Somoza Is Forced Out of Power in Nicaragua

Nicaragua was dominated by foreign nations allied with a native elite that controlled its society, economy, and politics until 1979, when a massive rebellion overturned the ruling dictatorship. A civil war ensued, in which both sides committed atrocities.

Summary of Event

In 1979, after more than a century of persistent violations by the government of the rights of the majority of citizens, a group of Nicaraguan rebels unseated the long-term dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle and established a republican form of government. The long years of dictatorial government had been supported by the U.S. government, which desired political stability in the region. The nearby Panama Canal and the proximity of Nicaragua to the southern boundary of the United States made Nicaragua important to U.S. interests. Revolutions and coups;Nicaragua
[kw]Somoza Is Forced Out of Power in Nicaragua (July 17, 1979)
[kw]Nicaragua, Somoza Is Forced Out of Power in (July 17, 1979)
Revolutions and coups;Nicaragua
[g]Central America;July 17, 1979: Somoza Is Forced Out of Power in Nicaragua[03660]
[g]Nicaragua;July 17, 1979: Somoza Is Forced Out of Power in Nicaragua[03660]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;July 17, 1979: Somoza Is Forced Out of Power in Nicaragua[03660]
Somoza Debayle, Anastasio
Ortega Saavedra, Daniel
Chamorro, Pedro Joaquín
Chamorro, Violeta Barrios de

When Nicaraguan dictators could not maintain effective control over their people or when uprisings occurred, the U.S. Marines were sent in to control the nation and to maintain the status quo. Between 1911 and 1925, the Marines intermittently occupied Nicaragua. They were called home briefly but then sent back again in 1926 and remained until 1932. Washington realized that the Nicaraguan elite and the National Guard that supported it were trampling the rights of citizens, but the need for stability was deemed more compelling than those rights.

In 1926, Augusto César Sandino Sandino, Augusto César attacked the U.S. Marines and the Nicaraguan National Guard. His peasant force was able to drive out the Marines, but they left behind a well-armed and efficient National Guard that continued to keep the Somoza family in control and that eventually killed Sandino. Subsequent rebel movements took Sandino’s name, and the Sandinista guerrilla movement was born. Eventually, it became known as the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN).

Initially, the Sandinistas were composed of peasants and the poor. They soon gained middle-class support when it became obvious that the Somozas and their supporters were enriching themselves at the expense of the nation. When Somoza was overthrown, he owned 25 percent of the nation’s land, and National Guard officers owned another 10 percent. Such blatant self-service and disregard for the well-being of the people led to hostility toward the government not only in the rural areas and in the city slums but also in the universities. Student uprisings had occurred as early as 1939, but serious opposition developed only following Fidel Castro’s victory in Cuba in 1959. From that point on, universities became the centers of anti-Somoza activity, and students protested against the complete domination of the nation by the Somoza family and its supporters. When a rebellion could not be carried out from the campuses, some students went into the mountains to join peasants and workers in their fight against the dictatorship.

Leaders in the United States came to realize that Somoza had been taking aid money from Washington and diverting it to his personal fortune. At that point, support for his government deteriorated. Meanwhile, the Roman Catholic Church, Roman Catholic Church;Nicaragua which had supported the Somoza family for years, began to turn against it as the plight of peasants and the urban poor became obvious. Priests and nuns joined in the liberation theology movement, which sanctioned political action to improve social and economic conditions.

Confronted with growing opposition, Somoza took the path that his family had pursued for nearly one-half a century—repression. He turned loose his National Guard and brutalized his own people in 1975. That action, however, caused a stir in the United States. By 1977, Washington was demanding better treatment for the Nicaraguan people and threatening to withdraw aid. Human rights had been a major thrust of Jimmy Carter’s Carter, Jimmy
[p]Carter, Jimmy;human rights presidential campaign in 1976 and continued to receive emphasis through the early years of his administration. Carter applied pressure on Somoza to respect the rights of his own citizens and to ease the repression.

