The Regime of Anastasio Somoza, 1936-1956

The Regime of Anastasio Somoza, 1936-1956

The Regime of Anastasio Somoza, 1936-1956

The Regime of Anastasio Somoza, 1936-1956

Synopsis

To many observers, Anastasio Somoza, who ruled Nicaragua from 1936 until his assassination in 1956, personified the worst features of a dictator. While not dismissing these characteristics, Knut Walter argues that the regime was in fact more notable for its achievement of stability, economic growth, and state building than for its personalistic and dictatorial features. Using a wide range of sources in Nicaraguan archives, Walter focuses on institutional and structural developments to explain how Somoza gained and consolidated power.

According to Walter, Somoza preferred to resolve conflicts by political means rather than by outright coercion. Specifically, he built his government on agreements negotiated with the country's principal political actors, labor groups, and business organizations. Nicaragua's two traditional parties, one conservative and the other liberal, were included in elections, thus giving the appearance of political pluralism. Partly as a result, the opposition was forced to become increasingly radical, says Walter; eventually, in 1979, Nicaragua produced the only successful revolution in Central America and the first in all of Latin America since Cuba's.

Excerpt

In July 1979, after a brief but bloody popular insurrection, the last member of the Somoza family to head the government of Nicaragua fled into exile. So ended a political system that seemed solidly entrenched since the mid-1930s when Anastasio Somoza García became president of the republic. How can the longevity and the strength of the Somocista regime be explained? To discount the regime as just another Latin American military dictatorship bent on familial enrichment through the corruption of the state's power misses a central point: that the figure of the dictator and his coterie were but the public face of a much wider and deeper network of economic and political domination. In general, dictatorships in Latin America have been viewed through the figures of the dictators themselves as representatives of a given tradition of political culture while little effort has been made to search out those characteristics of dictatorial political control that distinguish it from other types of political systems.

The basic question of how we are to understand the Somoza regime has been rendered increasingly important by current events in Nicaragua. As it turns out, the Sandinista revolution sought not only to eliminate the most obvious vestiges of the old regime but also to overhaul the Nicaraguan state in an attempt to create a new social and economic order. In this endeavor, the greatest obstacle the revolution faced is what might be called the passive legacy of the Somoza era--that combination of public and private institutions and economic interests that together constituted the prerevolutionary state. In seeking to reorient government policies and the role of private producers to favor popular demands, the revolutionary regime tried to rebuild the Nicaraguan state, reform its institutions and laws, and purge its bureaucracy of disloyal and inefficient elements. Such a task could not be undertaken and completed from one day to the next; the old order, solidly entrenched and relatively impervious to change, combined the coercive power of its armed forces with an array of political and economic alliances that survived, albeit weakened and transformed, the policies implemented and planned by the revolutionary regime.

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