This week’s guest blog is by retired Nicaragua Network National Co-Coordinator Kathy Hoyt.
“The simple folk with whom we talked were all agog over Sandino. He had become ubiquitous. He had been seen here; he had been seen there. At night he had gone stalking along a ridge, god of the universe. Later I found the same mythology was believed everywhere in Nicaragua. At many a low doorstop I sat and talked over a jicara of chicha corn beer, or a glass of yellowish palm wine, and there was no place Sandino had not been seen. He had fired the imagination of the humble people of Nicaragua. In every town, Sandino had his Homer. He was of the constellation of Abd-el-Krim, Robin Hood, Villa, the untamed out-laws who knew only daring and great deeds, imbued ever with the tireless persistence to overcome insurmountable odds and confront successfully overwhelming power. His epos will grow-in Nicaragua, in Latin America, the wide world over. For heroes grow ever more heroic with time.” –Carlton Beals, Banana Gold, (1932)
From 1927 TO 1933, a small man with a rag-tag army kept the U.S. Marines at bay in the northern forest-covered mountains of Nicaragua. Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral referred to the forces of Augusto C. Sandino (1895-1934) as the “small crazy army,” but she made the remark with respect and admiration; Sandino had become a symbol of resistance to the “colossus of the north” for an entire generation of Latin Americans.
When I was first introduced to what could be called the “Sandino legend” in Nicaragua in the 1960s, the guerrilla leader had been dead for thirty years and the son of the man who had had him assassinated still ruled the country with an Iron hand. People looked carefully around them before telling stories about Sandino. For the rich coffee plantation owners of our region of Matagalpa, he was a bandit. His men were barbarians and he was very solidly on the side of the peasant rabble. Peasant farmers in the area, on the other hand told stories of the atrocities wreaked by U.S. Marines on peasant families suspected of supporting Sandino. The middle class seemed, as always in Nicaragua, to be divided. We visited my husband’s cousin’s mother-in-law in San Rafael del Norte who told us quietly but with pride of sewing the shirt Sandino had worn for his marriage to Blanca Arauz. But for the most part, Nicaraguans didn’t talk about Sandino. It was dangerous!
Sandino’s primary objective was to rid his country of the U.S. occupation, which had lasted since 1912. His other aims, however, have been the subject of much controversy. Was Sandino a petit-bourgeois nationalist who merely wanted the Yankees out? Or was he a communist, a Bolshevik who would take property away from the land owners? What were his true aims?
Studies of Sandino and his writings which appeared outside Nicaragua between 1936 and 1979 show an almost total absence of political analysis. (Inside Nicaragua, in these same years under the dictatorship of the Somoza family, no materials on Sandino appeared.) In virtually every case, the authors assumed that Sandino was a nationalist fighting to rid his nation of U.S. Marine occupation and that he had no additional goals. In the 1970s and 1980s, leaders of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), following the example of their founder Carlos Fonseca, began emphasizing one previously overlooked aspect of Sandino’s thought, that it was above all based on class. In the view of the modern-day Sandinista, Sandino used a “class-analysis,” siding invariably with workers, peasants and Indians, in a word, the oppressed — los oprimidos. FSLN writers emphasized that Sandino had two objectives: first, to rid his nation of the Yankee invaders, and second, to make social changes for the benefit of the poor majorities.
A thorough reading of Sandino’s writings, journalist interviews of him, and other studies shows that Sandino used both a race and a class analysis of Nicaraguan society. Sandino lived in a period of intellectual effervescence in Latin America, in which the idea of anti-interventionism was combined with a glorification of the Indian and of Indo-hispanic culture as well as with various forms of populism, anarchism, socialism, communism and spiritualism. Sandino believed that Indo-Hispanic unity was necessary to throw off the yoke of oppression from the north but that Indo-America would merely light the fuse for a revolution of all the oppressed peoples of the world.