In January, 1978, a Nicaraguan human rights advocate and editor of a leading newspaper, Pedro Joaquín Chamorro, was assassinated. This led to a general strike and increased fighting between the Sandinistas and the government. In reaction, Somoza took more drastic action. In August, 1978, an international human rights team visited Nicaragua to witness the government’s violations. The group learned that opponents to the dictatorship were deprived of their civil rights, illegally imprisoned, and tortured. Additionally, many critics of the government simply disappeared, never to be heard from again.

The revolutionaries counted on the Carter administration to apply pressure on Somoza to help bring about his fall. Carter had made it plain that the United States would not continue to support dictatorships and that his administration would use human rights as a gauge to determine if foreign aid should be increased or reduced. It appeared that the revolutionaries were moving toward success. When Somoza announced that he was going to comply with Carter’s human rights policy, however, the U.S. president sent him a letter stating support for the dictator’s changing policies. The letter applauded Somoza’s promise to reform the electoral system and his seeming willingness to cooperate with the Human Rights Commission. Human rights advocates in the United States were furious with Carter for the letter and for what appeared to be an easing of his stance on human rights. It seemed to some in Washington that Carter was simply returning to the old U.S. position of supporting dictators. With pressure at home and with Somoza continuing his repression in Nicaragua, Carter soon returned to his antidictatorial stance.

Finally, without the support of the United States and with growing opposition at home, including in the increasingly restive business sector, Somoza’s government fell on July 17, 1979. Somoza went into exile in Paraguay, where he was later assassinated.


Following the establishment of the Sandinista government, Nicaraguans expected all of their problems to be eliminated. The new government embarked on a policy of land reform and an expansive program of education for large segments of the population. Political prisoners who had been interned by Somoza were released, but the new regime filled the jails with pro-Somoza individuals. Members of the Nicaraguan National Guard were imprisoned or executed. Thus human rights violations continued, with only the victims changing.

In the months after July, 1979, fighting continued. Moderate and business elements in support of the initial Sandinista takeover were ignored as the socialist ideology of the Sandinistas was revealed more clearly. A group that opposed the Sandinistas, called the Contras, Contras emerged. A civil war ensued, in which both sides committed atrocities. The United States again became involved, siding with the Contra forces because of its opposition to the Marxist-Leninist philosophy of the Sandinista government. Ronald Reagan’s Reagan, Ronald
[p]Reagan, Ronald;Nicaragua presidential administration feared that Nicaragua would become another base for the Soviet Union and Cuban revolutionary activity. Sandinista support for the Marxist rebellion in neighboring El Salvador seemed to justify these concerns.

Throughout this clash, the Sandinista government insisted that it supported human rights. It pointed out that the Contras included Somoza supporters and that the Somoza dictatorship had been infamous for its violations of human rights. It was also noted that the dictatorship had perpetrated all manner of assaults on individuals and then tried to cover them up. The Sandinistas, after a time, admitted that they made some mistakes and that human rights abuses were committed, especially in the early months following the fall of the dictatorship. The Sandinista leadership insisted that it never tried to hide what it had done. On the positive side, the Sandinistas pointed out that instead of imprisoning or executing children, as had the dictators, they tried to rehabilitate them in spite of the horrible acts that some of these youngsters had perpetrated against the revolutionaries.

Cheering Nicaraguans crowd the streets of Managua as Sandinista leaders advance on the national palace after driving President Anastasio Somoza Debayle out of the country in 1979.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

In 1985, the Americas Watch Committee visited Nicaragua and found that after 1982, human rights generally were observed by the Sandinista government. The same group found, however, that censorship continued to be a problem. Other evidence emerged concerning Sandinista repression against Mosquito Indians, who resisted the government’s forced integration policies. Thus, although the committee concluded that most abuses of human rights by 1985 were committed by the Contras, it was clear that the Sandinistas’ record was also tarnished.

