Augusto Sandino, National Hero

Is it heroic or foolish to fight against impossible odds, even if you know you are right? When is violence and revolt a justifiable strategy for change?

Augusto Sandino.
Augusto Sandino.

Augusto Nicolás Sandino (May 18, 1895 – February 21, 1934) was a Nicaraguan revolutionary and leader of a rebellion between 1927 and 1933 against the U.S. military occupation of Nicaragua. He was referred to as a “bandit” by the United States government; his exploits made him a hero throughout much of Latin America, where he became a symbol of resistance to United States’ domination. He drew units of the United States Marine Corps into an undeclared guerrilla war. The United States troops withdrew from the country in 1933 after overseeing the election and inauguration of President Juan Bautista Sacasa, who had returned from exile. The re-call of the Marines was largely due to the Great Depression.

Sandino was assassinated in 1934 by National Guard forces of Gen. Anastasio Somoza García, who went on to seize power in a coup d’état two years later. After being elected by an overwhelming vote as president in 1936, Somoza Garcia resumed control of the National Guard and established a dictatorship and family dynasty that would rule Nicaragua for more than 40 years. Sandino’s political legacy was claimed by the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), which finally overthrew the Somoza government in 1979.

 

Sandino is revered in Nicaragua, and in 2010 was unanimously named a “national hero” by the nation’s congress.Sandino’s political descendants, along with the icons of his wide-brimmed hat and boots, and influence of his writings from the years of warfare against the U.S. Marines, continue to help shape the national identity of Nicaragua.
 
 

Early life

Augusto Sandino was born May 18, 1895, in Niquinohomo, Masaya Department, Nicaragua. He was the illegitimate son of Gregorío Sandino, a wealthy landowner of Spanish descent, and Margarita Calderón, an indigenous servant with the Sandino family.  Sandino lived with his mother until he was nine years old, when his father took him into his own home and arranged for his education.

 
Benjamin Zeledon.
Benjamin Zeledon.

In July 1912, when he was 17, Sandino witnessed an intervention of United States troops in Nicaragua, to suppress an uprising against President Adolfo Díaz, regarded by many Nicaraguans as a United States puppet. General Benjamín Zeledón, leader of the rebellion against Diaz, and the great hope of Nicaraguans dreaming of a country free from US and corporate influence, died that year on October 4 during the Battle of Coyotepe Hill, when United States Marines recaptured Fort Coyotepe and the city of Masaya from rebels. Zeledón’s body was carried on an oxcart by the Marines to be buried in Catarina.

 
This was a formative moment in Sandino’s political awakening, crystallizing his belief that the U.S. was exploiting Nicaragua.
 
 

Assault and exile in Mexico

In 1921 at the age of 26, Sandino attacked and tried to kill Dagoberto Rivas, the son of a prominent conservative townsman, who had made disparaging comments about Sandino’s mother. Sandino fled to Honduras, then Guatemala and eventually Mexico, where he found work at a Standard Oil refinery near the port of Tampico. At that time the military phase of the Mexican Revolution was drawing to an end. A new “institutional revolutionary” regime was forming, driven by a wide array of popular movements to carry out the provisions of the 1917 Constitution. Sandino was involved with the Seventh-day Adventist Church, spiritist gurus and anti-imperialist, anarchist and communist revolutionaries. He embraced the anti-clericalism of Mexico’s revolution and the ideology of indigenismo, which glorified the indigenous heritage of Latin America.

The abandoned San Albino mine, 2007. (photo courtesy of www.sandinorebellion.com)
The abandoned San Albino mine, 2007. (photo courtesy of http://www.sandinorebellion.com)
In 1926, Sandino returned to Nicaragua, after the statute of limitations ran out on the charges against him. He found work in the dirty, dangerous at the San Albino gold mine, located in the Segovias Mountains near the border with Honduras.

