From 1936 to 1979, Nicaragua was under the grip of the Somoza family. Coming to power following the death of his older brother, Anastasio “Tachito” Somoza Debayle re-established the fierce reign of violence that had characterized much of his father’s reign. Intolerant of any and all opposition, Tachito ruled the country with an iron fist. Despite a federal law disallowing immediate re-election, the 1972 earthquake sent Nicaragua into a state of massive shock, calling for the introduction of martial law.
As the leader of La Guardia Nacional, Tachito was the head of the National Emergency Committee; Tachito was then re-elected once more to the Presidency in 1974. Soon after his re-election, opposition groups began to join together and raise their voices in protest of Somoza and his government. Led by the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), mass protests and violence plagued the streets of Nicaragua. The death of Pedro Joaquin Chamorro, a prominent opposition editor, marked the beginning of the end for Somoza. [Go here to read the account on the State Department’s website.] In response to the increasing chaos, the Organization of American States (OAS) and others crafted plans for a peaceful transition, including a three-man junta to take over the government; however, these plans were thwarted by Somoza and never came to fruition.
Lawrence Anthony Pezzullo served as the Ambassador to Nicaragua from 1979 to 1981. In his interview Pezzullo discusses the negotiations to ease Somoza out of power, the “exhaustion” felt in Washington when they failed, and the “crackpot” ideas that came afterwards; the growing violence in the country and the outbreak of civil war; and why he felt the U.S. “never considered Nicaragua a very important country.” He was interviewed by Arthur R. Day beginning in 1989.
Read about the conclusion about Somoza’s departure and the Sandinistas rise to power. You can also read about Embassy Managua’s unwanted guest, the U.S. ambassador who ended up on Nicaraguan currency, and the last tumultuous years of Panama’s strongman.
“It was just a repetition of the same message: ‘We’ve had enough, we’ve had enough’”
PEZZULLO: The two main actors in the State Department were Pete Vaky [Viron P. Vaky], who was the Assistant Secretary for Inter-American Affairs; and Bill Bowdler, who was the head of INR [Bureau of Intelligence and Research]. Both former ambassadors, both very experienced, very competent officers. The reason they were the two principals was that about seven months before there was a negotiated – what they called a mediation effort –that was organized by the OAS. And Bowdler, who was in INR at the time, was assigned by the Secretary to represent the United States.
Now that effort was an attempt to get Somoza to step down. It didn’t begin that way. What had happened was that in early 1978 one of Nicaragua’s major editors, Pedro Joaquin Chamorro, was shot down in the streets. Even though I don’t think Somoza did it, the country went up in flames. And what had been a slow deterioration in his position over a long time suddenly became untenable.
Somoza over-reacted, brusquely using the National Guard to attack towns, firebombing and the like. It got so bad that by the middle of 1978, the OAS met to decide whether it could play a useful role.
After a particularly brutal attack by the National Guard in a town called Esteli, the OAS called a special session. They passed a resolution which led to the naming of a three-member commission: the United States, Guatemala, and the Dominican Republic. And they were to go to Nicaragua to see if they could help in some way to bring about an end to the hostilities.
Well, they got in there – Bowdler headed our delegation – and they found that the Nicaraguans were completely polarized: Somoza with a few cronies and the National Guard on one side; and everything right, left, and center in opposition.
And that recognition came to them very quickly, because the three delegations had spread out and had spoken to all sectors: newspaper editors, politicians, church leaders, campesinos [peasants], everyone. And it was, you know, just a repetition of the same message: “We’ve had enough, we’ve had enough.”
That led to a period in which the OAS mediators were dealing with Somoza on the one hand and on the other with this multi-partied opposition, to try to see if there was some way to resolve the conflict. The opposition organized itself, ultimately, into a national front – a coordinated front – and demanded that Somoza leave, and that they would form a transitional government that would lead to general elections.
