NicaNotes: The Image of Sandino in Nicaragua

By John Kotula

Photos by John Kotula

This photo essay, and the ideas that accompany it, is directed mainly to people from the US with an interest in Nicaragua. The premise here is that the image of Augusto César Sandino in Nicaragua is so omnipresent, so beloved, and so central to Nicaraguan’s self-identity that it is impossible to understand Nicaragua without understanding who Sandino was and what he means today. However, the images and words were put together by an extranjero (foreigner) and I don’t claim to speak for Nicaraguans. Perhaps use this as a jumping off place to have cross cultural conversations about Sandino, his history, and his impact in contemporary Nicaragua.

If you are a kid growing up anywhere in Nicaragua you know Sandino long before you know who Sandino was. Walking to school, riding on the bus, going with your grandmother to church or the market, hanging onto your dad on the back of his motorcycle, you see images of Sandino five times a day, 3,750 times before you’re two and can say his name, more than 5,000 times before you start to hear the stories and put together, little by little, who he was and what he means in your country. As the biography seeps into you, it is rich and dramatic enough to make all those murals and statues and photos seem inevitable.


Biographies of Sandino usually start off by recording his “illegitimacy”, meaning his mother was a servant in his father’s house and they were not married. However, there is nothing unusual or particularly stigmatizing about Nicaraguan men fathering children with several women, especially rich men like Gregorio Sandino, especially in 1894. Sandino lived in extreme poverty with his mother until his father accepted him into his home when he was about 13 or 15. In his father’s household, he had access to money and connections. However, that didn’t keep him out of trouble. In 1921 he wounded the son of a prominent conservative townsman in a fight and had to go into exile. He ended up in Mexico, just as the fighting in the Mexican Revolution was winding down and a new revolutionary regime was forming. He was exposed to a wide variety of political thought; anti-imperialistanarchist,communist, anti-clericalist, internationalist, and indigenismo, which valued the indigenous heritage of Latin America.



Throughout his life, the imperialism of The United States loomed over Nicaragua. Invasions occurred with regularity and changes of administrations happened as demanded by US interests. Sandino lived through these assaults on his countries sovereignty and his passion to rid Nicaragua of US interference grew into a dedication that would guide his every action until his death.  By 1926, Sandino had returned to Nicaragua. He assembled a ragtag army and led guerrilla assaults. Eventually, his troops were recognized by the Liberal Army, but when the Liberals entered a treaty with the US that essentially ceded control to the imperialist nation, he refused to sign on and continued his guerrilla actions in the mountains.


“Come, you pack of morphine addicts; come to kill us in our own land, and I will await you standing strong at the head of my patriotic soldiers, not caring about how many of you there are; bear in mind that when this happens, the destruction of your greatness will shake the Capitol in Washington, with your blood reddening the white sphere crowning your famous White House, the cavern where you plot your crimes.” Sandino addressing the people of Nicaragua and the US armed forces in 1927.


For the next half dozen years Sandino’s army fought throughout northern, rural Nicaragua. They faced US marines and Nicaraguan forces that outnumbered them and had much better weaponry, including air support. The rebels’ casualties were great, but they were always on the move, always inflicting damage, and inspiring the countryside. Clearly, this insurgency foreshadowed and inspired the revolutions that were to come in Cuba and Nicaragua. Sandino became a recognized figure internationally. He was frequently quoted and reported on in the US press. The amount of resources that should be given over to defeating him was controversial in the US legislature. He pressed his claim to being an internationalist and proposed uniting Latin America into a single political entity that could stand up to US imperialism.


“The sovereignty of a people is not to be debated but to be defended with arms in hand.” Sandino

Sandino was never captured, never surrendered, and the end to his armed struggles came more because of the great depression than because of military victory. The US simply couldn’t afford its military operations for a while. The marines withdrew in 1933 after the election of Juan Bautista Sacasa as president. However, the newly formed National Guard, headed by Anastasio Somoza García, remained under US control. With the US mostly gone, Sandino felt that he could agree to support the new president. He negotiated the promise of land and jobs for his troops in exchange for their disarmament. But then, within a month of reaching a peace agreement, the National Guard ambushed Sandino and executed him. They then attacked the rebels and wiped them out. Somoza proceeded to take over the country. He forced Sacasa’s resignation, named himself president and commenced an over four decade long dictatorship. This was the man of whom President Roosevelt infamously said, “Somoza may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.”


“We will go to the sun of freedom or to death. If we die, our cause will continue living.” Sandino

The cause did continue living. In the face of continuous oppression, torture, and murder by the dictatorship, a revolution arose and claimed Sandino’s legacy. The Somozas were supported by the United States until 1979 when Anastasio “Tachito” Somoza DeBayle, the son, was overthrown by the Sandinista Revolution. Tachito was eventually assassinated in exile in Paraguay, but of course the story didn’t end there. To this day, the United States continues to bully and threaten Nicaragua and undermine the Nicaraguan people’s right to self-determination.


