Part IV: Chaos

© Cathleen White 2014

President Solórzano experienced problems almost from the beginning. He followed a common practice of dividing the spoils of victory amongst his associates and family members. Solórzano had two ambitious brothers-in-law who were officers in the Nicaraguan Army. To Luis Rivas the President gave command of troops around Managua and to Adolfo Rivas he gave command of La Loma, a mountain-top fortress that overlooked Managua. These appointments would prove grave mistakes.

Trouble erupted less than four weeks after the Marines left the city. A formal reception to honor the Minister of Public Education, Leonardo Aquello, was held in Managua on Friday, August 28, 1925 and was attended by President Solórzano, American Minister Charles Eberhardt, and the cream of Managuan society. Into the hall burst Gabry Rivas (Adolfo’s brother) and a band of armed, inebriated followers. After an hour of shooting holes into the ceiling, shouting anti-Liberal slogans, and causing numerous women to faint, the men withdrew to La Loma with several Liberal hostages. Among those taken were the Minister of Finance, Albino Romano Reyes, and General José Maria Moncada. Adolfo Rivas, apparently an accomplice to his brother’s actions, demanded the dismissal of several Liberal Cabinet members in return for the release of the hostages. Solórzano, who left the reception before the trouble began, hesitated. Major Carter, commander of the new constabulary, urged Solórzano to defy Rivas. Carter even offered to shoot Rivas if necessary, but Solórzano reminded Carter that Rivas was the President’s brother-in-law. At a loss for another solution, Solórzano capitulated and Gaby Rivas released the hostages the following day. However Solórzano did not act quickly enough to fulfill his part of the bargain, so Adolfo Rivas applied some pressure. He arrived at the executive mansion with two truckloads of machine-gun armed followers. Rivas and Solórzano reached an agreement. In return for surrendering La Loma within in week, both Adolfo and Gabry Rivas would receive sizable pay-offs.

Meanwhile, concern grew in the United States Legation because the President declared martial law in Managua on September 1 and the diplomats speculated that General Rivas would not give La Loma up as promised. Emiliano Chamorro returned to Managua and suspicion grew over his role in the capture of La Loma. Concern increased that violence would erupt if the Rivas brothers or Emiliano Chamorro forced Solórzano out of office. The members of the Legation requested a show of strength by the United States and the chargé suggested that if a U.S. warship docked at Corinto the tensions might subside. Solórzano added his request that ships be sent to Corinto and Bluefields. On September 13, the ships arrived and stayed for a week. Eberhardt wired Kellogg that the use of the Navy had solved Solózano’s problem and eliminated the “threat of anarchy and revolution.”

Only nine month safter his inauguration, Solórzano’s administration was in serious trouble. He had attempted to fulfill the four parts of the agreement he had made with the diplomats at the U.S. Legation. A constabulary had been formed, but it became ineffective and corrupt. He tried to remedy the ailing economy, but was met with opposition on a number of fronts. Most of the protestations came from those Nicaraguans who benefited from U.S. involvement in the country or from those who profited from the corrupt system. They were backed by U.S. officials who sought to maintain control over the Nicaraguan economy, and hence Nicaragua, by influencing members of the ruling class. When Solórzano led a move to regain control over Nicaragua’s railway, he received a telegram from Washington, delivered by the U.S. chargé in Managua, asking him to delay his actions. The President had appointed members of the opposition to his cabinet, and they had run amok, creating turmoil. The first seven months had been peaceful because of the presence of the Marines and chaos broke out shortly after they left. If Solórzano had been the popularly elected President that he was supposed to have been, then there should have been little unrest. The United States now confronted an incomprehensible situation. Its primary goal became keeping peace while maintaining a façade of benevolent non-intervention. For the time being, that effort took precedence over attempting any further solutions to Nicaragua’s political problems. This period of diplomatic hesitation provided the perfect opportunity for disgruntled Nicaraguans to assert their position.

Although Emiliano Chamorro denied that he had anything to do with the Rivas brothers or their seizure of La Loma, he took advantage of the situation that they created. At the beginning of October, he began making plans to take over the government. One of those who knew of the scheme was his old friend, Adolfo Díaz, who had been one of the Conservative Presidents in the period after Zelaya’s removal. Chamorro and Díaz had a long history of collaboration. It was with Chamorro’s support that Díaz became the leader of the Conservative Party. The extent of his role in Chamorro’s plot is not clear, but Díaz’s knowledge of Chamorro’s plans certainly made him an accessory to the act. Certainly any change in the political composition of the Nicaraguan government to the advantage of the Conservatives would have been a matter of great concern to Díaz.

