MANAGUA – For more than 30 years, the name Somoza has been synonymous with the abuses of Nicaragua’s past.
The dynasty’s brutal repression, blatant corruption and gross personal enrichment during its 40 years in power prompted a national insurrection in the late 1970s and a decade of Sandinista politics in the 1980s. Even today, the Somoza name still provokes visceral reactions from most Nicaraguans old enough to remember the dictatorship—and many of those who aren’t.
But not all the reactions are negative, according to Alvaro Somoza, who grew up tugging on the pant legs of power in Nicaragua’s presidential palace in the 1950s and 60s.
Is there nostalgia for the Somoza era?
“Absolutely!” insists the Somoza revenant, the first family member to return to Nicaraguan politics after a life of exile.
An agronomist by trade, Alvaro Somoza, 59, is the national campaign chairman for third-party longshot Enrique Quiñonez, a former contra running on the ticket of the Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance (ALN). While some may consider Somoza’s bloodline a natural disqualifier from Nicaraguan politics, it’s exactly that family association that Quiñonez is trying to exploit to the fullest in a campaign in desperate need of gimmicks.
“We have awakened a giant that has been sleeping since July 19, 1979,” Quiñonez said upon appointing Somoza as his campaign chief earlier this year.
Somoza accepted the wakeup call.
“I am getting involved in politics because it’s in my blood, because I understand it, because it is second nature to me,” Somoza told The Nicaragua Dispatch during a recent interview in ALN campaign headquarters. “I was five years old when my father became president. I was born in the presidential palace. I grew up looking up at people and I learned early on who was good and who was bad.”
To little surprise, Somoza puts President Daniel Ortega, whose candidacy he calls “illegal,” in his bad category.
“He betrayed us,” Somoza said. “We turned the government over to him (in 2007) in a fair and square election. And he won. We gave him the government, the future, the reins of the horse. And he betrayed (Nicaragua’s democracy).”
Somoza says he feels the same contempt for all Sandinistas.
“I have very little respect for the Sandinistas, and I don’t fear them in the least,” he says, speaking fluent English after more than 20 years of living in Miami. “I don’t like the people who did what they did to Nicaragua in the name of revolution. They stole the heart of this country and I am willing to die fighting to reestablish that spirit.”
Somoza thinks that Quiñonez, whose zero-tolerance proposals include jail for those who fire morteros and “chemical castration” for rapists, is Nicaragua’s best option to restore the old spirit he misses.
“I like this guy, even though he doesn’t have a chance in hell of winning,” Somoza says of his candidate. “He represents what I represent.”
Growing up Somoza
Alvaro Somoza was born the grandson to dictator Anastasio Somoza García, the son of successor Luis Somoza (the second in the Somoza trilogy), and the nephew of Anastasio Somoza Debayle, the third in the dynastic succession and arguably the most brutal member of the clan.
Though his family is often painted in broad strokes, Alvaro says his father, whose tenure was the shortest (1956-1963), deserves the distinction of being a progressive leader and a democrat.
“I take a lot of pride in being his son. He was a wonderful human being and I am sorry that Nicaragua lost him,” Alvaro says of his father, who died in 1967 of a heart attack, at the young age of 44. “Most of what happened here was because he wasn’t here to stop it. He was very courageous guy; he had balls like an elephant.”
Alvaro remembers his father as a reform-minded leader who was concerned with workers’ rights. During his one elected term in office, Luis Somoza created the Nicaraguan Social Security Institute, institutionalized minimum wage and a six-day workweek, and gave workers the right to form unions and take paid vacation leave. He also formed the Central Bank, the national development bank and Nicaragua’s savings and loans system, Somoza notes.
Alvaro says his father was tolerant and pragmatic when it came to politics, understanding the importance of balance and compromise, and thriving on competition.
However, Alvaro says, his grandpa and uncle—the two “Tacho” Somozas— were another story altogether.
Alvaro says he remembers his grandfather, who was assassinated in office in 1956, as a “very strict” man who “had his claws in everything.”
“Grandfather had his deal; he had his sins,” says Alvaro, who despite his criticism of gramps displays an old black-and-white photograph of the old man on his office wall.
Alvaro has even less flattering things to say about his uncle, whom he describes as a hot-headed “conqueror” who was “terrible as a politician” despite his intellect, which he compares to that of former U.S. President Richard Nixon. Alvaro says his father and mother never wanted uncle “Tachito” to run for office. Even his family allegedly feared Anastasio Somoza Debayle’s temper and worried the general would make a mess of the country with his zero-sum politics.
Alvaro Somoza says the dictatorial aspirations of his grandfather and uncle, who sought continuous reelection in violation the constitution, eventually gave rise to the Sandinista National Liberation Front—a lesson that Ortega, ironically, should remember today.
“If you close political spaces, people are going to look how to fill them,” Somoza said. “I have said this a million times, Please look at history—look at what my grandfather did!”