Negotiations went on and on for about three and a half months, ultimately were thwarted by Somoza, and collapsed. And when they collapsed, Pete Vaky and Bowdler, who had put a tremendous amount of effort into it, were exhausted. They had been fighting back and forth with the NSC [National Security Council] and at the White House because they thought more pressure should be put on Somoza by the United States. They thought if he’d leave the Presidency, there was a chance for a peaceful transition to some, yet undetermined, kind of democratic government.
Anyway, it failed. Pete, I think, was exhausted. Bowdler was exhausted. And we (the U.S.) sort of retracted from the scene, a bit. In historic terms it’s very interesting, because the Sandinistas – who were divided into three divisions, three factions – once the mediation effort failed, came together into one faction, with the aid and assistance of Fidel Castro. In fact, they went to Cuba to sign a unity pact and formed the FSLN.
And then they began planning the armed overthrow of Somoza, with the assistance of Cuba, Venezuela, Costa Rica, and Panama. And I think it’s fair to say we in the United States, and the State Department, and the intelligence services, were just not watching too carefully. I mean, everybody knew something was amiss, but you know, the antennae were not all that attuned.
Q: So we didn’t realize that the Cubans had succeeded in pushing them into a unified organization?
PEZZULLO: That was known, but that they were now building up for a major military campaign against Somoza, I don’t think was known. In fact,… I went to a meeting in Costa Rica in which [U.S. officials] were discussing Central American policy. The meeting was held in early May of 1979….
I went up to this meeting. It was a three-day meeting to look at Central America, because Central America was clearly in crisis. We reviewed the same kinds of problems we face now, only then they were a little more subdued. And the report on Nicaragua basically focused on how we would convince Somoza to step down at the end of his term in 1981. And not a whisper about impending civil war. In fact, the reports from all sectors indicated some buildup as well as fatigue. But nobody was talking about imminent attack.
By the end of the month an imminent attack was real. And I get into Washington the first week in June, and the war was on; we had a civil war. I mean, they were starting to topple cities. And that same fatigue in Washington was evident. There’s no question about it. You just sensed the fact that everybody was down.
“I kept getting commentary from Washington by people who are sitting there dreaming up crackpot ideas”
Now another thing had occurred, which made it even more disappointing for us. And that is that our ambassador to Nicaragua, a political appointee – who I think, unfortunately, was ill-chosen for the job – had picked up and left Nicaragua in the spring. That’s why they called me, because he just picked up and left, without authority, or so much as by your leave.
So they had no ambassador, and a very inexperienced staff. There was no reporting or analysis coming out of Managua. They were in a bind. Here’s a civil war going on; no ambassador, and an embassy which isn’t operating.
And within the next three weeks we were meeting almost daily, either at the NSC, or in one meeting or another. And what we put together was basically a policy that said the only thing the United States can do now, given the circumstances, is go in and hasten the departure of Somoza – end the war.
And if we can end the war, then there is a certain amount of political capital we’ll get for having stopped the bloodshed. And perhaps we can use that political capital to have some effect on the new government.
And the basic outlines of it were that we, as I say, we thought if we could end the conflict – and we probably were the only nation who could do that – we could get some political momentum to bring about a transition that was somewhat democratic, or participatory. I don’t think anybody had high hopes, because in the middle of a civil war it’s hard to figure out what’s going to come after.
And most of the discussions almost sounded like something about cleaning apartments, because everybody was talking about “vacuums.” I’ll never forget this period. You know, what do we do about the vacuums, and this vacuum, and that vacuum?
And indeed, it becomes a fascination with people who are analyzing things to death, while events are changing quickly on the ground. And this followed me into Nicaragua. I mean, I was dealing with the war, and I kept getting the commentary from Washington, you know, by people who are sitting there dreaming up new schemes.
One of the crackpot ideas was that we could suddenly construct a new transitional government of “wise men.” It borrowed from a concept considered eight months earlier during the mediation effort. Simply put, we would approach people who had already been identified as leaders in the community, and say, “Suppose we end the war — could you walk in and become president of Nicaragua?”
And one of my first jobs was to go in, in the middle of a civil war and find these people, who were all hiding – some of them had left the country – and propose to them that they form this group of wise men.
