Thus far we have discussed two of the most independent Latin American countries, Argentina and Brazil, along with Cuba, the island nation under the firm control of U.S. economic interests. Before finally (and briefly) turning our focus to the biggest event of the period in Latin America, the Mexican Revolution, we will briefly discuss one of the many military interventions by the United States in Latin America and the reaction it sparked. Unlike what was developing elsewhere, like the growing nationalism in Argentina and Brazil and the pan-Latin Americanism coming out of Peru, the U.S. military’s intervention in the small Central American nation of Nicaragua resulted in violent rebellion, led by one of Central America’s most enduring characters, Augusto Sandino.
The story of Sandino brings us into the center of U.S. military and political involvement in Latin American affairs and it also fits perfectly into many of the themes we have been discussing this semester. You might ask why the U.S. had such interest in Nicaragua, a tiny country in a relatively poor area of Latin America. One reason was that American businesses had invested a lot of money into the Nicaraguan economy since the commodities boom began in the late 19th century. The rise of a liberal government under President Jose Santos Zelaya threatened these interests. Zelaya, a reformer and an assertive representative for both Nicaraguan and Central American rights, found himself in the middle of one of the biggest decisions in early 20th century U.S. foreign policy: where to build a Central American canal to connect the Atlantic with the Pacific and thus further project U.S. naval and shipping dominance in the western hemisphere. For many years, the United States considered digging the canal in Nicaragua, the most logical spot from a geological point of view, before it eventually switched its plans to create the nation of Panama and then to maintain territorial control of the Panama Canal Zone. For Nicaraguans, this was a bitter blow. The Zelaya government decided to put together proposals for an alternative canal with German backing. We can only imagine the reaction to this plan in the intensely imperialistic years before WWI. These actions surrounding the canal project, coupled with Zelaya’s support of liberal anti-imperial groups throughout Central America, turned him into an enemy of the United States, though, ironically, his political philosophy was perhaps most aligned with U.S. principles.
In 1912, the United States launched a military operation that toppled Zelaya and ushered in 22 years of occupation. This operation backed the conservative pro-U.S. Adolfo Diaz as president. Nicaraguan conservatives, with U.S. backing, then fought a protracted civil war against the remnants of the liberal party. Within this context, Augusto Sandino emerged as a revolutionary leader in the late 1920s, radicalized by the U.S. invasion and the general corporate and conservative exploitation of the Nicaraguan people. From the northern Mountains of Las Segovias, Sandino sustained a six-year insurgency against Nicaraguan conservatives and U.S. marines. Despite being hugely outgunned, Sandino’s followers were able to move around the mountainous territory and avoid confronting U.S. and Nicaraguan state forces head on. Meanwhile, as is the case with many imperial campaigns against nationalist guerilla leaders, violence spilled over to the helpless rural population, whose lives and lands were often devastated when the fighting drew near, similar to what can be read in the novella The Underdogs
By 1933, the Great Depression and Franklin Roosevelt’s reorientation of U.S. Latin American policy meant that a peaceful solution was sought. The result of this was a compromise agreement between the conservative government and the liberal opposition. Sandino, however, refused to sign. In 1934, the archenemy of U.S. imperialism was assassinated by the Nicaraguan National Guard.