Part III: The 1920s

© Cathleen White 2014

Eight reasonably uneventful years passed. A series of U.S.-backed presidents held office in Nicaragua. Their major accomplishments consisted of draining the Nicaraguan treasury of the surplus left from the Zelaya administration, enriching themselves through questionable claims against the treasury, and scuttling the fragile economy through mismanagement and corruption. Instead of operating in the black, the Nicaraguan economy went into receivership and, to aid its hemispheric neighbor, Washington arranged a number of loans through U.S. banks. As collateral, the banks received shares in the major sources of profit in Nicaragua: its customhouse and its sole railroad company. Thus these Nicaraguan institutions became, in reality, “American interests.” The U.S. also secured other means of control over Nicaragua. The Bryan-Chamorro Treaty, signed in 1914, gave the United States exclusive rights to build a canal in Nicaragua. This automatically eliminated foreign interest in the project and, additionally, gave the U.S. another “interest” to protect. Once Washington achieved that control, the impetus to build the canal waned. This could indicate that the main objective of the U.S. involved something other than digging an inter-oceanic waterway. After all, the Panama Canal had opened recently, decreasing the importance of the Nicaraguan passage. However, officials continued to emphasize the strategic significance of the alternative route and insisted that the increased entanglement in Nicaragua was necessary to protect its right-of-way. Despite Washington’s augmented involvement, however, the situation remained, superficially, stable, secure, and stagnant.

The first sign of trouble came during the election of 1920. General Emiliano Chamorro–a longtime Conservative leader, Minister of Foreign Affairs, and a signer of the Dawson Pact–wanted to ensure that his uncle, Diego Chamorro, would be the next president. For the first time since Zelaya’s ouster, the proposed successor faced active opposition. Chamorro’s opponents asked the United States to oversee the elections, but their request was denied and Diego Chamorro was duly elected. Unfortunately, he died of natural causes before the end of his term. His two major accomplishments were a new election law and a new Central American treaty.

Nicaragua, with the encouragement of the United States, undertook the project of updating its electoral system. Managuan officials imported an expert from the United States for the task, Dr. Harold W. Dodds, a professor of Political Science at Princeton and activist in the National Municipal League. He arrived in 1922 and undertook a study of the current system. Dodds pinpointed many possible sources of trouble and developed a plan to solve many of the problems. Proposed reforms included universal suffrage for males over age twenty-one, election boards to oversee registration and polling, and small voting districts. The Nicaraguan Congress enacted the “Dodds’ Plan” into law in time for the 1924 presidential election.

The Vice President, Bartolomé Martínez, replaced Diego Chamorro. Martínez aspired to be re-elected despite the constitutional prohibition against a second term. He met with an additional obstacle as well. He lacked the support of Emiliano Chamorro, who represented another faction of their Conservative political party.

There were two traditional political parties in Nicaragua, the Liberal Party and the Conservative Party between which there were few real differences. Minor distinctions included the typical vocations of the members. Conservatives tended to be ranchers or plantation owners while Liberals were more likely professionals. The real distinctions between the two parties were “based on locality and personal leadership, localismo and personalismo.” Localismo originated in the traditional geographic orientation of the two parties. Liberals hailed from León, while the heart of the Conservative Party was Granada. An intense hatred and rivalry existed between the two cities and this enmity lay behind the formation of the parties, rather than any disagreement over philosophy or platform. The high degree of hostility led to the observation that “[a] man of circumstance was a Liberal or a Conservative first, a Nicaraguan afterward.”

The Conservative Party held power throughout the second half of the nineteenth century until Zelaya, a Liberal, came to power. The Conservatives returned to power after forcing Zelaya from office. In the twelve intervening years, 1912-1924, three Conservatives held the presidency. Emiliano Chamorro supported or was related to two of the presidents and he even served a term as president himself. But Bartolomé Martínez was not a Chamorrista. Once he assumed the presidency, he attempted to form a government independent of Chamorro’s influence. He appealed to other independent Conservative and even to some Liberals. He attempted to extract Nicaragua’s treasury and railroad from the hands of the New York bankers and did manage to buy back the National Bank of Nicaragua, although he paid the bankers twice what they had paid for it. This move jeopardized the financial maneuverings of the Chamorristas and garnered Martínez the displeasure of the United States. As a result, the Conservative Party split between the supporters of the two men. When Martínez realized that he lacked the strength to rule independently, he approached the Liberal Party to form an alliance. The coalition was called the Conservative-Republican Party.

As if the divided state of Nicaragua’s political parties were not enough of an obstruction to the establishment of democracy, other problems became evident as the election approached. First, over seventy percent of the Nicaraguan people were illiterate. Second, race, regional sentiments, and tribal loyalties contributed to social stratification and party adherence. In particular, the predominantly English, Indian, and African heritage of the inhabitants of the east coast promoted their continued alienation from the politics of the rest of the country. Third, Nicaragua lacked a true democratic tradition. One political party, led by a strongman, routinely dominated the government. When that party lost power, the government generally changed hands by force. Thus there was little or no understanding of democracy and a peaceful transition between governments.

