The Boys of Nicaragua

Sometimes it’s too much to bear.

But we bear it anyway, or stop living or live a life of escapism and mediocrity. Many people don’t know how bad it really is because their feelings are buried. Some bury feelings for self-defense; others never had feelings because they were raised hard by unfeeling people or people who felt only anger, hate and pain. Many of these become sociopaths and psychopaths or misanthropes and haven’t a glimmer of conscience. But even they are redeemable sometimes.

“The Boys” of Somoza’s Nicaragua come to mind.

The following story was told to me by Margareta Nordh, a Swedish woman I met in Nicaragua in 1985, and returned there with in 1986-87. I wish I had recorded her words, because she had a way of telling in a musical voice remarkable and memorable things that stuck in my mind. She had seen much of Nicaragua and other parts of Latin America.

Margareta was a credentialed communist of high integrity and deep commitment to the poor, who worked closely with the Swedish government and had something to do with the FMLN in El Salvador and the Sandinistas of Nicaragua. Sweden at that time enjoyed the popular and enlightened leadership of Olaf Palme (assassinated,) and the Swedes had no fear of communism, having lived next door to Russia for many centuries with the little-known honor of having been the only nation in history to whip Russia in a war, during the reign of Peter the Great. The government when I knew Nordh was a coalition of conservative capitalists, socialists, communists and independents. Sweden has a competent army and navy and has not had a war for about 400 years. It sat WW II out in Neutrality (like Spain and Portugal) and angered Norway because, under the threat of invasion, it had let the Nazis travel through by trains, supposedly without weapons.

She spoke five languages fluently and was a medical doctor who specialized in broken bones. She also was a social anthropologist who had spent much time living with and studying the pre-Colombian Indians of Venezuela, and she had traveled alone in 84 countries, and lived in Mexico for five years.

During the fifty years or so of the dictatorship of the Somoza family of Nicaragua, the National Guard which the United States had set up in the late 1920s as a “constabulary”-- like the one we had established in the Philippines to maintain our rule in absentia-- was a terrorist organization which kept “order” by torturing and killing any Nicaraguan of any rank who opposed Somoza Garcia and later his sons, Luis and Anastasio Somoza Debayle.

The all-male Guard (El Guardia) lived in barracks, enjoying lives of privilege and comfort separate from and unlike the daily lives of most Nicaraguans. Privilege, possessions, all they could steal and unchallenged power was their domain. To say they were brutes is a great understatement. They were torturers, murderers, rapists and terrorists, and were trained by the United States of America.

Somoza Garcia sent his son Anastasio Debayle to West Point. The Guardia periodically filled its ranks by grabbing young men from their homes and families and immersing them in their brutishness to desensitize them and put them to work keeping the Nicaraguan people in line.

They also kidnapped infants and toddlers of their murdered victims and raised them without women in the barracks and trained them to torture and kill. This group of youthful killers was known as “The Boys,” and was widely feared because, having been raised that way, they had no conscience at all. In many cases their depredations were worse than their mentors’.

The later Sandinistas are the inheritors of the rebellion of General Cesar Augusto Sandino of the Twenties, the only general who refused to sign a pact calling off a rebellion against the presence of US troops in his country. The marines had been there in greater or lesser numbers since President William Howard Taft invaded Nicaragua in 1909 with the flimsy pretext that a liberal president was “denying freedom and liberty to his people.” (Sound familiar?) In reality, Taft was stopping Nicaragua from obtaining a loan of 6.5 million Pounds from England to build a railroad to take Nicaragua’s productive agricultural products from the west to the east coast for trade with Europe, which at that time had 60% of Nicaragua’s foreign trade.

The US under its infamous and misunderstood “Monroe Doctrine” had been trying to get England off the Caribbean coast altogether, and the loan was seen as a lingering foothold of a capitalist competitor that had to be ended if US capitalists were to dominate Nicaragua’s trade. The Miskito, Rama and Suma Indians of Nicaragua’s east coast speak English.

Then as now the wishes and aspirations of the Nicaraguan people were as irrelevant to Washington and Wall Street as were the wishes and aspirations of the American Indians, and people of the Philippines, Vietnam, and now Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. They were only pawns in the great game of great powers for world dominance of resources, markets and profits.

