Part II: Historical Background

© Cathleen White 2014

We Americans, in considering a foreign political problem are very prone to assume that the conditions which form the background of the problem are the same as our own. In the case of Nicaragua, no worse error could be made.

–Henry Lewis Stimson

Since declaring independence in 1838, Nicaragua has faced repeated interference from the United States. By the time that Nicaragua freed itself from Spain, the Mexican Empire, and a weak Central American alliance, the United States’ interests in the region were already clear. Fourteen years earlier, President James Monroe warned Europe to stay out of American affairs in the Western Hemisphere, thereby extending the interests of the United States far outside its existing borders. As one diplomat remarked in a defense of the principle, “[t]he Monroe Doctrine was a declaration of the United States versus Europe–not of the United States versus Latin America.” This statement was essentially true, if a bit naïve. Through the Monroe Doctrine, the United States tried to exclude European powers from the hemisphere and asserted its position as the dominant power in the Americas. This is a position that it has never willingly relinquished or permitted to be challenged. The United States has protected its superiority even at the expense of interfering in the internal affairs of sovereign nations, thus making a sham of many of its stated diplomatic goals. As one member of the State Department explained to the House Foreign Affairs Committee in 1926, “governments which we recognize and support stay in power, while those which we do not recognize and support fall. Nicaragua has become a test case. It is difficult to see how we can afford to be defeated.”

The United States developed an interest in Nicaragua in three primary areas. First, Nicaragua presented a possible site for a transoceanic canal. Second, U.S. entrepreneurs exploited the Nicaraguan economy and resources. Finally, to insure continued access and influence, the United States undertook sponsoring cooperative Nicaraguan leaders and hindering those with independent, nationalistic agendas.

The attention of the United Sates was first drawn south during the gold rush to California in 1848. Suddenly the countries south of the United Sates represented an obstacle to be overcome in the quest for wealth. The result of this sudden interest was the first of many plans to build a canal across the Central American isthmus. Nicaragua seemed like the ideal choice for such a route. The Rio San Juan extended from the Atlantic Ocean to Lake Nicaragua, a distance of almost eighty miles. A short strip of land separated Lake Nicaragua from Lake Managua. Another narrow bit of land separated Lake Managua from the Pacific Ocean. The amount of excavation which would be required to connect the Caribbean Sea to the Pacific Ocean seemed almost negligible when compared to the amounts required elsewhere. But there were other problems. First the United States faced competition from the British. This problem was solved amicably enough–the two nations signed the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty in 1850 which gave both equal rights to build a Central American canal. The only country that lost as a result of the treaty was Nicaragua, which was not a party to the negotiations. One other major problem which arose in finalizing plans for the canal. That vital eastern link, the Rio San Juan, served as a border between Costa Rica and Nicaragua. For that reason, Costa Rica had rights to the river as well and was not willing to have a canal built in its territory.

As more knowledge about Nicaragua filtered northward, the number of dollars flowing into the country increased. U.S. capitalists invested in steamships, railroads, ranches, and plantations. Firms based in the United States introduced, built, and owned new technology as it became available. Most of the investors were content to pour money into their ventures and then drain profits out of the country. To reap the maximum amount of profit, entrepreneurs needed the cooperation of the governments of both the United States and Nicaragua.

One particular Yankee, on the other hand, became more intimately involved in the internal affairs of Nicaragua: William Walker. He led a group of mercenaries from San Francisco who became involved in the political violence in Nicaragua in the 1850s. After helping to place a puppet president in office, Walker wrested power away from him and declared himself President. He did so without protestations from Washington, leading to suspicions that he had the tacit backing of the U.S. government. Finally an uprising of nationalistic Nicaraguans ejected Walker from the country. He returned in 1856, only to be captured and quickly executed.

The next overt interference by Washington in Nicaragua’s internal affairs occurred during the rule of José Santos Zelaya. He ruled Nicaragua from 1893 to 1909 as either an authoritarian but patriotic nationalist or a ruthless tyrant, depending on the bias of source consulted. He improved the educational system, reduced the power of the Catholic Church, and modernized the operations of the government. His downfall came after he ordered the executions of two Yankees for participating in an anti-Zelaya insurrection in 1909. The United States severed diplomatic relations and supplied arms and ammunition to Zelaya’s opponents. Zelaya resigned later in 1909 but his supporters continued their fight until the U.S. Marines landed at Bluefields on the Atlantic Coast and established a “neutral zone.” The use of the Marines and Navy continued for four years, until Zelaya’s party collapsed. Eventually all the troops departed, except for one hundred Marines who remained to guard the United States’ diplomats in Managua. The Legation Guard remained in Nicaragua for thirteen years.

The United States used three documents to influence Nicaragua’s domestic affairs. The first document came out of the Washington Conference of 1907, held to solve several recurring regional problems. The U.S. did not sign the resulting treaty, but did agree to abide by it. The two most important sections of the treaty, insofar as U.S.-Nicaraguan relations were concerned, were Articles I and II of the Additional Treaty. Article I stated that in cases of civil war, the parties to the treaty would not “intervene in favor of or against the Government of the Country where the struggle takes place.” Article II of the treaty prohibited the recognition by parties to the treaty of any government that came into power “as a result of a coup d’état or of a revolution against the recognized government.” The State Department intended these two stipulations to promote internal democracy and conflict resolution. The Treaty of 1923 reiterated the provisions of the 1907 agreement.

The third method of control was the Dawson Pact, signed in 1910 by Zelaya’s opponents, including Conservatives Adolfo Díaz and Emiliano Chamorro. The United States gave its support to the leaders of the Conservative revolt in return for several concessions giving Washington virtual control over Nicaragua’s internal affairs. Some of the agreements involved political reforms such as a new constitution and guarantees of democratic elections for the legislative and executive branches. In addition, safeguards were established to prohibit any of Zelaya’s followers from being elected to the presidency, thus protecting the interests of both the U.S. and the Conservatives. However, the key points in the Pact involved allowing the United States to assume the position of overseer of Nicaragua’s economy. Yankees were to be appointed to several key posts, such as customs collector, in order to assure the regular collection of duties so that Nicaragua could meet its foreign–chiefly U.S.–debt payments. Díaz, Chamorro, and their followers allowed this interference because it was the only way that they could ensure vital U.S. support for their cause. They understood, as Zelaya had apparently not, the costs both of obtaining Washington’s support and, especially, of acting without it.