Tray-table closed and locked, seat-back in the upright position and safety belt fastened in preparation for landing, I pressed my face against the window, hoping for a good look at what would be our home for the next three years.
Undulating countryside. A blanket of deep green tropical vegetation, relieved only by a silver lake in the distance. Just beyond that, the landmark volcano thrust its peak through a small, encircling cloud, and belched a column of dense black smoke high into the azure sky. Momotombo! What a perfect onomatopoetic name for an African volcano. Never mind that this was Central America; to me the word conjured up the sound of jungle drums, and I repeated it silently to myself over and over, “Momotombo, Momotombo, Momotombo.”
As our aircraft rolled to a stop in front of the terminal, we waited while the less heavily laden passengers deplaned first. Then Elsa gathered up our one-year old son, while I took our three- and four-year old daughters by the hand and headed for the door.
The moment we stepped out of our climate-controlled cocoon onto the mobile stairway, an overpowering wall of heat and humidity struck us full in the face and engulfed our entire bodies. Moisture formed under our arms, trickled down our backs and seeped through our clothing before we reached the bottom step.
Welcome to Nicaragua!
A few months earlier, as my year of graduate study at Princeton neared its end in the spring of 1969, I received my ongoing assignment with mixed feelings. The old song to the contrary notwithstanding, Managua, Nicaragua was not “a wonderful place”. It was the small capital city of a small developing country in sultry Central America. In common with most countries of similar size and economic circumstance, it lacked many of the conveniences – and even essentials, such as healthy surroundings and adequate medical care – that we took for granted in the States.
On entering the Foreign Service, I accepted as a fact of life the prospect of an occasional hardship post, and like most FSO’s welcomed the challenge. But I was single back then, responsible only for myself. Now, with a wife and three young children in the picture, things looked different. Did I really want to subject them to such risks? But in fact, the question was moot. The Foreign Service expects its officers to be available for assignment anywhere in the world; if I was serious about this career, we had no choice but to bury our misgivings, put a smile on our faces, and hop on the plane.
Besides, there were also favorable considerations. The job of Economic Counselor – a department head and member of the Ambassador’s senior staff – was a bit of a coup after only two prior foreign postings. It implied early fast-tracking, and any attempt to derail it would not only be likely to fail, but could be career suicide. Moreover, while our two years at Embassy London had been great fun and a good learning experience, it was in a junior position; in Managua I would be dealing with a foreign government at a much higher level.
How high, I never suspected.
My first several weeks were spent meeting the many officials and businessmen, both Nicaraguan and American, with whom I would be dealing over the coming three years. And also touring the facilities that produced some of the country’s principal exports, most importantly cotton, coffee and beef. It came as no surprise that President Somoza or members of his family owned many of these firms.
One morning, after I had been in country a couple of months, a cable from Washington arrived, informing me that our Department of Agriculture had just rescinded the export certification of Nicaragua’s largest and most modern meat-packing plant for unspecified violations of U.S. Food Safety regulations. Within minutes, I received an urgent – one might even say panicked – phone call from the plant’s manager. The owner, he said, wanted to see me. Immediately. In his office. At the plant. Right now.
Normally an embassy doesn’t just drop everything and jump when a local business has a problem, nor do the owners usually expect us to. As a rule, we discuss the matter over the phone, or set a mutually agreeable time and place to meet. What made this case an exception was that the owner of the plant was also the President of Nicaragua.
This was unexpected. The President had any number of competent people who could handle this for him, and presumably there were one or two important matters of state competing for his time. I realized that I had just learned something of value about this man – there were few things to which he attached more importance than his personal pocketbook. I looked forward to the meeting, and wondered which Somoza would show up – the thug his father had been (and that he was also reputed to be), or would he affect the friendly and ingratiating pro-American persona that had been so instrumental in his father’s rise to power, and his family’s long and tenacious hold on it.
At the packing plant, the manager showed me into a medium-size office – by no means opulent, but nicely appointed for a slaughterhouse. The immediately recognizable man behind the desk rose, shook hands and introduced himself.