Taft—and Presidents Wilson, Harding and Coolidge--didn’t any more care about the “freedom and liberty” of the Nicaraguan people than for the man in the moon. After the marines ran the president out of the country (he died in poverty in New York) this became apparent to everybody except the American people who, not caring anyway, then as now got their information from Media owned and operated by the same patriotic capitalists who stood to gain much from Nicaragua’s forced submission to the will of Washington. But that is a whole other story.

Sandino, known to this day as “the general of free men,” fought the marines so well that the helicopter was invented to catch him. A Sikorsky copter attempted its first and failed flight from the airport in Managua. The first aerial bombing of civilians was not in Spain as Picasso’s Guernica memorialized, but in Ocotal, Nicaragua, in 1928, when Navy and Marine pilots dropped bombs on the northern town, killing about 200.

Finally the State Dept. and White House admitted it could not stop the rebellion or catch Sandino and his loyal generals and followers, and took a different tack: establishment of a National Guard, and a false peace treaty. The US Navy, which had been in charge of the war, left Anastasio Somoza Garcia as head of the National Guard. Somoza’s grandfather had been a famous bandit in the 1800s and was hanged. Somoza Garcia’s only talents were greed, dishonesty and murder. He, like his sons afterward, called Nicaragua, “my farm.” He took whatever he wanted, but 12 old families also owned large swaths of territory and the people who dwelled in it and worked mainly for them.

After the marines had sailed for home and the shooting had stopped and a peace of sorts had settled on the country and Sandino’s men were settling in lands promised them, Sandino and his brother paid a dinner call on the President of Nicaragua. When the dinner was finished they departed in good cheer and were arrested at the gate by the Guard. The President had nothing to do with it; power had accumulated in Somaza’s hands because he had the guns the United States had provided.

Somoza himself established an alibi by attending a reading by the Chilean poet Gabriella Mistral. Stories about what happened next are different, but it is generally accepted that the two nationalists were taken to the airport and shot, and that their bodies were buried on a runway later covered by tarmac. Somoza’s murderers hunted down and killed Sandino’s generals and men over a period of years as the dictator established his rule by terror with US financing and training.

Prior to WW II Somoza took a fancy to Hitler’s fascist Brown Shirts and established a similar outfit to bully and intimidate the country. When the war started the unit vanished and Nicaragua became a loyal ally. If there were any hard feelings in Washington no one heard about them. When Franklin Roosevelt assumed the presidency in 1932, he is reported to have said to his Secretary of State, “I hear this man Somoza is a son-of-a-bitch,” and Secretary Cordell Hull is reported to have answered, “Yes sir, he is. But he’s our son-of-a-bitch.”

The Guardia was one of the most-feared of all the dictatorships of Latin America. When I visited Nicaragua for the first time in 1985 with Abbie Hoffman’s second tour, we went to the site of the “21 Jail” in Leon. It was about the size of a ranch-type house in the United States and had no roof when we were there. US marines had built it in 1921, thus the name. A guide told us that at times it had contained up to 1,000 prisoners.

During one period in the Sixties, he said, a commander of the jail had the nightly habit of getting drunk and showing up late, picking a prisoner he didn’t like, and torturing him to death. Leon is a rather small town. The guide said that the screams of the tortured men could be heard all over town. This was the nightly visitation of the Guardia in Leon and a warning not to be disregarded.

Anastasio Somoza Garcia was assassinated at a dinner party in 1954 by a Nicaraguan poet posing as a waiter.

Things became so bad in Nicaragua that in the 1960s Carlos Fonseca and Tomas Borge revived the nationalistic Sandinista movement and began another long struggle to topple the Somozas. (Luis had died of a heart attack and Anastasio was chief.) After a hellish struggle that one must go to Nicaragua to hear about, the Sandinistas triumphed in 1979, following the murder by Somoza’s grandson of the country’s most-popular editor-owner of La Prensa, the largest newspaper.