Emergence as guerrilla leader

Shortly after Sandino returned to Nicaragua, the Constitutionalist War began when Liberal soldiers in the Caribbean port of Puerto Cabezas revolted against Conservative President and US puppet Adolfo Díaz, recently reinstalled after a coup as a result of United States pressure. The leader of this revolt, General José María Moncada Tapia, declared that he supported the claim to power of the exiled Liberal vice-president Juan Bautista Sacasa.

 
Sacasa returned to Nicaragua, arriving in Puerto Cabezas in December, and declared himself president of a “constitutional” government, which was recognized by Mexico. Sandino assembled a makeshift army composed largely of gold miners, and led a failed attack on the Conservative garrison nearest the San Albino mine. Afterward, he travelled to Puerto Cabezas to meet with Moncada. Because of the guerrilla’s hit-and-run operations against Conservative forces, conducted independently of the Liberal army, Moncada distrusted Sandino and told Sacasa of his feelings.Sacasa denied Sandino’s requests for weapons and a military commission because he was unknown to political elite of the country. But, after the insurgent captured some rifles from fleeing Conservative soldiers, the other Liberal commanders agreed to grant Sandino a commission.
 
 

By 1927 Sandino had returned to the Segovias, where he recruited local peasants for his army and attacked government troops with increasing success. In April, Sandino’s forces played a vital role in assisting the principal Liberal Army column, which was advancing on the Nicaraguan capital of Managua. Having received arms and funding from Mexico, the Liberal army of Gen. Moncada seemed on the verge of seizing the capital. But the U.S., using the threat of military intervention, forced the Liberal generals to agree to a cease-fire.

 

On May 4, 1927, representatives from the two warring factions signed the Espino Negro accord, negotiated by Henry L. Stimson, appointed by the U.S. President Calvin Coolidge as a special envoy to Nicaragua. Under the terms of the accord, both sides agreed to disarm, Díaz would be allowed to finish his term, and a new national army would be established, to be called the Guardia Nacional (National Guard). U.S. soldiers were to remain in the country to supervise the upcoming November presidential election. Later, a battalion of U.S. Marines under the command of Major General Logan Feland arrived to enforce the agreement.

 

After the signing of the Espino Negro accord, Sandino refused to order his followers to surrender their weapons, and returned with them to the Segovia Mountains.  It was around this time that he asserted, “We will go to the sun of freedom or to the death; if we die, our cause will continue living.”

 
His former boss at the San Albino mine, an American named Charles Butters, recalled, “He is a socialist and a fanatic. He [is] constantly preaching the brotherhood of man and claiming that there are no officers in his army, but all comrades…  When calmly talked to, he would state that he didn’t intend to kill unoffending Americans but only American soldiers.”
 
 

Declaring war on the US

At the beginning of July 1927, Sandino issued a manifesto condemning the betrayal of the Liberal revolution by the “vendepatria” (country-seller) Moncada. He declared war on the U.S., which he described as the “Colossus of the North” and “the enemy of our race”.’At the height of his guerrilla campaign, Sandino claimed to have some 3,000 soldiers in his army; in later years, officials estimated the number at 300.

 

Later that month on July 27, Sandino’s followers attacked a patrol of U.S. Marines and Nicaraguan Guardia Nacional sent to apprehend him at the village of Ocotal. Armed primarily with machetes and 19th century rifles, they attempted to besiege the Marines, but were easily repulsed with the help of one of the first dive-bombing attacks in history, conducted by five Marine de Havilland biplanes. The Marine commander estimated that 300 of Sandino’s men died (the number was about 80), while the Marines suffered two casualties, one dead and one wounded, and the Guardia three dead and four taken prisoner.  Despite their heavy losses and the lopsided nature of these battles, the rebels did make other attempts to swarm a small post guarded by 21 Marines and 25 guardsmen at Telpaneca. The 200 assaulting Sadinistas lost 25 killed and 50 wounded while killing 1 Marine, wounding another and a third guardsman who was seriously injured.

U.S. Marines holding Sandino's battle flag - Nicaragua, 1932.
U.S. Marines holding Sandino’s battle flag – Nicaragua, 1932.