In addition, the United States announced to the Nicaraguan government in 1923 that its Legation Guard was to be removed from Managua. Apparently Washington was beginning to feel a bit of international embarrassment over the continued presence of the Marines. In addition, public opinion in the United States was against the further use of troops in Nicaragua. In any event, U.S. officials realized the problems inherent with either retaining the troops in Managua or removing them. As Charles Evans Hughes, Secretary of State under then President Warren G. Harding, explained:

Continued presence of American troops, such as that which has taken place in Nicaragua for the last eleven years, has given rise to the assertion, however unjustified it may be, that the United States’ Government is maintaining in office a government which would otherwise perhaps not be strong enough to maintain itself against the attacks of its political opponents. On the other hand, in the present instance, should the Marines be withdrawn, there appears reason to believe that political disturbances might ensue.

Eleven years of Conservative rule lent a veneer of stability to the political system and the upcoming election appeared to be an opportune moment to withdraw the Marines. But the United States realized that it would be disastrous to its economic and diplomatic interests to pull out without some sort of assurance of peace. The obvious solution was the formation of an impartial “constabulary” to replace the Marines. The idea for a new police force was first broached in a conversation between Secretary of State Hughes and Emiliano Chamorro, then Nicaragua’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, in September, 1923, although no officials made no progress towards the formation of such a force for two years. The Nicaraguan government persuaded the United States to maintain the Marines in Managua until after the election of 1924.

Preparations for the election continued. Bartolomé Martínez’s coalition party nominated a candidate for the presidency, Carlos Solórzano. The Liberal Nationalists named Dr. Juan Bautista Sacasa as their candidate. A small group of Conservatives nominated Martínez, although their action was unconstitutional. Emiliano Chamorro also threw his hat into the ring, backed by the Chamorrista wing of the Conservative Party.

The field of candidates dwindled as they received signals from Washington and the Nicaraguan countryside concerning the viability of their bids for office. The United States warned Martínez that he would not be recognized if he were to win because of his unconstitutional candidacy. Martínez promptly withdrew. The Liberal party realized that Dr. Sacasa did not stand a chance of being elected, so it proposed a coalition ticket to the Conservative-Republican Party, nominating Solórzano for President and Sacasa for Vice-President. The only significant opposition to this slate was Emiliano Chamorro, who represented the Chamorrista wing of the Conservative Party. The Conservative-Republican and Liberal coalition notified the United States of the proposed merger–in an effort, presumably, to gain U.S. support–and asked for advice. They received word that the United States “had no preferences whatever” who was nominated. Furthermore, Washington stated that it “support[ed] no candidate and [was] hostile to no candidate.” The only positive assertion that the coalition received was that the United States desired a “free and fair election” in Nicaragua. These communiqués were surely greeted with mixed emotions. Some coalition members must have been disappointed because the United States did not openly endorse their ticket. Certainly Emiliano Chamorro felt relieved that he had not been excluded from the race by an endorsement of the opposition. Both sides probably congratulated themselves on receiving tacit approval. After all, Martínez had been openly discouraged from running. If no objections were forthcoming, then it could be safely assumed that the election had the backing of the U.S.

While the candidates scrambled for support and votes the “Dodds’ Law” was put into effect. Officials registered voters, instituted electoral boards, and established polling places with the assistance of Harold Dodds. He found widespread inefficiency and confusion. Workers sometimes carried out provisions of the statutes haphazardly or else not at all. Materials were not printed, sent, or received on schedule. Authorities did not take into account transportation and communication problems and so could not completely implement the Dodds’ Plan. In addition, Conservative registrars intimidated Liberal voters in some districts.

As early as October, 1923, Secretary of State Hughes proposed sending an observation team from Washington to Nicaragua in order to help insure the fairness of the plebiscite. The U.S. even offered to pay the expenses for Dodds and his assistants during the elections. This offer probably had strings attached as it would have been very easy for U.S. observers to influence the outcome of the election. Chamorro, a long-time supporter of the United States’ policy in Nicaragua, saw another possibility. He expressed opposition to an observation team on the grounds that such action might cost the Chamorristas “thousands” of votes. He may have reasoned that any U.S. presence could be viewed as intervention in favor of the Conservative Party and such assumptions might have led nationalistic Nicaraguans–opposed to foreign intervention–to vote for the Conservative-Republican and Liberal coalition

