The Somoza legacy: he failed the people he professed to love

The tragedy of Anastasio Somoza Debayle was that during the late 1970s he completely failed the people of Nicaragua he professed to love. Moreover, he failed to recognize the escalating signs that his days as dictator of Nicaragua were nearing an end. And when he was forced to flee his homeland last year, the hatreds that had been building for years had reached the point that made it impossible for him to go into exile with any honor.

When he was assassinated Sept. 17 in Asuncion, the capital of Paraguay where he lived a lonely exile, there were few mourners. In Nicaragua, there was jubilation; indeed, while the new government went to great lengths in denying any involvement in his death, there was no concealing the joy with which it was greeted.

"We are Christians," proclaimed conservative lawyer Rafael Cordova Rivas, "but in all sincerity we cannot conceal our joy at the death of an evil man."

The overwhelming majority of 2.3 million Nicaraguans had come to regard "Tacho" Somoza as an evil man. By the time of his flight into exile July 17, 1979, he was hated as few others are in Latin America.

Born into a lower-middle-class family, General Somoza was seven when his father began the family's march to wealth and power. It was in 1932 that his father, Anastasio Somoza Garcia, was named head of the newly created Nicaraguan National Guard by the United States.

The Somozas -- the father, then his elder son, Luis, and finally Anastasio -- became a family dynasty that ruled 43 years. They dominated Nicaragua as if it were their personal fiefdom -- and, in many ways, it was.

They owned large chunks of land. (When General Somoza fled to exile, he personally controlled 22 percent of the agricultural land.) They owned much of the business and industry of the country, including the national airline, two steamship companies, banks, and insurance firms. The Somozas were propped up in power by their a 12,000-member National Guard, which was at once part soldier, part bully boy.

It was the father, Anastasio Somoza, who molded the guard. He also molded his sons. Luis was easygoing, friendly, and less inclined to political intrigue. But Anastasio easily took to politics. As a youngster he was sent to military schools in the US and later graduated from West Point.

When he came to power union Luis's passing in 1967, Anastasio strengthened the hand of government in ways that made his father's era look like a kindergarten exercise. National Guard brutality became notorious. Opponents were jailed and tortured.

Through it all, General Somoza enjoyed a life of ostentatiousness, while his people lived in poverty. His parties were lavish; his wine cellar, enormous; his personal life a series of women and excess.

But a serious opposition was building. There was newspaper editor Pedro Joaquin Chamorro Cardenal. And there was a shadowy band of leftist guerrillas, the Sandinistas. Both were irritants to "Tacho" Somoza. When Mr. Chamorro was assassinated in January 1978, the irritation became a real threat. In retrospect, Mr. Chamorro's death was the turning point. The guerrillas gradually gained strength and by mid-1978 were seriously threatening General Somoza's rule. Even the loyalty of his soldiers began to wear thin by the time Somoza fled.

"I got the little people with me," he repeatedly said. But he didn't. Perhaps he unwittingly wrote his own epitaph when he told this reporter in May 1979 that "my people will never fail me as long as I don't fail them." The truth is that he had long since failed them -- as their support of the leftist Sandinistas proved. But his legacy remains. The backwardness, the shattered economy, the hatreds -- all evidence of how badly General Somoza failed.

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