 

 
 

Sandino adopted the motto “motherland and liberty” as the slogan of his struggle against the U.S. and its puppet government in Managua.

Later, Sandino renamed his insurgents, “The Army in Defense of the National Sovereignty of Nicaragua”. Efforts by the Marines to kill or capture Sandino over the summer failed. In November 1927, U.S. aircraft succeeded in locating El Chipote, Sandino’s remote mountain headquarters east of San Albino Mine. But, when the Marines reached it, they found the quarters abandoned and guarded by straw dummies, Sandino and his followers having long since escaped.

 

In January 1928, U.S. Marines successfully located Sandino’s war base in Quilali and though they were ambushed in their approach, the American and Nicaraguan troops had no trouble in routing the 400 rebels under the leadership of Francisco Estrada. The Marines lost one man while killing 20. Sandino’s own nature for over-exaggeration was evident in his personal report of the events. Sandino claimed having won the battle in three hours and that ninety seven Americans were killed with another sixty wounded. In reality there were only sixty six Marines in the operation. His further boasting claimed the capture of six Lewis machine guns, three M1A1 Thompsons and forty six Lewis automatic rifles. Also among these trophies was a codebook for communicating with aircraft.
 

With aerial support, the Marines made several river patrols from the east coast of Nicaragua up the Coco River during the height of the rainy season, frequently having to use native dugout canoes. While these patrols limited the movements of Sandino’s forces and secured tenuous control over the principal river of northern Nicaragua, the Marines failed to locate Sandino or to effect a decisive victory. By April 1928, the Marines reportedly thought Sandino was finished and trying to evade capture.One month later, Sandino’s army ambushed another Marine post and killed five troops.In December 1928, the Marines located Sandino’s mother and convinced her to write a letter asking him to surrender. Sandino announced that he would continue to fight until the U.S. Marines left Nicaragua.

Sandino challenged in stark, clear terms the very premise – taken for granted by many Americans then and now – that the U.S. has the right to intervene in other countries if it feels that its business or political interests are being challenged.  “Come to kill us in our own land, and I will await you standing strong at the head of my patriotic soldiers, not caring about how many of you there are; bear in mind that when this happens, the destruction of your greatness will shake the Capitol in Washington, with your blood reddening the white sphere crowning your famous White House, the cavern where you plot your crimes.”

Sandinista poster from the 1980s using Sandino's image and words. Compare the gun in his hands to the photo above from which it is cropped.
Sandinista poster from the 1980s using Sandino’s image and words. Compare the gun in his hands to the photo above from which it is cropped.

Despite massive efforts, American forces never captured Sandino. His communiqués were regularly published in American media; for instance, he was frequently quoted during 1928 in TIME Magazine during the Marines’ offensive.  At one point, he staged a fake funeral to throw off pursuers. The U.S. Congress did not share President Coolidge’s ambition to capture Sandino and declined to fund operations for doing so. The U.S. Senator Burton K. Wheeler from Montana argued that, if American soldiers intended to “stamp out banditry, let’s send them to Chicago to stamp it out there . . . I wouldn’t sacrifice . . . one American boy for all the damn Nicaraguans.”

The New York Times, January 1928.
The New York Times, January 1928.

According to historian Richard Grossman,

The United States Marines and the Guardia launched a counter insurgency war against the forces of Sandino. While he unquestionably organized a nationalist resistance force, U.S. policy makers defined Sandino and his soldiers as bandits. This decision helped define the military tactics that were to be used. Since the U.S. was not fighting a legitimate military foe, the rules of war (such as they were) did not apply. The Marines and Guardia made little distinctions between the Sandinistas and the civilian population: not only combatants but civilians were targets and subjected to the regular use of excessive force and torture.
[…]
Beatings by the Guardia and Marines were the most common form of torture. These included the use of fists and feet since a number of prisoners were also kicked or stomped. A form of water torture, which consisted of forcing water down a prisoner’s throat until the prisoner choked, also occasionally occurred. Peasant women were raped. Psychological torture was also used since Nicaraguans were routinely threatened with beatings and executions, including decapitation. These were more than idle threats. Ironically (given the horrified outcries at the beheading of U.S. citizens in Iraq today), photos of Marines and Guardia soldiers displaying the severed heads of Sandinistas they had killed were published in Nicaragua and throughout Latin America.