Anastasio Somoza Debayle (widely known by his nickname, “Tachito”) was the third member of his family to run – some would say “to own” – Nicaragua since his father violently, even brutally, overthrew the then-existing government in 1936. At about 6’3” or 4” and at least 250 pounds, Tachito was a big man, who liked to project an imposing public presence. In smaller groups however, he was often informal and frequently quite personable. Like his father, he was skilled at using his colloquially perfect, unaccented English to ingratiate himself with Americans. He correctly saw US support as a key pillar of his political power, and his business relationships with American firms underpinned his often-shaky personal finances.
With me, he seemed to have chosen a middle-of-the-road approach, alternating between an injured innocent-party stance and a bit of mild bluster. At one point he shrugged his shoulders in a gesture of helplessness and said, “Goddammit! I’m the President of this country! Don’t I deserve a little special consideration?”
For the most part, however, the friendly Tachito was on display. He appeared, however reluctantly, to accept that matters related to the wholesomeness of meat imports into the U.S. were exclusively the USDA’s bailiwick, and that his only recourse was to fix whatever they had found wrong. Actually, since he had been in the beef exportation business for years, and a USDA inspector was present in his plant full time, there is no way he could not have known this. Most likely, he was testing out the possibility of doing an end-run around the inspector. As courteously as possible, I let him know this would be a non-starter.
We parted as friends. Not bosom buddies, mind you, but he didn’t send any enforcers after me. He must have taken my advice, I thought, because the restrictions on his plant were rescinded a week or so later.
My next one-on-one with Tachito took place a few weeks afterwards. It was much briefer, and – as regards the insight it provided into either his character or the impression he wished to convey, I am not sure which – it was even more fascinating.
It happened on a Friday evening, while my wife and I, along with two other couples, were enjoying an evening out at the top-floor restaurant of the newly built, pyramid-shaped Managua InterContinental Hotel.
One day earlier, a young White House official had arrived at the Embassy on a somewhat mysterious mission – mysterious because none of us, except perhaps the Ambassador, had any information as to what that mission was. Somewhere around 11p.m., as we were preparing to leave the restaurant, I excused myself to visit the men’s room. Just as I was walking past the elevators, one of the doors opened. Three men were inside. One, wearing a white guayabera with a large bulge underneath at hip level, was a known presidential bodyguard. Another was our mysterious White House visitor. The third, President Somoza himself, carefully leaned his head out, looked right, looked left, and spotted me.
“Psst, St. John” he called sotto voce.
Beckoning me into the elevator, he bent close to my ear and whispered conspiratorially, “Is my wife here tonight?”
“She was, Mr. President”, I replied. “But she left about a half-hour ago.”
“Oh, good”, he said, breathing a sigh of relief.
Then he straightened up and strode quickly towards a small private dining room, with Mr. White House in tow. At least two striking young women were visible as the doors opened to receive him.
This, I thought, must have been a sample of Tachito’s “regular-guy cum straying husband” role. He seemed to have quite a repertoire of them. His wife, incidentally, was an attractive US-born and Barnard-educated woman named Hope Portocarrero de Somoza. The couple saw themselves – and actively sought to be seen – as the Latin American “Jack and Jackie”. Since the full extent of the late JFK’s womanizing ways had not yet become public knowledge, it is probably safe to assume that this incident was more a reflection of Somoza’s own macho predilections than of his Kennedyesque ambitions.
We never did learn the reason for the White House staffer’s visit, but there was no shortage of rumors and guesses making the rounds. The most feasible, in my opinion, was that he had come to solicit – or perhaps to collect – a substantial contribution to President Nixon’s reelection campaign. This, of course, would have been illegal, but – so I was told – not unprecedented.
Even more interesting, although also unsupported by any evidence, was a colleague’s suggestion that the rumored contribution might be related to the forced closure and rapid reopening of the meat packing plant. At the time, I dismissed that suggestion as not credible. Now, older and wiser in the ways of the world, I believe it perfectly plausible.
Towards the end of my first year at the Embassy, I began work on the annual “Economic Trends Report”. This is a time-consuming job, but not an inherently difficult one except for one thing – unlike all other economic reports produced by American embassies, this one is both unclassified and explicitly meant for public consumption. Designed for the use of American businesses that are, or might become, interested in exporting to, importing from, or investing in the host country, it is openly and widely distributed. This creates a huge conflict of interest; we obviously have an obligation to provide our consumers with accurate info and analysis, but embassies are – to put it mildly – not encouraged to make public comments critical of or detrimental to a friendly host country. The only solution to this conundrum is to be extremely careful about how we word our comments, and then to keep our fingers crossed.