Well, the problem is they didn’t trust the U.S. government anymore. They had exposed themselves eight months before, when suddenly – when the moment of truth came, to get Somoza out, we couldn’t deliver. I mean, that’s how they saw it – to put it in the bluntest terms. And they weren’t about to expose themselves again in the middle of a civil war. But in Washington’s mind, especially the NSC, it was doable….
The other idea, which I thought was more, at least, possible, was to preserve some elements of the National Guard, so that you would have a transition with some members of a security force that were disciplined, and capable of retaining some balance. Now again, in hindsight, that was illusory. I thought it was possible.
What made it impossible was Somoza, and that was hard to calculate. One thing I really miscalculated was how frightened he was. I think what happened at the end proves that he thought that the National Guard would kill him.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t get to the Guard directly, naturally; there was no way for me to do that, and my military attaché couldn’t get to the guard, either, because they were fighting a war.
I was discussing the future of the Guard only with Somoza and his son. The planning was being done in a vacuum, to the extent that the officers in the Guard were not involved.
I worked out a scenario with Somoza in which he would step down under his own constitutional processes, so there was no interruption in that, and turn over power to a member of the congress, who would then invite in the junta in San José [Costa Rica]. They would begin deliberating on the transfer of power.
The new head of the National Guard, who was going to be named, would do the same thing with the Sandinista forces. And there would be a cease-fire and stand-down, and the initiation of discussions about merging forces.
While we were talking about this with Somoza, Bowdler, who was in San José, was talking to the junta. So everything we did – everything I negotiated – the junta was party to, even to the naming of the new National Guard commander.
The problem, we know in hindsight, was Somoza never relayed this, honestly, to his own Guard. Because he was afraid that if he did – if they ever thought he was leaving Nicaragua, and not getting what he ultimately promised them (that the United States was going to come in – once he got out – to support them) – they would kill him. And that’s what frustrated this entire play.
What happened was that Somoza left. We didn’t come in to the support of the Guard, because we’d never promised that. But the Guard, deceived by Somoza, didn’t know that. They suddenly found themselves without Somoza, and without U.S. assistance, and they broke down.
They collapsed within – within twenty-four hours they were gone; they had all run up to Honduras, or to other places….
“It was an embassy under siege”
My concerns were the timing of his [Somoza’s] departure; this National Guard issue – setting it up, getting the right commander. And part of the time, waiting for Washington to agree that we had to start the countdown. I was trying to push the countdown – you know, the 72-hour countdown.
Q: Because you saw things coming apart?
PEZZULLO: Yes, and naturally being in the middle of it, and hearing it – I mean, you know, Managua at night was like being in a battlefield – firing, and so on. And then you just had the sense of this thing closing in on you. And we were getting constant reports on how much ammunition the Guard had left. Somoza was making excursions – or trips out – for resupplies.
See, we had cut off supply to the Guard. We had stopped some supplies that were coming from Israel; on the high seas we stopped them – diverted the ships. We were telling his former suppliers in Central America – Guatemala and others – to cut it off. They did. So his material was slowly running down. We knew that. We also knew the opposition forces were building up. So you could just sense a closing in. There was no way of knowing when it would break, so you tended to want to get the darn scenario in place….
So it was a very interesting – I mean, I’ve never seen so many flash, top-secret cables. I never saw that many in my life. We would have these drills, as you know, overseas. But I was sending three or four flash cables a day, and getting six or seven in return. It was just incredible.
It was an embassy under siege; we had no women there and no families. We had a small security [Marine] detachment from Panama, for emergency…
Q: Was there fighting in the city of Managua?
PEZZULLO: Yes, when I arrived there I couldn’t land in the city – I couldn’t land at the airport because the airport was cut off from the city. The Sandinistas were in-between. So I flew in, in a small airplane that dropped me off at a landing strip on the coast and took off.
They picked me up in a car, and drove me up to the capital. That lasted for two days. Then the siege ended because the Sandinistas had really put themselves in a very exposed position, and they retreated one evening to the city of Masaya. But there was constant firing, shooting. The major battles were out, away from the city; although there was a constant closing in on the city.