Following the election of Moncada, Sandino ruled out negotiations with his former rival and declared the elections unconstitutional. In an attempt to outmaneuver the general, Sandino expanded his demands to include the restoration of the United Provinces of Central America.

 

He made this demand a central component of his political platform. In a letter he wrote in March 1929 to the Argentine President Hipólito Yrigoyen, “Plan for Realizing Bolívar’s Dream”, Sandino outlined a more ambitious political project. He proposed a conference in Buenos Aires to be attended by all Latin American nations, which would work toward their political unification as an entity he called the “Indo-Latin American Continental and Antillean Federation”. He proposed that the unified entity would resist further domination by the U.S. and be able to ensure that the proposed Nicaraguan Canal would remain under Latin American control.

 
Bluntly, he summarized, “The sovereignty of a people cannot be argued about, it is defended with a gun in the hand.”
 
 

The struggle

Addressing his declaration of war to the whole of the “Indo-Hispanic race”, Sandino portrayed his struggle in racial terms, as the defense not only of Nicaragua but of the whole of Latin America. At the beginning of his rebellion, Sandino appointed the Honduran poet, journalist and diplomat, Froylán Turcios, as his official foreign representative. Residing in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, Turcios received and distributed Sandino’s communiques, manifestos and reports; he also acted as his liaison to sympathizers who provided him with arms and volunteers. Working with a number of prominent Nicaraguan exiles, Turcios sought to build support for Sandino’s struggle in other Central American nations and in Mexico, which had backed the Liberals during the Constitutionalist War.

Sandino, the Latin American icon.
Sandino, the Latin American icon.
Sandino’s principal demands were the resignation of President Díaz, withdrawal of U.S. troops, new elections to be supervised by Latin American countries, and the abrogation of the Bryan-Chamorro Treaty (which gave the U.S. the exclusive right to build a canal across Nicaragua). In October 1928, Liberal José María Moncada was elected as president, in a process supervised by the US, which proved a major setback for Sandino’s claim to be acting in defense of the Liberal revolution.
 

 

U.S. withdrawal

Although Sandino had been unable to secure any outside aid for his forces, the Great Depression made overseas military expeditions too costly for the U.S. In January 1931 Henry Stimson, by then U.S. Secretary of State, announced that all U.S. soldiers in Nicaragua would be withdrawn following the 1932 election in the country. The newly created Nicaraguan National Guard (Guardia Nacional), which continued to be commanded by U.S. officers, took over responsibility for controlling insurgencies.

Sandino's signature.

 

In accordance with the Good Neighbor Policy, the last U.S. Marines left Nicaragua in January 1933, following the inauguration of Juan Bautista Sacasa as the country’s president. During the Marines’ tour of duty in Nicaragua, they had lost 130 men killed. After the Marines departed, Sandino said, “I salute the American people” and vowed he would never attack a working-class American who visited Nicaragua.Sandino met with Sacasa in Managua in February 1934, during which he pledged his loyalty to the President and agreed to order his forces to surrender their weapons within three months.   In exchange, Sacasa agreed to give the soldiers who surrendered arms squatters rights on land in the Coco River Valley, require that the area be guarded by 100 Sandinista fighters under the government’s orders, and give preference in employment to Sandinistas on public works in northern Nicaragua.

Anastasio Somoza Garcia

Anastasio Somoza Garcia.
Anastasio Somoza Garcia.

Sandino remained opposed to the Nicaraguan National Guard, which he considered unconstitutional because of its ties to the U.S. military. He insisted on the Guard’s dissolution. Given his attitude toward General Anastasio Somoza García, the National Guard leader, and his officers, Sandino was not popular with the rank-and-file National Guard troops.Without consulting Sacasa, Somoza Garcia ordered Sandino’s assassination, hoping the act would help win him loyalty among the Guard’s senior officers – and eliminate a prominent rival for power at the same time.

