I’m standing on the exact spot in Leon where four peacefully demonstrating students were shot dead by the Nicaraguan National Guard on July 23, 1959. They were part of a group of hundreds of students who were demonstrating against the ambush of revolutionary soldiers in Honduras. The order to fire came from Somoza, the sadistic head of the National Guard. Forty-one other students and supporters were also injured in the massacre.
And it happened here, right under my feet. I feel great sadness. But also anger.
The political history of Nicaragua is complicated and I’m trying to sort it out, but the incessant noise from the streets of Leon compels me to find sanctuary in nearby La Merced Church, not because I’m religious so much, but because it’s a quiet place to think. As I walk down the street, I look into the eyes of the Nicaraguans I pass. I am told that I will not meet a single Nicaraguan who hasn’t had a family member killed during the revolution. Such suffering, but you wouldn’t notice it in the eyes of these beautiful people.
La Merced Church is home to a statue of the Virgin Mary. The statue has been around a long time, apparently brought over from Spain in the 1600s. She has been a source of many miracles, I am told by my guide. For instance, he says, after Leon was relocated in 1610 following its partial destruction from the eruption of Momotombo Volcano, the city was again threatened by a volcano. The Virgin Mary statue was carried by priests to the base of the volcano, where the people prayed for salvation. The next day, the rumbling stopped and the volcano went dormant. It was a miracle, he believes.
In the presence of the statue, my anger subsides.
I really like this small city of Leon. It’s the intellectual and cultural hub of Nicaragua, and the centre of the rebellion resistance against the 40-year reign of the Somoza dictators. The history of its past is written in the many murals around the city. One in particular, across the street from the famous Cathedral of Leon, shows the entire history of Nicaragua in pictures, from the arrival of indigenous peoples, through the arrival of the Spaniards, through the many wars and revolutions, to modern-day peace and prosperity.
The revolutionary hero is Augusto Sandino. He opposed initially the interference of the United States in Nicaraguan affairs. The US had Marines in the country for years, trying to secure protection for US economic interests, such as bananas and coffee, and to secure control of Central America down to the Panama Canal, which was hugely important for the US Navy. Sandino organized multiple raids against the Marines, losing a considerable number of rebels in the process. For years, the Marines tried to capture or kill Sandino, but he always managed to elude them. Finally, in 1933, the Marines were pulled out, largely because of the Great Depression, but also because they safely saw the election of a new president.
After the election, Augusto Sandino engaged in peace talks with the government. The rebels would stand down their opposition if certain sanctions were carried out. During the peace negotiations, Anastasio Somoza Garcia, who was put in control of the National Guard at the insistence of the United States Ambassador to Nicaragua, had Sandino executed. Immediately after, Somoza hunted down the leaderless rebels and had them executed. Two years later, Somoza used his National Guard to oust the President. Thus began a 40-year dictatorship of the Somoza family, vicious, corrupt individuals, who repressed all opposition. Ironically, they were strongly supported by the United States, largely because of their anti-communist sentiments and sense of stability.
With the death of the hero Sandino, a new rebel force emerged from the intellectual class of Leon. They called themselves the Sandinistas, after their hero, Sandino. Their emblem was the silhouette of Sandino, with hat and boots, and their flag was red on top of black – red for blood and black for freedom.
On September 21, 1956, a poet (yes, a poet) by the name of Rigoberto Lopez Perez shot the dictator Somoza in Leon. I also stood on that spot. Somoza later died of his wounds in a hospital in Panama. One might say that the gun was mightier than the pen in this case.
Somoza’s eldest son, Luis, took over as President and three years later, we had the massacre of the peacefully protesting students.
After Luis died of a heart attack in 1967 at the age of 44, his younger brother, Somoza Debayle, took over the government. Somoza Debayle was the most vicious Somoza of all. For 12 years, his National Guard clashed with the Sandinistas. It was impossible to go out on the streets at night in Leon. People protected their homes with stacks of concrete.
Cruelty was found on both sides. One of the guides who took me up a volcano told me that often people were executed by being thrown into a volcano. He said sometimes helicopters were seen hovering over a crater and people being tossed out into the lava.
But something happened to turn the tide. In 1975, President Jimmy Carter ceased support for Somoza. He would no longer support a government with such horrific human rights infractions. (Way to go, Jimmy!)
By 1979, the Sandinistas had taken over the government. Somoza grabbed the bulk of the national treasure and tried to exile to Miami, but President Carter would not grant him entry. So Somoza exiled to Paraguay. A year later, on September 17, 1980, a Sandinista commando team deployed to Paraguay and assassinated Somoza. He was killed by a direct hit with an anti-tank rocket. He was so unrecognizable that they had to identify him by his feet.
All of the relatives of the Somozas exiled to various countries – United States, Mexico, and Guatemala. No one knows where they are exactly, since they all changed their names to protect themselves.
And so ended the rebellion, and the reign of the Somozas.
Leon is still recovering after all these years. Some buildings are still in disrepair.
But people seem genuinely happy, despite the losses they have all suffered. The universities are filled with students again, and there is optimism in the air.
Lest they forget, their history will be written in the murals on the walls of Leon for a long time to come.