorro, the first woman president in Nicaragua’s history.

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