Still, Alvaro Somoza bristles with family pride at the comparison between his uncle and President Ortega. “Ortega is a cheap, cheap imitation,” he says.
The topic of his family legacy, for which Alvaro claims his generation has had to pay a steep price, is still an emotional one.
“I see good things my family did, and I see the terrible mistakes. I am the only one in the family who has gone public to acknowledge mistakes,” Somoza said. “But I have also said I will not swallow the demonization of the Somozas, because if you look at the country it was modernized and more laws were made to benefit the people during that period than any other.”
Honor thy father
After more than twenty years living in Miami and running a very successful plant business, supplying flowing annuals to Home Depot, Target and Wal Mart, Somoza moved back to his ancestral acres in 2001 and bought a 400-acre farm. The farm he bought was from a cooperative that was given the land as part of the Sandinista agrarian reform that stripped his family of all its holdings in the 1980s.
Sitting in his office at the ALN campaign headquarters in downtown Managua, Alvaro points a thumb over his shoulder to the large portrait of his father hanging on the wall behind his desk when asked why he wants to get involved in politics now.
“Luis Somoza was a spectacular guy, and I take a lot of pride in trying to follow his ideals,” Alvaro says.
Unlike others that came before him in the Somoza clan, Alvaro says he has no aspirations to run for office in Nicaragua—which is convenient considering he is a U.S. citizen and barred from holding elected office here. Still, he insists his efforts to get involved in politics on a tactical level are an effort to help Nicaraguan regain its collective self-esteem and self-worth.
“Ortega is violating the Constitution and diminishing the importance of the people of the country. You cannot violate the constitution without insulting the essence of the country,” Somoza said.
He added, “Ortega is diminishing the self-esteem of the Nicaraguan people and cheapening the country. And the world is looking at us and saying, These freaking banana republic idiots can’t get their shit straight. And that makes me furious.”
Somoza is also vehemently opposed to the power-sharing pact between Ortega and Liberal Party challenger Arnoldo Alemán. He says the so-called “pacto” is reminiscent of the corrupt power-sharing pacts hatched by his grandfather and uncle—both of which he claims his father opposed.
“The worst person for Nicaragua was Arnoldo Alemán,” Somoza says. “He betrayed us and he continues to betray us. He is mounting a campaign that is so fantastic it is worthy of an Oscar.”
Somoza doesn’t put much stock in the campaign of Fabio Gadea, either. “The people of Nicaragua are looking for leadership and instead they’re settling for an 80-year-old man,” he said.
The best candidate, in Somoza’s mind, is Quiñonez. But when Somoza lists the reasons why, he sounds more like his uncle, the conqueror, than his father, the negotiator.
“In this respect I have to be black and white: There are the Sandinistas and then there are the rest of us Nicaraguans. Enrique represents that. It’s not that we want to divide the vote, but you can’t settle with the devil, you have to eliminate him.”
Defending the vote
Somoza, who drives around the capital with a loud “SOMOZA” magnetic sign stuck on the side of his SUV to boldly announce his family’s return to Nicaraguan politics, says Quiñonez is prepared to defend the vote in the street after the election.
He says he and Quiñonez already proved their brass during a Aug. 10 ALN campaign event that quickly escalated into a violent showdown with Ortega supporters.
It started when the Sandinistas started heckling Quiñonez and Somoza for handing out bags of water and ALN baseball caps to people celebrating the religious procession of Santo Domingo. Quiñonez started yelling back and taunting the Sandinistas, prompting them to start throwing bags of water. Soon, the bags of water escalated to rocks, and then to bullets—all in a matter of minutes.
Several people were seriously injured and five ALN vehicles bear the scars of bullet holes. No one died.
The National Police stood by and failed to intervene until the gun barrels had cooled.
More than two months later, ALN congressional candidate Victor Boitano was suddenly arrested for the alleged shooting, just two days before he was allegedly going to resign his candidacy to denounce a secretive pact between Quiñonez and Ortega. Since Boitano’s arrest, the ALN has huffed and puffed about how the candidate was a bad apple from day one.
Still, in Somoza’s detailed account of the Aug. 10 shootout, he never once mentioned Boitano’s name, raising more questions about whether the critically outspoken congressional candidate was indeed a fall guy who’s being stashed away in a jail cell to keep him quiet until after the elections are over.
Despite the ugliness and recklessness of the Aug. 10 episode in the street, Somoza says it shows that Quiñonez is prepared to stand up to the Sandinistas—even when the police aren’t.
“Enrique is a guy with an organized party structure who will defend the vote, regardless of whether we come in second, third or fourth. It doesn’t matter. We have to defend the Constitution,” Somoza said.
“Ortega is eliminating civilian political spaces, just like my uncle did, and that’s going to draw people out into the street. Unfortunately. Sadly. I am running a campaign so people realize there is only one guy who will stand up to the Sandinistas.”
Quiñonez, despite his bravado, is polling less than 1 percent.