In 1984, under pressure from the Contras and the United States, the Sandinistas agreed to permit elections. The FSLN won 67 percent of the vote. One reason for the success was that some political factions that opposed the Sandinistas and supported the United States boycotted the election. Daniel Ortega Saavedra was elected president, and the struggle with the Contras continued. Ortega agreed to internationally monitored elections in 1990, expecting to win another term. This time, however, the Sandinistas were defeated, indicating popular displeasure with Sandinista policies that had left the country in ongoing war and economic decline. Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, representing a coalition of opposition parties that exploited this popular discontent, was elected president in what were deemed free and fair elections by the international community. The Contras halted their rebellion, and the Chamorro administration began to compile a record of respect for human rights, as Nicaragua took major strides toward greater stability, peace, and prosperity. In 2006, Ortega, now a more moderate FSLN candidate, was again elected president. He took office in January, 2007. Revolutions and coups;Nicaragua

Further Reading

  • Borge, Tomas, et al. Sandinistas Speak. New York: Pathfinder Press, 1982. A compilation of articles and speeches by six Sandinista leaders. Denounces the Somoza dictatorship and attempts to explain the program of the new regime in an effort to acquaint North Americans with the revolution and to gain their support in the struggle against the Contras.
  • Cabezas, Omar. Fire from the Mountain. London: Cape, 1985. A first-person account of the problems of a revolutionary, written by a university student who took to the mountains to fight against the Somoza dictatorship. Cabezas traces in graphic detail his development from a philosophic opponent of Somoza to a fighting Sandinista.
  • Crawley, Eduardo. Dictators Never Die: A Portrait of Nicaragua and the Somoza Dynasty. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1979. A history of events leading up to the overthrow of Somoza, based on printed sources and on interviews conducted during four visits to Nicaragua between 1975 and 1979. Members of the Somoza government, including the president, were interviewed, as were Pedro Joaquín Chamorro and many other opponents of Somoza.
  • Heyck, Dennis Lynn Daly. Life Stories of the Nicaraguan Revolution. New York: Routledge, 1990. An effort to understand the revolution by examining the lives of some Nicaraguan people who lived through it. The book tries to catch the flavor of the average person’s position in Nicaragua and the attitudes built up by years of living under a repressive dictatorship.
  • Hodges, Donald C. Intellectual Foundations of the Nicaraguan Revolution. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986. A careful examination of antidictatorial attitudes and ideas that were found in Nicaragua from the time of Augusto Sandino in 1926 to the overthrow of Somoza in 1979. Taken together, the ideas formed the basis for the Sandinista rebellion.
  • Nolan, David. The Ideology of the Sandinistas and the Nicaraguan Revolution. Coral Gables, Fla.: University of Miami, 1984. A study of the development of the FSLN and its problems as it sought to build enough support to overthrow the Somoza dynasty. Discusses the movement’s hopes and expectations for a new Nicaragua once the dictatorship was removed.
  • O’Shaughnessy, Laura Nuzzi, and Luis H. Serra. The Church and Revolution in Nicaragua. Athens: Ohio University, 1986. Church leaders had initially supported the revolutionaries against Somoza after years of quiet acceptance of the Somoza dynasty. Once the Sandinistas were in power, however, the bishops quickly pulled away from the revolutionary government when they perceived a drift toward Marxism-Leninism.
  • Pastor, Robert A. Not Condemned to Repetition: The United States and Nicaragua. Rev. ed. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 2002. A sometimes critical study of the Carter position relative to the Sandinista uprising. The author was director of Latin American and Caribbean affairs on the National Security Council from 1977 to 1981. Consequently, many of his views are based on firsthand knowledge of positions taken in Washington.
  • Rosset, Peter, and John Vandermeer. Nicaragua: Unfinished Revolution. New York: Grove Press, 1986. A lengthy collection of articles on the Nicaraguan revolution by supporters as well as by antagonists. The selections deal with both internal events that affected the revolution and external opposition, as exemplified by the Reagan administration.
  • Walker, Thomas W. Nicaragua: Living in the Shadow of the Eagle. 4th ed. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 2003. A thorough political history of the country and the intervention efforts by the United States.

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