On October 25, Chamorro made his move. He and a large group of supporters took over La Loma, putting Chamorro in control of Managua. In a conversation with Charles Eberhardt, Chamorro spelled out his goal: the restoration of power in the hands of the Conservatives. He would allow Solórzano to retain the presidency under the condition that he appoint Chamorro Minister of War. Eberhardt informed Chamorro that the Liberal Party would never accept his offer. Furthermore, should Chamorro attempt to seize power, he would not be recognized because the United States recognized Solórzano as the constitutional President. Despite having U.S. support, Solórzano agreed to Chamorro’s demands on October 26. For all practical purposes, Chamorro controlled the government at that point. He had already deployed troops to León, the Liberal stronghold. By the beginning of November, soldiers under Chamorro’s command were openly looting León and other Liberal towns. Eberhardt warned Washington that it was only a matter of time before Chamorro formally removed Solórzano, an act sure to lead to armed insurrection.

Chamorro had very carefully planned his moves to maintain the illusion of operating within the limits of the Constitution. First he would eliminate Sacasa. Second, he would have himself designated as successor to Solórzano. Then he would force Solórzano’s resignation and assume the presidency.

To achieve his first goal, Chamorro arranged for Sacasa to receive a threat against his life. It is not clear if a genuine assassination plot existed. Given Chamorro’s previous machinations and reputation, a death threat would have been effective enough. Chamorro could then allow Sacasa ample time to escape. By getting Sacasa out of the country, Chamorro could accuse the Vice-President of abandoning his position and then have the position declared vacant. The rumor had the desired effect: Sacasa fled the country and remained in self-imposed exile for over a year. Early in January of 1926, Chamorro’s supporters in Congress charged Sacasa with conspiracy to overthrow the government and forbade him to return for two years. Declaring the vice presidency vacant at that point was a simple matter. Thus, Chamorro achieved his first goal.

The day after Congress removed Sacasa from office, Chamorro had himself declared designado: first in line to the presidency. The procedure was simple because Chamorro had already packed the Congress with himself and his supporters. The Congress chose one of its members as designado. The vote was merely a technicality that permitted Chamorro to continue his charade. On January 12, he reached his second goal.

Within days of Chamorro’s appointment, Congress granted Solórzano an “indefinite vacation.” Chamorro stepped in to fill the vacancy, took the oath of office quietly on January 17, 1926, and met his last objective. Ironically, Congress did not accept Solórzano’s official resignation until March.

Chamorro fully expected tensions to ease and acceptance, at home and abroad, of his administration. On that point, he made a major error.

The United States faced a serious dilemma: what could it do about Nicaragua? First, officials had to answer the question of recognition. The United States, by agreeing to uphold the principles of the 1907 and 1923 Treaties, obligated itself to withhold recognition from any Central American regime that had come to power through a coup. Washington hoped that nonrecognition of revolutionary or illegal governments would force Central American nations into political solutions of disputes. By the time that Chamorro assumed the presidency, the United States had warned him several times that it would not recognize his government. Chamorro proceeded with his plans because he assumed that he was the only person who could restore order to Nicaragua. After all, the current political turmoil and recent episodes of violence had been caused by Chamorro and his followers as they tried to wrest power from the Liberals. One he achieved peace, he reasoned, the United States would have to recognize his administration. After he gained recognition, and the subsequent financial and military backing of Washington, the Liberals would naturally see the wisdom of accepting their defeat. Unfortunately for Emiliano Chamorro, he envisioned the wrong scenario. But although the United States denied formal recognition to the Chamorro government, the two parties never completely broke contact. In fact, the two sides spent all of 1926 negotiating a solution to the matter.

Of course, during the negotiations the United States reviewed all of its options. Officials briefly considered declaring the 1924 elections a fraud. They abandoned this route because so much time had passed and it might have been illegal to make such a declaration a year after it had formally recognized Solórzano and Sacasa. Sacasa presented a special problem. Solórzano had resigned–although the United States apparently chose to overlook the fact that it had been coerced–but Sacasa never renounced his position as Vice President. Secretary of State Kellogg admitted to Eberhardt that Sacasa was the legal Vice President. Sacasa even visited Washington to present his case before Kellogg. While Kellogg received Sacasa, he refused to discuss Nicaraguan politics with him. Instead, Kellogg sent Sacasa to Francis White (Chief of the Division of Latin American Affairs) to discuss the issue. Kellogg could easily listen to a summation of Sacasa’s arguments as presented by White and still maintain an official air of neutrality.