Somoza’s last act before fleeing with his hated father’s bones was to bomb the poor neighborhoods of numerous cities and towns, leaving about 50,000 wounded and many dead. President Jimmy Carter responded to the successful revolution by cutting off medical aid, since some of the Sandinistas had been trained in Cuba.

Fidel Castro sent 500 doctors and nurses and medicine and equipment, endearing himself and Cuba to Nicaraguans who knew the score. I watched Daniel Ortega’s presidential inauguration as Fidel sat behind him, and didn’t see one person in the cheering crowd who looked like he read the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times, and knew that Fidel was such a terrible dictator. When Fidel spoke he got a bigger hand than Daniel.

The Sandinistas’ first official act was abolition of the death penalty, which had been the chief weapon used against them. When Somoza had captured the top Sandinista leadership including Carlos Fonseca in 1967, they all had been tortured and castrated. Thirty years served without parole became the maximum sentence for any crime. Mary Hartman, an American Maryknoll nun who the Sandinistas appointed as Ombudsman for the prison system, confirmed this for our tour when we visited a prison. She was empowered to take any prisoner aside, without notice and without an observer, to learn about prison conditions and whether there was any torture. The Sandinistas forbade it and came down hard on any soldier caught at it.

The Boys who failed to escape with other Somocistas to Honduras or Costa Rica were rounded up and jailed. They were considered beyond rehabilitation. They had learned their murderous trade too early, had never developed a social conscience, and knew not the corrective scolding or forgiving softness of a loving mother. Women to them were only to rape, torture and kill.

As the Sandinistas established their government, and began fighting a defensive war against the CIA and Reagan’s “freedom fighters,” The Boys were left to endure their fate. But eventually, Tomas Borge, the only actual communist on the 12-person Sandinista Directorate, arranged a meeting between them and some of the mothers whose sons and daughters had suffered and died of their depravity.

Margareta wasn’t there. But she knew others who had attended. She related that they told her that the mothers confronted The Boys directly and told them what they had done. They criticized and scolded them severely about their murdered sons and daughters, how this one had been a bright schoolboy who had studied hard and read the Bible and had wanted only to help people; how this daughter had been pledged to marry; how that one had left orphaned a small child, and how their beloved children had brightened their lives and given them a sense of purpose and a reason to live. They cried and displayed their grief and justifiable anger. Some were inconsolable.

Some of the boys cried for the first time when they understood what they had done. Some of the mothers saw that they were, after all, still only boys, that they too were victims, and pitied the vicious children who had crippled their lives. They hugged and consoled them and reached out. Some were reconciled. Some of the mothers forgave. They cried together. Some of the boys apologized and sobbed. Others remained untouchable. But some mothers could never be reconciled to the unspeakable horror they lived with every minute of the day and night, and could not forgive. Margareta said that some of the mothers had found “closure,” and that some of the boys had been transformed by the meeting, finally discovering their stolen conscience.

When I returned from Abbie's tour in early 1986, I went back to driving a cab in New York. As soon as I had about $500 clear and the rent paid, I drove my old Ford van to Washington and camped behind the Jefferson Library of the Library of Congress and began researching Nicaraguan history from 1821 to the present. I read and took notes until the Library closed at nine. But there was a lot of material, and no way could I read it all. After a couple of weeks, my money low, I would hock something for gas back to the City and return to taxi-driving. As soon as I was solvent again, I would return to DC and study some more.

In late 1986 I returned to Nicaragua with Dr. Margareta Nordh of Sweden, and did more research, intending to integrate everything I had learned for a freelance article about Nicaragua and the Contra War. And then my personal circumstances changed.

During this time my former brother-in-law decided to sell the apartment on
MacDougal Street
which I had sublet and paid low rent on for three years, and my rent went from $330 to $1,300. I returned to living in my van and parked for security and privacy in a cemetery in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. I kept going back to Washington for the research for six months. I learned a lot of things that I thought might wake the American people from their customary numbed sleep and political idiocy. But I couldn’t write about it for personal reasons.

I found no mention of The Boys.
[I first published this true story on Nov. 22, 2008; and think it's worth re-publishing, because the American people should hear it, if they are to comprehend the true dimensions of power and its consequences on real human beings, as exercised by the United States Government.]


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