You felt as if you were in this little enclave which was not going to hold too long; and that if you were going to strike a deal, and get this thing done, you had better get on with it.
And what struck me then was how the field tends to have a different view of the world from Washington. And it’s just a natural reality. You’re sitting one place, and they’re sitting in another. And of course, under these circumstances it was even more dramatic….
Q: Were you in touch with others besides Somoza? Or did you have to deal primarily with him?
PEZZULLO: No, I talked to a lot of people. I met most of these wise men, who were squirreled away around the city, and we’d go out and find them. I spoke to the Archbishop [Miguel Obando y Bravo] as much as I could. In fact, the two of us were caught in the middle of a firefight. I was talking to him and they started a firefight around us, and we had to break off our discussion….
He’s gotten harder as time has gone on, because life has become difficult for him. But he’s a sage old gentleman, who watches and listens, and was very, very critical of Somoza for a long time. So I conferred with him just to get a sense of what he saw happening. And I told him what we were doing; I wanted him to know.
I said, “This is what I’m doing, and I want you to understand if there’s any question in your mind. This is the route we’re on.”
He said, “That’s a fine route. Try to get this war ended. This country is bleeding to death. And anything I can do I’ll be glad to do.”
He was working a hard eight months before, during the mediation effort. He was trying to do everything possible to get the mediation to succeed. He saw it for what it was: the last really peaceful chance to end that conflict.
And I met with other politicians. I met with the few diplomats that remained; there weren’t many left, because it was a war zone. But we’d meet for lunch, or we’d meet one another in the office. But it was not the kind of place you could go out and wander around in….
“We never considered Nicaragua a very important country”
Q: And you had no contact, I assume, with the insurgent forces?
PEZZULLO: Oh no. One of the interesting things is that – remember I told you about this meeting we had in San José, in May? I asked then what we were doing with this leftist group – the Sandinistas then had a name; because before then they weren’t called the Sandinistas, it was just sort of a mélange of different leftist groups. I was told that we had no contacts.
We had never talked to them, which just shocked the pants off of me. I said, “I can’t believe this. You tell me we’re not talking to these people?”
We didn’t have our ear to the ground. That embassy, I think, was a failure. I don’t know why, but we never considered Nicaragua a very important country.
Q: But they must have had a station there, and CIA people?
PEZZULLO: The station was not too active in Nicaragua, interestingly because they didn’t trust Somoza. And we had an ambassador – back during the early seventies, up through the time when Nixon left office, and then he was removed – who used to pass things to Somoza all the time. So the station was very concerned about too much information going through. Somoza – you have to keep in mind was really wired into our system in a way that’s hard to understand….
But he had very good intelligence on what we were doing at the highest levels. And, you know, for that reason a lot of people were very intimidated by Somoza. Because he could pull levers. In fact, one day he – I think it was about the third or fourth conversation we had – he called Washington, and tried to open a dialogue there. And he was told, “You’ve got our man, you talk to Pezzullo.”
Washington called me and said, “We just wanted you to know that.”
And the next time I walked in he said, “Hey, you’ve got a lot of power, don’t you?” He said, “They told me from Washington I’ve got to deal with you…”
He always had somebody in Washington he could appeal to, and then he could play with our ambassador…
Q: What finally convinced him that nobody was coming to his rescue, and that he ought to step down and leave?
PEZZULLO: I don’t know. I think he may have carried it right to the end, and then he finally left….But given the type of person he was, who had lived this charmed life and had had a good relationship with the United States, there’s no reason to think he didn’t feel that we could not live without him….
He was facing the most impossible of circumstances. The populace had really risen up against him, and were aiding and abetting these young people. So there were a lot of illusions here.
I mean, the illusion indulged in by the Sandinistas is that they won a military victory, which was not true. The Nicaraguan people rose up against their leader and threw him out, and they happened to be the armed vanguard of that. But they never overthrew Somoza. They alone would never have done it. It was the Nicaraguan people who overthrew Somoza.
And that’s what – no Guard – no national force can ever combat–you just can’t combat your whole country: the little kids, the wives – impossible.