White’s response to Sacasa reflected the perplexing logic that governed all State Department actions on the situation in Nicaragua. The United States would extend moral support for the constitutional government of Nicaragua. This support did not mean, however, that the United States would use force to ensure that the constitutional government remained in power. The Nicaraguan people had to find a solution to this situation because political stability depended on action taken by the Central American countries, not by the State Department. The irony in White’s last statement was rich. Suggesting that the State Department would accept the independent solutions reached by Latin Americans meant ignoring every precedent established by the Department. The goal of respecting international sovereignty was noble, and, in reality, consistent with stated U.S. policy. Still, success for a Latin American government traditionally depended on United States’ recognition of the legitimacy of that government.

For ten months, from January until the end of October, Chamorro remained nominally in charge of Nicaragua. Liberal insurrection and Conservative retaliation spread. Sacasa stayed in exile and attempted to rally international support for his position. Liberal backing for his return increased. In the mean time, the United States tried to persuade Chamorro to resign in favor of a constitutionally elected President. Chamorro finally agreed, on September 10, 1927, to step down in favor of a Conservative President selected by the Nicaraguan Congress. The United States approved this offer, but the Liberal Party did not. Liberals maintained that Sacasa had to be the next President because he had a legal right to the position. The United States Legation attempted to mediate a settlement between the two parties in mid-October. But by then, the two sides were entrenched in their positions. The American chargé sent the Secretary of State a telegram which indicated his change in attitude toward the Liberal Party:

The Conservatives in conferences have shown an extremely conciliatory attitude and proposed compromises while the Liberals have held out for Sacasa or nothing, offering as a compromise the preposterous proposition of international arbitration of an interior Nicaraguan problem.

The United States’ position became clear. The next president of Nicaragua would be a Conservative and the Liberals did not stand a chance of having Sacasa chosen as the next president. The apparent basis for the decision was the willingness of the Conservatives to subordinate themselves to the domination of the United States. The U.S. rejection of “international arbitration” clearly indicated that it did not see itself as an international party regarding Nicaragua’s internal affairs.

On October 30, Chamorro turned the Presidency over to Sebastian Uriza, who had been chosen by Congress as the designado. Chamorro left the country in December on a conveniently arranged “diplomatic assignment.” Technically the legislature chose Uriza illegally because the same packed Congress had placed Chamorro in office. His one accomplishment was the restoration of the membership of Congress to its status after the election of 1924. This legal Congress took on the job of electing a legal President. The obvious choice seemed to be Sacasa, who was, after all, the legal Vice-President. Yet he was a Liberal. The Conservatives argued that they could not consider Sacasa in absentia. Instead, the Conservatives pushed for Adolfo Díaz, former President and head of the Conservative Party, as the next President. The United States decided, on November 2, that it would recognize the designado chosen by the restored Congress. Díaz’s name had already been given to the State Department and Kellogg telegraphed Lawrence Dennis (who was temporary chargé while Eberhardt was on leave) that Díaz would be a “wise choice.” Kellogg also warned Dennis that he “should use the utmost care to avoid any criticism that the Government of the United States is endeavoring to direct Nicaraguan internal policy.” Four days later, the United States declared that it would brand Sacasa a “revolutionist” if he returned to Nicaragua and attempted to establish himself in the Presidency. On November 14, Dennis attended the inauguration of Díaz and demonstrated United States’ approval of the choice. On December 1, 1926, Juan Sacasa returned to Nicaragua and declared himself President.

The Liberals accompanied the notification of Sacasa’s return with a reminder from that the United States had already recognized Sacasa’s constitutional right to the Presidency. Dr. Rudolfo Espinosa, Sacasa’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, also announced that the “Constitutionalist Army” supported Sacasa. Furthermore, preparations were under way to subdue the illegal Díaz regime and place Sacasa in power in Managua. Espinosa had a point: the United States had acknowledged Sacasa’s claim. Now the State Department found itself in the awkward position of having to justify its withdrawal of recognition from Sacasa. Washington quickly found an excuse for its change of heart: Sacasa was receiving military support from Mexico. That made his administration illegal because it came from a foreign country. As if to emphasize this point, Mexico formally recognized Sacasa on December 8. Of course, the fact the State Department ignored the fact that its maintenance of the Díaz regime also constituted foreign aid. Coincidentally, also on December 8, the United States informed Díaz that it was under no obligation to support Díaz with arms, despite recognition. In an eerily familiar statement, officials told Díaz that he would receive from United States “encouragement and moral support . . . as it generally accords to constitutional governments.”

