Nicaragua: The Return of a Somoza

Former dictator's nephew, and other exiles, stir emotions in laying claim to property

WHEN Alvaro Somoza visited the beach-side resort here recently, he was seeking more than sun and surf. He was going home. ``This is where I grew up,'' says Mr. Somoza, whose family ruled Nicaragua for more than 40 years before being overthrown by the Sandinistas in 1979. Adds the exile, as he walks along the shore of the former family retreat: ``We used to ride horses on this beach. And when there weren't enough kids for a baseball game, our bodyguards would join in.''

With the election of Violeta Barrios de Chamorro in February, thousands of upper- and middle-class Nicaraguans who left the country under Sandinista rule are coming home. Their return has transformed Nicaragua's cultural atmosphere and reignited old animosities as the Sandinistas charge that bourgeois ``Somocistas'' are resuming their traditional role in society.

Fighting ``Somocismo'' or ``Somoza-ism'' - the way of rule of the Somoza dynasty - has long been a rallying cry of the now-opposition party. ``The Somozas enriched themselves by stealing property and displacing peasants through a reign of terror,'' says Jos'e Angel Berm'udez, secretary-general of the pro-Sandinista Confederation of State Workers.

Such deeply felt emotions are stirred as the returnees' presence begins to be felt more broadly. At the country's plush English-language American School, enrollment is up 28 percent from last year to more than 830 students. Another 600 names crowd the school's waiting list.

``After the elections, it really turned into a flood. I was getting 20 inquiries a day,'' says Marvin Happel, the school's director. Some of the Nicaraguan students coming from Miami do not even speak fluent Spanish, he notes.

At the Hotel Inter-Continental, Latin businessmen in starched collars and suits have replaced throngs of foreign journalists who crowded the halls during Sandinista rule. The atmosphere is often celebratory. ``Play that song a little louder,'' says one guest, lifting a glass towards the piano bar. ``I haven't heard it in 11 years.''

The return of Miami's monied set evokes images of an earlier era. A sense of d'ej`a vu marked the kickoff of the new TV station, Channel 2, at Managua's La Terraza restaurant recently. Confiscated by the Sandinistas in the revolution, Channel 2 has been reopened by the government and investor Octavio Sacasa, a Nicaraguan businessman recently returned from the United States. Twenty-five years earlier, during the Somoza era, Mr. Sacasa's father held a similar presentation for the opening of the station - at the same restaurant.

``I can't believe what I'm seeing,'' says a visiting photographer, marveling at the number of Miami faces and former supporters of the contra rebels at the reception. ``I must be hallucinating.'' He photographed the country during the Sandinista era. Just a year ago, the presence of these contra supporters in Managua would have been unthinkable.

In addition to seeking business opportunities, many exiles have come back to claim property. Earlier this year, President Chamorro set up a commission to rule on claims for land confiscated under the Sandinistas. More than 4,000 petitions have been filed. On most mornings, the street in front of the office taking them is jammed with the cars of returning exiles staking their claims.

Alvaro Somoza is one such returnee. During a recent trip to Nicaragua, he filed a petition on behalf of his mother, Isabel Urcuyo Somoza, for property confiscated by the Sandinistas in 1981. The land includes a shrimp plant, rice plantation, sugar mill, and a house in Managua.

The case is sure to be controversial. It was Anastasio Somoza Garc'ia, Alvaro's grandfather, who ushered in more than 40 years of family rule after assuming power in 1937. Luis Somoza Debayle, the dictator's son and Alvaro's father, came next, followed by his younger brother, Anastasio Somoza Debayle, Alvaro's uncle.

A DECREE issued by the Sandinistas in 1979 prohibits members of the Somoza family from reclaiming land and the government says it will uphold the law. Somoza, however, says he will fight it, appealing his case to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights if necessary.

``Why should I pay for the fiascos of previous generations of Somozas?'' Alvaro Somoza asks. ``Should I be punished because my name is Somoza?''

Sandinista partisans say the answer is yes. ``This land cannot be returned to the Somoza family or its associates,'' says Mr. Berm'udez. To Berm'udez and other Sandinistas, the term Somocismo recalls concentration of economic power in the hands of a few under a repressive military regime. These Nicaraguans fear that the return of the bourgeoisie signals a return to policies of the past.

``These people are coming back with grand ideas about privatization, which for an underdeveloped country like Nicaragua are actually quite dangerous, since they lead to greater unemployment and a reduction in basic services such as education and transportation,'' notes Berm'udez. ``Somocismo means exploitation and misery for the vast majority of Nicaraguan people.''

Alvaro Somoza disputes many of these allegations. ``The bogeyman of Somocismo is just a way to keep hate alive,'' he says. ``I am not a Somocista.''

Meanwhile, most Nicaraguans remain ambivalent. Blaming the Sandinistas for the country's economic collapse, some here have come to view the Somoza years favorably. And under Chamorro, it's no longer considered bad to be bourgeois, even if most in this poor country cannot afford it.

``We have a saying: `Somoza robbed, but he let you rob.' People didn't die of hunger,'' says Bertilde Chabaria, a domestic worker. ``But the Sandinistas, they only took for themselves. Now people don't even have enough to eat.''

Somoza's recent trip marked his first time back in Nicaragua since fleeing the country with little more than the clothes on his back during the revolution 11 years ago. While at least one Somoza cousin has also come back to Nicaragua to claim land, Alvaro Somoza is the first in his immediate family to return.

Like many exiles, he found the country he returned to far different than the one he left.

``The most disturbing revelation I've had has been seeing the hunger of the people, the desperation in the eyes of kids, how poor they are,'' says the exile, who says democracy here will never be secure until the Army is smaller and workers gain a larger stake in the economy.

Unlike his predecessors, Somoza professes no interest in politics. Instead, he has spent his time in exile managing his mother's affairs, investing in various businesses, and raising a family with his American wife in Florida.

Somoza says he would like to do business in Nicaragua. But, given the country's instability and highly polarized political environment, that may not be possible. On his recent trip, the businessman found people generally leery of being associated with the Somoza name. It is a feeling he believes will pass.

``Eleven years ago, no one thought that Nicaragua would ever allow a Somoza to return to the country - and here I am. Two years ago, no one believed the Sandinistas would hold elections - and they did,'' says the exile.

Switching to Spanish, he quotes a Nicaraguan saying: ``Solo los rios no vuelven.'' Only the rivers don't flow back.

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