The U.S. had invaded six Latin American countries (Cuba, Panama, Haiti, Nicaragua, Mexico and the Dominican Republic) in the first third of the 20th century. The violent Mexican revolution was in process of consolidation. Sandino was one of the most important symbols of this period of ferment, one of the sources of that intellectual effervescence while at the same time deriving sustenance from it. As leaders of various movements vied for Sandino’s allegiance, he absorbed what he felt was useful from their ideas and adopted them to the Nicaraguan reality as he perceived it.
Augusto Sandino was born on May 18, 1895, in the Department of Masaya. He was the illegitimate son (later recognized) of a medium landholder and a servant woman. His class consciousness emerged in the course of his early poverty-stricken life with his mother at the same time that a legitimate brother lived in comfort.
Living and writing at the same time as Sandino were three actors on the Latin American political scene who shared with him the ideas of what was called indigenismo, a kind of racial mystique glorifying both the Indian and the mestizo person of mixed race. Exponents of indigenismo came from varying political perspectives: from the Mexican Jose Vasconcelos, who with middle age became conservative (much like the revolution he supported); through the Peruvian populist and spiritualist founder of the APRA Party, Victor Raul Haya de la Torre; to Jose Carlos Mariategui, the Peruvian intellectual who combined Marxist social and economic analysis with the agonic Christianity of Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno.
All of these supported social measures in their countries that would improve the living conditions of the poor. They, along with Sandino of Nicaragua, were beginning to combine race with class in analyzing why and how some groups of people dominated and oppressed others. Sandino wrote in his Political Manifesto, “I am Nicaraguan and proud that Indian-American blood, more than any other flows in my veins—blood that contains the mystery of loyal and sincere patriotism.” (Quoted in Selser, 1981: 91) The combination of an understanding of class struggle, drawn from anarchism and Marxism, and of racial conflict between Indo-Hispanics and Anglo-Saxon Yankees was an essential part of Sandino’s ideology.
This synthesis must be considered in order to make clear what this jungle general, who meditated long hours, read voraciously and corresponded with the world from his mountain hide-out, intended for Nicaragua and for Latin America.
Sandino spent several years in revolutionary Mexico in the early 1920s working in the oil fields of Tampico which supported some fifty thousand workers and several different radical social doctrines. The long occupation of his country by the U.S. Marines was painful to Sandino. He said:
“In about 1925, I began to believe that in Nicaragua everything had become ignominious and that honor had completely vanished among men in that land. At that same time…I had a circle of spiritualist friends and we daily commented on the submissiveness of our Latin American peoples in the face of the advances through hypocrisy or by force of the murderous Yankee empire. On one of those occasions, I said to my friends that if in Nicaragua there were one hundred men who loved her as I did, our nation would be able to restore her absolute sovereignty, which the Yankee empire has imperiled. My friends answered me saying that there could possibly be that number of men in Nicaragua, or even more, but the difficulty would be in finding them. It is because of this [Yankee] intervention that the peoples of Central America and Mexico hate us Nicaraguans. I had the opportunity to confirm that in my travels through those countries. I felt wounded in the depths of my being when they called me ‘sell-out,’ ‘shameless,’ ‘traitor.’” (Sandino, 1976: 53)
Upon hearing the news of the revolt of Liberal Juan B. Sacasa against U.S.-imposed President Adolfo Diaz, Sandino returned to Nicaragua from Mexico in May of 1926. Although he joined the Liberal cause, it is quite certain that by this time he had moved beyond Liberal beliefs. He began working at the San Albino gold mine, a company owned by Americans, and soon started talking to workers about how they were exploited by the capitalists and by the foreign companies. He told them that they had a right to unions, schools and medical care. Soon Sandino left the gold mine with a small band to join General Jose Maria Moncada’s Constitutionalist forces in Prinzapolca. With the help of a group of prostitutes, he was able to retrieve a quantity of rifles that had been dumped into the bay at Puerto Cabezas and arm his men with them.