 

Death

On February 21, 1934, Sandino was ambushed by the National Guard, together with his father, brother Socrates, two of his favorite generals, Estranda and Umanzor; and the poet Sofonías Salvatierra (who was Sacasa’s Minister of Agriculture), while leaving a new round of talks with Sacasa. Leaving Sacasa’s Presidential Palace, the six men were stopped in their car at the main gate by local National Guardsmen and ordered to leave their car. The Guardsmen brushed aside Sandino’s father and Salvatierra. They took Sandino, his brother Socrates, and his two generals to a crossroads section in La Reynaga and executed them.

 

The following day the National Guard attacked Sandino’s army in force and, over a month, destroyed it. Two years later, General Somoza García forced Sacasa to resign and declared himself President of Nicaragua. He established a dictatorship and dynasty that dominated Nicaragua for the next four decades.

 

The full details of Sandino’s assassination and what became of his remains are among Nicaragua’s most enduring mysteries. After he was executed, witnesses later claimed to have seen the Guardsmen prod Sandino and the other three captives with him to the ground and fire a number of shots into their bodies before burying them. Sandino’s followers are said to have located his body and moved it, reburying him.His body was never found again. According to Sandinista lore, Gen. Somoza’s assassins decapitated and dismembered Sandino before delivering his head to the U.S. government as a token of loyalty.

 

Off the record, President Roosevelt allegedly said, “Somoza may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.”

 

Three years later, Somoza took over the presidency with the assistance of the National Guard, establishing an oppressive, right-wing family dynasty which would rule Nicaragua for 43 years, the result of US intervention to secure democracy in Nicaragua.

 

Legacy

Postage stamp issued in Castro's Cuba, 1984.
Postage stamp issued in Castro’s Cuba, 1984.

Sandino became a hero to many leftists in Nicaragua and much of Latin America as a Robin Hood figure who opposed domination from wealthy elites and foreigners, such as the United States. His opposition to American control was tempered by the love he said he felt toward working class Americans like himself. His picture and silhouette, complete with the oversized cowboy hat, were adopted as recognized symbols of the Sandinista National Liberation Front, originally founded in 1961 by Carlos Fonseca and Tomás Borge, among others, and later led by Daniel Ortega.

 
Sandinista graffiti in modern Nicaragua.
Sandinista graffiti in modern Nicaragua.

Sandino was idolized by other leftists in Latin America, such as Che Guevara, Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez. His brand of guerrilla warfare was effectively used by Castro and the Sandinistas among others.

In 1979 Somoza’s son, Anastasio Somoza Debayle, was overthrown by the Sandinistas, political descendants of Sandino.
Sandino's 59-foot silhouette at Tiscapa Lagoon in Managua is instantly recognizable by his emblematic broad-brimmed hat.
Sandino’s 59-foot silhouette at Tiscapa Lagoon in Managua is instantly recognizable by his emblematic broad-brimmed hat.

The Bottom Line

  1. Write a memo advising U.S. President Hoover (1928-1932) – what is to be done about Sandino and his men?  Should he be destroyed?  Is this a fight the U.S. can win?  Should the U.S. marines withdraw?  Be sure to quote Sandino in your memo.
  2. Why do later revolutionaries in Nicaragua take Sandino as their namesake and inspiration?  Is he comparable to any figures in U.S. history?
  3. Design a visually appealing propaganda poster that educates the viewer about Sandino, his cause, and his struggle while advocating for either an imperialist or anti imperialist (negative or positive) perspective on his career.
  4. Sandino once famously said, “The sovereignty of a people cannot be argued about, it is defended with a gun in the hand.”  When is violence and revolt a justifiable strategy for change?  Was Sandino was justified?
  5. Who won the war?  Did Sandino succeed in defeating the Marines and kicking out the United States?  Is it heroic or foolish to fight against impossible odds, even if you know you are right?  Consider the career of Sandino in your answer.

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