Generations of Nicaraguans grew up with a history of the United States that the United States never bothered to remember: a chronicle of violence, of successive military occupations, of U.S. Marines and the “bandit” named Sandino, who fought against them from 1927 to 1933.
Having set out to create a democracy, the marines established instead a dictatorship. They left with a sense they had died for next to nothing. But Americans regard their past with a deadly carelessness, and failures are forgotten especially quickly. So half a century ago, memories of Nicaragua were relegated to the dust-filled corners of our attics and archives. And only as we face the prospect that we will have to fight there once again do we begin to look back and discover the disconcerting endurance of hatred for what Sandino called “that monstrous eagle who feeds on our people’s blood” — the United States.
Augusto César Sandino was not the kind of man most North Americans would notice. Slight, wiry and dark, he had spent most of his 30 years as a drifter and sometime mechanic before he took up arms. But he knew his country and his countrymen. His intensity, his intelligence and his fanatical patriotism — what he called his “sacred anger” — inspired the farmers and cowboys of Nicaragua’s rugged mountains. They joined him first in the bloody intramural wars between Nicaraguan Liberals and Conservatives, and then, when President Calvin Coolidge ordered yet another marine occupation in 1927, they joined him in the war against the yanqui.
Sandino had a macho contempt for “the prophets of doom, cowards and eunuchs” arrayed against him. “Come and murder us in our land,” he challenged the gringos. “I am here on my two feet, at the head of my patriot soldiers, awaiting you, no matter how many you are. But know that when this happens, the destruction of your grandeur will shake the Capitol in Washington; and the White House, the den where you plot your crimes, will be stained with our blood.”
More than 18,000 marines confidently waged what was then a new kind of war. They bombed hillsides and villages. They ran covert operations against Sandino from across the border in neighboring Honduras. They armed and trained what was supposed to be a politically neutral peacekeeping force: the Nicaraguan National Guard.
But six years later, Sandino was still alive and well and fighting hard in his wild mountains, and the marines, weary and frustrated, pulled out.
Sandino had won the war of wills with Washington. But he came down from his mountains, accepting peace, only to find treachery. He and his brother were murdered on orders from Anastasio Somoza García, the U.S.-appointed commander of the National Guard, who established a family dictatorship that lasted 45 years.
It was more than appropriate that in 1979 the dynasty would crumble, finally, at the hands of young Marxist revolutionaries who called themselves Sandinistas. “The children of Sandino,” says the battle hymn of their republic, “don’t surrender and don’t sell out. We fight against the Yankee, enemy of humanity.”
They do not forgive us our interventions of 50 years ago. They do not forgive us four decades of support for the Somoza dictatorship. And they cannot forgive us that, somehow, we forgot it ever happened.