With each victory, Sandino’s small army grew. His headquarters was in San Rafael del Norte where the Arauz family ran the telegraph office, and nineteen-year-old daughter Blanca became one of his most important collaborators. By April of 1927 Sandino had taken Jinotega and the U.S. Marines had declared Matagalpa neutral territory. But by May, Moncada was negotiating with U.S. representative (later Secretary of State) Henry Stimson to end the fighting with the assurance that he would have the presidency in the 1928 elections. Sandino was the only one of the chiefs of the Liberal Army to oppose the pact. He returned with his men to San Rafael del Norte and sent a cache of arms into the mountains to be retrieved later. On May 18th, his thirty-second birthday, he married Blanca. A few days later he dared Moncada to come and disarm him: “I am at my post and waiting for you … I will not sell out nor will I surrender. You will have to defeat me.” (Sandino, 1976: 85)
He also wrote:
“We are alone. The cause of Nicaragua has been abandoned. Our enemies from this day forward will not be the forces of the tyrant Diaz, but rather the Marines of the most powerful empire in history. It is against them that we are going to fight…Those who are married or who have other family obligations should return to their homes.” (Sandino, 1976: 90)
In July of 1927, Sandino led 800 men to take the city of Ocotal. A Sandinista victory would have been complete if the Marines had not sent airplanes to bomb the city, forcing the guerrillas to flee. The city was wrecked by the bombardment. This bombing from the air of towns and villages by U.S. planes was repeated all over the north. It forced Sandino to change his tactics to “a special system of war that we have taken to calling ‘little war’ (guerrilla).’ (Roman, 1979: 146)
International solidarity with Sandino was enormous. He received messages of support from Nehru and from Madame Sun Yat-Sen in Asia. In Latin America, Diego Rivera, Jose Vasconcelos, Victor Haya de la Torre, Jose Carlos Mariategui and many others were among his supporters. From Europe, French Communist Henri Barbusse sent Sandino a long letter that was a source of great pride to the guerrilla leader:
“General, I send you this greeting in personal homage and in that of the proletariat and revolutionary intellectuals of France and Europe…You, Sandino, general of free men, are performing a historic indelible role.” (Quoted in Macaulay, 1967: 109)
Liberal Party candidate Moncada won the U.S.-supervised elections of 1928 as promised. The U.S. Marines stayed on to continue the fight against Sandino and to train a National Guard i.e., to Nicaraguanize the war. Sandino’s struggle was now no longer fought under a Liberal banner; rather he began to emphasize broader objectives than mere Yankee withdrawal. This may have been the result of the influence of Salvadoran Communist Augustin Farabundo Marti, who joined Sandino in the Mountains. Or possibly Sandino had merely peeled off another layer of his true beliefs. Whatever the cause, it resulted in the loss of some supporters.
Sandino was a great admirer of Simon Bolivar, telling Spanish journalist Ramon Belausteguigoitia that reading Bolivar’s life always moved him and “had made him cry” (Sandino, 1976: 287) The story of Bolivar was tragic, and one with which Sandino could identify readily: Bolivar was able to drive out the Spanish colonialists but was unable to achieve Latin American unity.
For Sandino the Monroe doctrine was the antithesis of Bolivarism and he offered a new modified version of the former:
“Speaking of the Monroe Doctrine, they say ‘America for the Americans.’ Fine; that is well put. All of us who are born in the Americas are American. The mistake has been that of the imperialists who have interpreted the Monroe Doctrine as saying ‘America for the Yankees.’ All right, so that the blond beasts do not continue in their mistakes, I reform the phrase as follows: ‘The United States of North America for the yankees. Latin America for the Indolatins.’” (Sandino, 1976: 140)
Many who have examined Sandino’s letters and political manifestoes have concluded that the totality of Sandino’s cause was the Bolivarian struggle for freedom from foreign domination and the quest for Latin American unity against the colossus of the north. While Sandino emphasized that the first part of his struggle was “national and racial,” the class nature of the cause, for all who cared to look for it, was visible in the social class of Sandino’s supporters, and in the social class of those he condemned repeatedly for having sold out their country to the invaders.