In July, 1924, the United States renewed its offer to observe the October election. Its proposal included sending Dodd to coordinate the movement of observers stationed in each of the thirteen electoral districts. In what has been called, “a significant step toward self-government,” Martínez refused the U.S. offer. Needless to say, Martínez’s refusal surprised the United States and Washington quickly began to formulate alternative plans for unilateral supervision of the election. Officials at the Legation in Managua and at the State Department exchanged a series of telegrams establishing plans for the “discreet surveillance” of electoral activities by Marines who attached to the Legation. Then, in an unexpected move shortly before the election, Martínez requested the United States to post observers at the polls. Why this sudden change of heart? Perhaps Martínez feared some sort of subversion on Chamorro’s part. A more plausible explanation is that Martínez either knew or suspected that the Americans planned to observe the situation with or without his permission. At first Martínez insisted that the Marines carry out their work in civilian clothes. This idea was ludicrous for two reasons. American Marines, even in plain clothes, could not hope to blend into a crowd of Nicaraguans. Furthermore, Nicaraguan officials could conceivably have charged with espionage a member of a foreign military who conducted surveillance dressed as a civilian. Nothing prevented Martínez from denying his request and laying such charges. The United States turned down this petition. Martínez countered with another suggestion. The United States could observe the elections if the chargé in Nicaragua, Walter Thurston, met with representatives of the other parties to ask for their support of the plan. In this instance, Martínez’s could de-emphasize his role in arranging the observations and the request for the supervision presented to the Nicaraguan people as a multilateral action of the several political parties. The United States also refused this offer.

The elections took place as scheduled on October 5, 1924, without formal observation by the United States. Solórzano and Sacasa won although Chamorro received a substantial amount of votes (over twenty-five percent). The Martínez administration declared the election to be the fairest ever held in Nicaragua. This was to be expected: the candidates which it backed had won. Yet there is a great deal of evidence that indicates that Martínez manipulated election laws and harassed opponents in order to assure a victory. Other parties, including the Chamorristas, committed similar offenses in the past to influence elections. The difference was that now Chamorro had been the victim of such tactics, rather than the perpetrator. But the fact that Chamorro lost the election in no way deterred him from trying to influence the Nicaraguan government.

In the aftermath of the election, the United States worked quickly to assess the new administration. Solórzano and members of the American Legation met and formulated plans for the recognition of the new government. The U.S. officials informed Solórzano that his cooperation would determine whether or not the United States would recognize the results of the 1924 election as valid. The Legation officials asked for his assurance that he would uphold the Nicaraguan Constitution and existing treaties. A verbal agreement was not enough. The Yankees presented Solórzano with a written compact containing an agreement to four basic principles. First, he agreed that to conduct the 1928 election according to the Dodds’ election laws. Second, he assented to the formation of an impartial constabulary to replace the Marine guard. Third, he would enlist United States’ aid in solving Nicaragua’s economic problems. Fourth, Solórzano would consider forming a coalition government to provide a forum for opposition party members to express their views in a legal manner. Officials settled the question of recognition before Solórzano’s inauguration in January, 1925. The American chargé in Nicaragua suggested to Secretary of State Hughes that the withdrawal of the Marines be delayed until after the inauguration “to prevent any faction from assuming support for a coup.” To further demonstrate support for the new administration, members of the Legation attended the ceremony.

The issue of the withdrawal of the Marines surfaced shortly after Solórzano took office. The United States began pressing for a speedy withdrawal. Solórzano countered that the plans for a constabulary were incomplete. By January 3, the United States appointed Major Keyser of the Legation Guard to organize the force and by mid-February, plans had been drawn up for “The Establishment of a Constabulary in Nicaragua.” The constabulary, a non-political, civilian body, would replace existing military and police forces. The force would be directly responsible to the President and subject to special regulations, outside civil law. U.S. Marine “volunteers” would train and administer the original force

The proposed system seemed to be ideal but flaws began to appear within a few months. On May 20, control of the force passed from the President to the Department of Government, thus politicizing the force. In response to this act, the chargé in Nicaragua wired the new Secretary of State, Frank Kellogg, that “we should under no circumstances associate ourselves with the organization and management of the constabulary.” The chargé further cautioned that the United States should make sure that it would not be held responsible for the actions or structure of the guard that was finally formed. Kellogg rejected the chargé’s advice and the formation went ahead as scheduled. In June, Major Calvin B. Carter assumed command of the constabulary for a one year assignment. Later that month, a Nicaraguan officer, General Carrales, received the assignment to write the force’s code of regulations. Again, the chargé cautioned the Secretary of State that there could be trouble because he suspected General Carrales of harboring anti-American feelings and opposing the Marine trainers. By the end of June, Secretary of State Kellogg received several warnings about the true nature of the constabulary which was about to assume responsibility for keeping peace, law, and order in Nicaragua. Corruption set in even before the force was fully organized. The person who gained control of the constabulary would wield an incredible amount of power and no one would could legally oppose the commander because all other military forces would have been disbanded.

Despite the implications of the action, plans moved ahead to replace the Marines. On August 1, 1925, three days short of the thirteenth anniversary of their arrival, the United States Marines left Managua.