NICARAGUA: I'm the Champ

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Dancing Partner. Once Moncada sent him out with $75,000 to pay off people whose property had been damaged by the rampaging campaigns of the famed revolutionary Augusto Sandino. Moncada, hearing that most of the money was going into Tacho's pockets, called him back. "Listen, Tacho," said Moncada, "you are not even a thief; you are a pickpocket. Get out of here." Somoza landed on his feet, became a consul in Costa Rica. Soon he was back in Managua, as Under Secretary for Foreign Affairs.

In that post Somoza got very chummy with U.S. Minister Matthew Hanna. It was the smartest move he ever made. Both the minister and his wife were charmed by Tacho's effervescence. Before long, Hanna was urging that when the Marines pulled out, Tacho should be made chief of the Guardia Nacional. Sixteen years ago this week, Somoza took over that job. He has been the Guardia's boss ever since.

After the Marines left, Sandino came down from the mountains to make peace with Moncada's successor, President Juan Bautista Sacasa. Sacasa, worried about Tacho's growing power, decided to cultivate Sandino as a counterforce. On the night of Feb. 21, 1934, he asked him to dinner in the presidential palace overlooking Managua. Somoza spent the evening at a party in the Guardia's barracks.

The Sign. On the way home from dinner, Sandino, a Freemason, was seized by a group of armed men, and hustled away. Soon after, a Guardia officer called the barracks, reported that Sandino had given the Masonic sign of distress. Freemason Somoza, unmoved, roared: "Carry out your orders!" At La Aviación field, on the southeast edge of Managua, guns cracked. Sandino is buried, say Nicaraguans, just under the runway TACA planes now use.

Somoza no longer had a rival. Within two years he was ready to strike for the top in a revolution that was quick and successful. In 1936 he put a stooge in office, then had himself elected President. Though the Marines had laid down the rule that the Guardia be half Liberal, half Conservative, Tacho kicked out the Conservatives, put his own pals in key spots. In 1939 he got himself elected for eight more years. And he went to Washington.

To prime President Roosevelt for the visit, Sumner Welles sent him a long solemn memorandum about Somoza and Nicaragua. According to a story told around Washington, Roosevelt read the memo right through, wisecracked: "As a Nicaraguan might say, he's a sonofabitch but he's ours."

In a sort of dress rehearsal for the impending visit of Britain's George VI and Elizabeth, F.D.R. gave Tacho and Salvadorita the full treatment. The President (with all his Cabinet, congressional leaders and top brass) met them at Washington's Union Station, dined them, put them up at the White House.

That Washington visit was a landmark in Nicaraguan history. It helped take away much of the bitter feeling left over from dollar diplomacy days. It cemented Tacho's affection and admiration for the U.S. Throughout World War II, the U.S. had no stauncher friend than Somoza's Nicaragua.

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