Sandino went to Mexico in 1929 but, although his expenses were paid by the government, he was not able to arrange a meeting with President Emilio Portes Gil until early 1930. The results were minimal. With a few guns and a little ammunition, he returned to Nicaragua in May of 1930. The military struggle in Nicaragua continued in 1929 and 1930 with increasing ferocity. The U.S. Marines were heavily involved both in the forests and in the air.
At about this same time Sandino issued his famous Light and Truth Manifesto to his troops:
“We in Nicaragua my brothers, have the honor of being chosen by Divine Justice to begin the judgement of injustice on the earth. Do not be afraid my dear brothers; and be sure, very sure that in a very short time we will have our definitive triumph in Nicaragua which will light the fuse of the ‘proletarian explosion’ against the imperialists of the earth.” (Sandino, 1976: 214)
This was the kind of inspiration which Sandino used to keep his ragged army fighting year after year. His forces carried out attacks throughout the country in 1931 and, at the end of that year, U.S. chargé d’affaires Willard Beaulac considered the situation “as grave or graver than at any time since I have been in Nicaragua.” (Quoted in Crawley, 1979: 76) The United States, however, was determined to withdraw the Marines on schedule after a new president was elected in 1932 and inaugurated in 1933. “Politicians in Washington were already promising the American nation that the United States would never again become entangled in such a predicament.” (Crawley, 1979: 76)
In 1932, Sandino held the hope that he would be able to take power and install a revolutionary government in Nicaragua. The reality, however, was different. Liberal leader Juan B. Sacasa won the election over Conservative “Yankee puppet” Adolfo Diaz. Moncada finished his term and twenty-four hours after Sacasa was inaugurated (on January 1, 1933), the U.S. Marines sailed out of the port of Corinto. Sandino was forced to re-evaluate the situation. He explained in a letter to Gustavo Aleman Bolanos:
“When foreign intervention in Nicaragua has ceased, albeit in appearance alone, the people’s spirit has cooled down. Political and economic intervention is suffered by the people, but they cannot see it — even worse, they do not believe in its existence. This situation placed us in a very difficult position, and in the meantime the government was negotiating a multi-million dollar loan and preparing to blast us to hell and consolidate the political, economic and military intervention in our country.” (Quoted in Aleman Bolanos, 1980: 160-1; trans. in Crawley, 1979: 82)
Sandino realized also that the U.S. would not stop “its intrigue and manipulation substituting for armed intervention another type of intervention that is too subtle to be fought with weapons.” (Roman, 1979: 165) He thereupon decided that the only good course of action was to negotiate the best concessions he could get from Sacasa for whom he still retained a modicum of respect and he did so.
According to the treaty signed February 2, 1933, Sandino was given a large extension of land along the Coco River in the north. The treaty called it “empty land” but in reality thousands of Indians lived there who had been supporters of Sandino’s cause and whom he wanted to organize into agricultural cooperatives. Sandino was allowed to keep one hundred armed men as an emergency force, which the guerrilla leader saw as a sort of insurance policy against violations of the treaty.
However, General Anastasio Somoza, whom the U.S. Marines had left in charge of the National Guard, was furious at the concessions the newly-elected president of Nicaragua had made to Sandino and he continued to harass the Sandinistas. He realized there were three forces in Nicaragua: President Sacasa, the National Guard, and Sandino’s small army. Somoza already had his eye on the job of his uncle the President; Sandino, who denounced the newly trained National Guard and repeatedly pledged the loyalty of his forces to Sacasa in the event of a Somoza coup, stood in the way.