Despite that statement, U.S. officials were already considering intervention. From previous experience officials knew that the surest means of receiving military assistance consisted of relaying threats against “American lives and property” to Washington. Of course, the “property” concerned included such things as the Nicaraguan railway, still held as collateral by bankers in New York. Quite understandably, as it was the only means of traveling any distance quickly by land in the country, Sacasa’s supporters threatened to seize control of the line as part of their “Constitutionalist War.” On December 18, embassy officials reported that U.S. citizens living in Nicaragua had requested protection from the growing violence. The Secretary of State reminded the chargé in Nicaragua that the United States could not appear as if it were undertaking armed intervention. Ironically, he also asked Eberhardt (who had recently returned to Managua) for information on Nicaraguan troop strength and placement. The cable ended with a rather bizarre query. Diplomats in Managua had assured the State Department that the Nicaraguan people would accept Díaz. If that were true, then officials in Washington wondered why warnings of imminent revolution and anarchy were being received. The U.S. Legation made no reply to that question.

In response to requests for aid, the Marines returned to Nicaragua on December 23 to protect U.S. “interests.” However, the Marines landed at Puerto Cabezas, Sacasa’s administrative center, thus revealing the underlying motive of the U.S.: subduing the Liberal insurrection. The city was “neutralized” and two Naval officers visited Sacasa, delivering a “violent verbal warning.” The three most important parts of their message were:

There will be no carrying of arms, ammunitions, knives, etc., in the neutral zone.

There must be no recruiting or any other activities carried on in the neutral zone, which have any bearing on the prosecution of hostilities.
Doctor Sacasa and his forces may leave the neutral zone by 4 p.m.

24th of December, 1926, by water, with their arms if they so desire; otherwise they must disarm and deliver such arms to the Cleveland’s Landing Force Commander. The radio station may send only plain messages and these messages must have no bearing on the prosecution of hostilities.

Espinosa registered protests not only against the actions taken by the Navy, but also against the behavior of the messengers which was “so in conflict with the principles which regulate the relations of civilized peoples.” He protested in vain.

In November and December of 1926 the United States broke Article I of the Additional Treaty of 1907 and the subsequent reaffirmation of that Treaty in 1923. In early 1927, the U.S. breached Article II as well.

The violationof Article I occurred when the United States recognized Adolfo Díaz as the President of Nicaragua. Díaz had been accessory to Chamorro’s coup d’etat. The 1923 Central American Treaty included the provision that not only would recognition be witheld from the government that arose from the coup, but would also be witheld from leaders of the coup or their relatives. Thus this provision expressly prohibited Díaz from legal title to the Presidency, but the United States chose to recognize him anyway. The United States compounded the situation when it withdrew recognition from the legally elected successor to office, Juan Sacasa, in favor of Díaz. Why did the United States act this way? Perhaps the memory of Zelaya was still fresh in the memory of someone in the State Department and the appearance of another Liberal president was unthinkable. There is no indication that Sacasa harbored any anti-American sentiment before his election to office. Nor did the U.S. mention Sacasa’s ties to Mexico until after his return from exile. Another possible explanation for the reaction of the United States was the wave of conservatism that swept through the upper class in the U.S. as a reaction to the revolution in the Soviet Union. The very designation of Sacasa as a “Liberal” may have turned their opinion against him.

The United States broke Article II of the 1907 Treaty when its Navy and Marines interfered in the war in such a way that they hindered Liberal action. The Treaty did not state that the intruding nation had to take up arms in favor of one side or the other to constitute interference. It defined interference as the mere prevention of action by either side. The United States placed an embargo on arms to Nicaragua on September 15, 1926. On January 10,1927, President Coolidge announced that he was lifting the embargo to enable the Díaz government to purchase arms from the United States. By lifting the embargo unilaterally, the Liberals were hampered in their efforts to obtain materiel. Thus they were forced to purchase arms elsewhere. The closest alternative was Mexico–the country that the United States had accused of supporting the Liberals. Besides the restrictions placed on arms sales, the United States Navy blockaded Nicaraguan ports and prevented the Liberals from importing arms by sea. Because the U.S. made no initial attempt to affect the Díaz forces, this was an even more blatant act than the embargo.

The aims of the United States became even more apparent in the first four months of 1927 as violence between pro-Díaz and pro-Sacasa forces escalated. Additional neutral zones were declared at Bilwi, Prinzapolka, Bluefields, Rio Grande and other Caribbean ports until the Marines occupied nearly the entire east coast of Nicaragua. The Navy claimed that it acted to protect American “lives and property.” But the United States concentrated its efforts in the areas of the east where the Liberals had public support and supply lines. By restricting the flow of arms along the entire coastline, the United States attempted to cripple the Liberal Army. As time passed, the motives of the U.S. became harder to conceal. The Nicaragua imbroglio became an issue for the United States both at home and abroad.