Imperial Legacies
Dictatorship and Revolution
on 19 july 1979, a massive and particularly bloody insurrection led by the
Sandinista National Liberation Front (Frente Sandinista de Liberación Na-
cional, or fsln) ousted the Somoza family dictatorship established in 1936 by
the Guardia Nacional’s first native leader. The next day, over one hundred
thousand Nicaraguans packed Managua’s main square to cheer the FSLN’s
leadership as it solemnly vowed to liberate the nation from ‘‘Yankee imperial-
ism.’’ Foreign observers could be forgiven if they wondered why this anti-U.S.
discourse rang so loudly in a country with such minimal U.S. presence.
Unlike prerevolutionary Cuba, Nicaragua had no U.S. military base on its
territory. Neither had it become a Mafia-controlled playground for U.S.
tourists. Nor was its economy dominated by U.S. corporations. Moreover,
nearly half a century had passed since the U.S. occupation had ended. Many
Nicaraguans nevertheless insisted that their country had remained a quasi-
U.S. colony while it was ruled by the Somozas and the Guardia Nacional. In
fact, so strongly did Nicaraguans identify the three Somoza dictators—
Anastasio Somoza García (1936–56) and his sons Luis (1956–67) and Ana-
stasio Somoza Debayle (1967–79)—with U.S. imperial rule that they called
them ‘‘the last Yankee Marines.’’ No doubt the downfall of the lengthiest
dictatorship in twentieth-century Latin America liberated Nicaragua from
the most nefarious legacy of the U.S. occupation. But what many Sandinistas
failed to grasp in those heady moments of triumph was that other legacies
of U.S. imperial rule would critically shape the peculiar course of their
For many foreign analysts, one of the revolution’s most striking features
was the support it received from elite Nicaraguans.∞ This support was espe-
cially surprising, since the revolutionary regime was striving to promote
political and social equality by disempowering native elites. True, the Sandi-
nistas first prosecuted only loyalists of the Somoza dictatorship. But within a
year, the revolutionary regime began to attack the interests of non-Somocista
elites as well. This attack notwithstanding, many wealthy landlords and in-
dustrialists continued to serve the revolution as ‘‘patriotic producers.’’ More-
over, scores of upper-class Nicaraguans occupied key positions in the San-
dinista regime. Of course, this was not the first time that elites had supported
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