A year after the peace treaty was signed Sandino went to Managua to talk with the President. On the night of February 21, 1934, Sandino and several of his supporters ate with Sacasa at his home. When they left the dinner, Sandino along with Generals Francisco Estrada and Juan Pablo Umanzor were taken prisoner by members of the National Guard, driven to the local airfield and shot. Their bodies were never recovered.
A few days later the National Guard massacred the occupants of the Sandinista camps in the north. The era of Sandino’s small crazy army was over. The Somoza era had begun. In the last year of his life Sandino had alternated between hope for the future of the revolution and his sense of Bolivarian tragedy, of impending doom. If it is true that he cried before the firing squad (out of anger, he said) it must have been because now, for him, the dream was gone, tragedy was real.
Carleton Beals said:
“The few people we met were all loyal Sandinistas, fleeing ever deeper into the wilderness…They were seeking safety, a new patch of ground to clear. But one and all, they vowed never to give up the struggle, and if necessary, pass it on to their children.” (Beals, 1932: 242)
When the early fighters of the FSLN went into the mountains, they found those old Sandinistas who had survived and they learned from them how to flee from the National Guard and how to live in the jungle.
Aleman Bolanos, Gustavo, Sandino: El Libertador. San Jose, Costa Rica: Nueva Decada, 1980.
Beals, Carleton, Banana Gold. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1932.
Crawley, Eduardo, Dictators Never Die: A Portrait of Nicaragua and the Somoza Dynasty. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1979.
Roman, Jose, Maldito Pais. Managua: El Pez y la Serpiente, 1979.
Sandino, Augusto C., El pensamiento vivo de Sandino. San Jose, Costa Rica: EDUCA, 1976.
Selser, Gregorio, Sandino. Translated by Cedric Belfrage. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1981.
- On Feb. 21, Nicaraguans marked the 83rd anniversary of the assassination of national hero Augusto Sandino. President Daniel Ortega spoke at an outdoor event that night after the National Assembly held a special session earlier in the day at the Monument to the Three Generals on the Augusto C. Sandino pedestrian walkway in Managua. National Assembly deputies representing all the nation’s political parties were present along with union leaders and workers. Assembly Deputy Gladys Baez, who fought with Carlos Fonseca in the early years of the FSLN, said, “Sandino built the first true organized popular armed struggle with a defined political ideology that favored the most humble. For that reason his legacy has remained alive during the 83 years since he passed into immortality and his ideals formed the basis for the solid triumph of our revolution.” (Radio La Primerisima, Feb. 21)
- The Regional Director of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), Edita Vokral, announced that US$140 million dollars has been approved for Nicaragua. “The SDC is strengthening its cooperation strategy in Nicaragua for the period covering 2018-2021, giving priority to areas such as potable water and sanitation, risk management and sustainable development,” Vokral said. (Nicaragua News, Feb. 23)
- President Daniel Ortega called on all Nicaraguans to work together in peace and consensus in the fight against poverty, during his presentation of the 2016 Government Management Report to the National Assembly. “This fight against poverty is a battle that can only be won by working together in peace, security and stability”, the President said. (Nicaragua News, Feb. 22)
- The Nicaragua Minister of Labor (MITRAB), Alba Luz Torres, announced that a new 8.25% raise in salary was signed in Managua on Feb. 17. She noted that the agreement was negotiated within the framework of the Tripartite Alliance Model between government, employers, and labor which has helped to strengthen stability, offering greater confidence to domestic and foreign investors. The President of the Superior Council of Private Enterprise (COSEP), José Adán Aguerri, said “The tripartite agreement is a very important achievement. Nicaragua is a country of dialogue and consensus that is moving forward in the fight against poverty”. He added that “Over the last 10 years the minimum wage grew 214% and formal employment 74%, going from 493,000 workers affiliated to the Nicaragua Social Security Institute in 2008, to 857,000 in 2016,” (Nicaragua News, Feb. 20, 22)