“I was struck by the fact that it was Sandino’s hat, and not his face, that had become the most potent icon in Nicaragua. A hatless Sandino would not be instantly recognizable, but that hat no longer needed his presence beneath it to be evocative.” Salman Rushdie, The Jaguar Smile


In Nicaragua, in the context of the revolution, the word “presente” is very powerful. It is affixed to the names of those who have died for the cause and indicates that they are still with us and have not been forgotten. It is an affirmation of Sandino’s statement, if we die, our cause will continue living.

The image of Sandino in Nicaragua calls to mind this history daily; facing tremendous hardship and never giving up, beating overwhelming odds, insisting on sovereignty for your own country and internationally, too, and loving country and countrymen deeply.

Augusto César Sandino, presente.



  •  The National Assembly approved a reform to the Electoral Law (ACT 331) which will increase participation in the upcoming Nov. 5municipal elections. Sandinista Deputy and caucus leader Edwin Castro said the reform will allow individuals whose names do not appear on the Electoral Lists of the Polling Stations (JRV), to register on the same day of the elections and exercise their right to vote by presenting their official identity card. (Nicaragua News, Sept. 1)
  • The Nicaragua Central Bank (BCN) reported that remittances entering the country surpassed US$786.4 million during the first seven months of this year, which is 11.2% over the same period in 2016. The United States, Costa Rica and Spain were the main sources of these remittances. (Nicaragua News, Aug 31)
  • World Bank Country Representative Luis Constantino said Nicaragua has reduced poverty by 20% during the last 10 years, while maintaining sustained economic growth rate during this period. “The Bank wants to continue to support the efforts of the Nicaragua government in the fight against poverty because there has been a successful macroeconomic management, transparent administration of resources and high level of proficiency in oversight of projects financed by the Bank,” he said adding, “The World Bank is working with the government to prepare the cooperation strategy for the next three years. Nicaragua has been one of the best performers in management of projects financed by the Bank in Latin America.  This is the reason we have doubled funding for Nicaragua going from US $ 150 million to US $ 300 million dollars”, Constantino said. Apparently the World Bank is not concerned about the NICA Act, now before Congress, which would require the US to vote against loans to Nicaragua. (Nicaragua News, Aug 29, 30)
  • The Nicaragua Biogas Program has installed 10 new biodigesters in Chontales department, with support from the Netherlands Development Organization (SNV). “The tenth biodigester was installed yesterday in Santo Tomás municipality and will generate electricity in this rural community through use of solid waste. Each biodigester has a 30-year useful life and the average cost is US$3,500,” the SNV said. (Nicaragua News, Aug. 29)
  • The Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) projects that by the middle of the century, 2050, Nicaragua’s population will have grown to 7.6 million from a 2015 population of 6.08 million. The number of people over 65 will quadruple from 308,578 to 1,256,704. The birthrate is expected to drop from 21 per 1,000 live births in 2015, to 11.3 live births in 2050 and because of the aging population, deaths will rise from 4.8 per thousand to nine per thousand.  Both women and men will live longer with women adding six years to average 84.95 years and men will average 80.98 years, up by 8.3 years. The population will continue to urbanize, reaching 63.1% compared to 2015 when 57.6% were living in the cities. ECLAC projects for every 100 working age people, 51 will be inactive, but it also projects that the Gross Domestic Product will grow from the current US$2,090.80 to US$6,001 in 2050. (El Nuevo Diario, Sept. 4)
  • Vice-President Rosario Murillo condemned electoral violence over the weekend in San Jose de Bocay, Jinotega, that left a vice-mayoral candidate from the Constitutional Liberal Party dead and a 16-year old boy wounded. She said there is a challenge in each municipality where different parties are running candidates. Murillo said, “Different parties do not mean that we are going to become enemies in an election campaign.” She added, “We have been advocating for a peaceful campaign, a campaign that demonstrates how we have advanced and grown in our country, in terms of electoral culture and a culture of peace.” Other parties and organizations also condemned the violence, the cause of which was unclear. The Police released a statement saying that an activist of the Citizens for Freedom party of Eduardo Montealegre witnessed 28-year old Lester Tinoco, who was walking down the road drunk, shoot the candidate, Zeneyda Patricia Salgado Matus. Tinoco remains at large. Citizens for Freedom party leaders denied that Tinoco was a member of their party. (Informe Pastran, Sept. 4)
  • Medardo Mairena Sequeira, a leader of the anti-canal movement, was joined by human rights and environmental movement members, in a press conference to denounce what he described as an illegal detention. Mairena was detained crossing the border at the Rio San Juan border crossing from Costa Rica on Friday and transported to Managua. He was freed on Saturday. The Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights (CENIDH) condemned the detention as intimidation of members of the movement against the canal. (Informe Pastran, Sept. 4)