Soon after the report’s publication, I began to have a sinking feeling when congratulations started rolling in for what I considered a straightforward, unremarkable report. My misgivings quickly turned to “Oh crap!” when I realized most of the “attaboys” were from people known to be anti-Somoza. The ink was hardly dry on the published copies of the report, when I received a phone call from our Ambassador, Turner B. Shelton. “Uh, Jack,” he said in that cautious way one uses when someone else is in the room and you want to choose your words carefully, “I’m with President Somoza, in his office, uh, the presidential office on Tiscapa Hill, and uh … he has a few questions about your report. Could you, uh… gather up all your notes and source materials and come on over here right away? A colonel will meet you at the gate to escort you right on through.”
“No” I shouted! “We can’t allow our reports to be vetted or negotiated by the host country, even at the highest level. It would set a terrible precedent.”
But that was to myself. To the Ambassador, I said “Yes sir…be right there.”
The President’s office was every bit as impressive as one might expect. Quite large, plush furniture, mahogany paneling, pictures of Tachito with everyone that mattered, it clearly made the statement it was designed to make; “This is the seat of power in Nicaragua.” But where were my inquisitors? The colonel saw my puzzlement, and, gesturing to a side door, said “the President will meet with you in the Cabinet Room.”
I entered a long and rather narrow chamber, its space almost totally filled by a huge conference table, finely hand-made of Nicaraguan hardwoods. I had heard about this table. Larger than its counterpart in the White House, it had been dubbed the “portaviones” – the aircraft carrier – and Somoza took great pride in it. It was, he told me after the handshakes, the only aircraft carrier in Nicaragua’s fleet.
The President got right down to business, wasting no more time on small talk. He had a heavily marked-up copy of my report in front of him, and went from topic to topic, asking what justification I had for every point of disagreement. Uncomfortable at first, I grew less nervous as the session went on. It quickly became evident that Somoza had little if any economic training and as a result, he did not have the ammunition to probe my responses deeply. I actually began to enjoy the session, and wondered why Tachito had not brought any of his own top economists into the meeting; several of them had economic credentials that far outstripped mine.
After about an hour and a half, the President ran out of steam, and declared the meeting ended.
Once again, we parted on a friendly basis. This time, however, he did send out enforcers – although, thank goodness, not of the mafia sort. Within a day or two, every top member of his economic team phoned to invite me to lunch, and over the next week or two I was treated to a series of one-on-one seminars aimed at convincing me that Nicaragua’s economic prospects were much better than I had painted them. More importantly, when in later months I had reason to seek meetings with these officials, they always made time for me.
I have often wondered which of the various personalities Tachito presented to the world most nearly reflected the real Anastasio Somoza. Clearly, I was only allowed close-up looks at the more attractive sides, and even within that context the man’s venality was evident.
I am certain there is at least some truth in the stories people told about his ruthlessness in the service of maintaining his family’s grip on power, although I do question whether he ever approached the levels of deceit, violence, and outright murder that his father practiced. But when his situation finally began to get desperate, and he apparently reverted to family form, I was no longer around to witness it.
All that began with the great earthquake, two days before Christmas 1972. I was in Washington by that time, having wound up my three Managua years in August. The quake leveled most of the city, killed thousands, and destroyed a major portion of the country’s infrastructure. It was fish-or-cut-bait time for Tachito; he could either mobilize the National Guard for rescue and reconstruction, or circle the wagons for his own protection. He chose the latter. Worse, he reportedly converted to his own use much of the humanitarian aid that poured in from around the world. In the months that followed, large numbers of people, including many of the country’s moneyed elite, rallied to the Sandinista rebels, who – reportedly using modern arms supplied by Cuba – soon became a serious fighting force.
The country slipped into civil war for the next several years. Tachito’s Government eventually collapsed in July 1979, and he fled to Paraguay. There, in September of the following year, a bazooka shell smashed into his Mercedes, ending his life and that of the Somoza Dynasty.
In the years since then, Nicaragua has alternated between authoritarian and semi-democratic rule. It would give me great pleasure to report that the quality of life of the Nicaraguan people has improved substantially since I first arrived there more than forty years ago.
Unfortunately, I can’t do that; nothing much has changed.
© 2009 John J. St. John