MANAGUA, Nicaragua — Are Nicaraguans ready for another Somoza?
The Somoza family ruled this poor Central American nation from 1936 to 1979, a period marked by widespread corruption and crackdowns on political opponents.
The last Somoza dictator, Anastasio, was overthrown by Sandinista guerrillas who then tried to erase all traces of the Somozas during their revolutionary government in the 1980s.
Now, more than three decades later, Anastasio’s nephew, Alvaro Somoza, has returned to Nicaragua and is considering a run for president.
Despite the controversy surrounding his family, Alvaro Somoza points out he’s never been accused of any wrongdoing. He’s also quick to criticize the excesses of his family’s rule. Still, he believes that recent Nicaraguan governments have performed so poorly that his last name would now be an advantage on the campaign trail.
“When people recognize me, they say: ‘It’s good to have you back!’” Somoza said. “For me to come back to Nicaragua and see what a disaster it has become is very hurtful, and is probably what’s motivating me to get involved in politics.”
Nicaragua is a small Central American nation with just 5 million people. Its politics have always been clannish. A small handful of political leaders and families — including the Somozas and President Daniel Ortega, who was reelected last month — have dominated the power structure for decades.
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Alvaro Somoza, 59, is the son of the late Luis Somoza, the second of three family strongmen. By most accounts, Luis Somoza, who ran the country either as president or from behind the scenes between 1956 and 1967, was the most enlightened of the three. He helped create Nicaragua’s social-security system, minimum wage, and labor code.
In fact, Nicaragua in the 1960s boasted one of Latin America’s fastest-growing economies. By contrast, the economy was shattered in the 1980s by the Contra war, a U.S. embargo and the Sandinistas’ socialist policies. Today, Nicaragua is the second poorest nation in the hemisphere after Haiti. So it’s not surprising that many older Nicaraguans look back fondly on the Somoza era.
“I knew Alvaro’s father,” said Alberto Quiroz, a 64-year-old security guard. “He would sit down and talk to average people. He was an excellent president, one of the best.”
Luis Somoza, who died of a heart attack in 1967, believed his family should lower its profile. He disagreed with the decision of his younger brother Anastasio — who commanded the Nicaraguan military and was known as “Tacho” — to run for president in rigged elections in 1967.
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“Luis didn’t want Tacho to be president,” writes Bernard Diederich in his book, “Somoza.” “Tacho was too military. Luis knew that it would be easy to put Tacho in, but difficult to take him out.”
Sure enough, Anastasio Somoza, with strong U.S. backing for most of the time, clung to power. But the population slowly turned against him.
Somoza was accused of squandering emergency funds following a 1972 earthquake. He declared martial law and became increasingly intolerant of the political opposition. Finally, a popular uprising led by Sandinistas guerrillas forced him out.
Shortly before the Sandinistas marched into Managua in July 1979, Alvaro Somoza, then 27, fled the city aboard his Cessna airplane. “I got in my plane and flew to El Salvador,” Somoza said. “And I never came back. The shooting never stopped.”
The young Somoza resettled in Florida, where he sold luxury cars and started one of the state’s largest landscape nurseries.
After the Sandinistas were voted out of office in 1990, he became the first Somoza to return to Nicaragua. By then, the Sandinistas had torn down the statue to his father. They also rechristened hospitals and schools built by the Somozas with revolutionary names.
“They changed the name of every institution,” Somoza said as he drove around Managua in an SUV. “But the airports were built by us. The ports were built by us. The roads were built by us. The Sandinistas keep trying to erase history, but people remember.”
Somoza has spent part of his time in Nicaragua trying to regain control of a cement business and other assets that he says were legitimately acquired by his family decades ago but confiscated by the Sandinistas in the 1980s.
However, those efforts have gone nowhere, partly because government officials apparently fear that handing back properties to a Somoza would be too controversial.
"I must be radioactive," Somoza said. "I keep turning off the lights at night to see if I glow. But I don't.”
These days, Somoza grows papayas, chili peppers and other produce on several large farms in Nicaragua. In fact, one of his farms sits adjacent to a family sugar mill that was seized by the Sandinistas. But he also feels the pull of politics.
He has advised political candidates, and managed the presidential campaign of Enrique Quiñones, who finished far behind President Ortega in the Nov. 6 election.
He is now considering running for mayor of Managua or for the presidency in 2016.
“Alvaro has all the right in the world to run for office and he would be an attractive candidate to people over the age of 50,” said Mario Flores, an economist who worked in both the Somoza and Sandinista governments. “But Nicaragua has a very young population, and they were indoctrinated (by the Sandinistas) to be against the Somozas.”
Somoza argues that the country’s demographics work in his favor because many youthful voters have little recollection of the Sandinista revolution, when his family name was vilified.
Besides, Nicaragua is a land of political comebacks. That was confirmed by Ortega’s reelection last month.
A former Marxist, Ortega headed the Sandinista government in the 1980s, a disastrous period marked by the U.S.-financed Contra war and hyperinflation. He was voted out of office in 1990.
But by running as a religious conservative and a business-friendly capitalist, Ortega has won the last two presidential elections.
“That’s called reinventing yourself,” Somoza said.
Somoza has nothing but scorn for Ortega, who legal scholars say should not have been allowed on the ballot due to a Constitutional ban on the reelection of sitting presidents.
But pro-Sandinista Supreme Court judges ruled the ban unconstitutional, paving the way for Ortega to run. Ironically, by refusing to step down, Ortega reminds many critics of the man he helped overthrow: Anastasio Somoza.
“Though my family did a lot of good things, they made a lot of mistakes and I tell the current politicians: ‘Don’t make those same mistakes yourself,’” Somoza said. “I’m telling President Ortega on a regular basis: ‘What is it that you don’t realize? Continuity is not something these people want. Didn’t you understand what happened to Uncle Tacho?’”