The Miami Herald
May 7, 2000

Somoza family seeking comeback

Dynasty's heirs fight to regain seized Nicaragua property


MANAGUA -- More than 20 years after its four-decade dynasty was toppled in
a bloody revolution that would touch off one of the last great confrontations of the
Cold War, the Somoza family is marching into Nicaragua again.

Reorganizing the political party that made three Somozas president, filing a blizzard
of lawsuits to recapture more than $500 million worth of confiscated property, and
even slapping a libel suit on a newspaper that said the family's governments were
corrupt, the clan seems intent on reestablishing itself in a country that forcibly
expelled it in 1979.

"People don't understand us -- we've been growing bullet-proof armor since we
were little kids,'' said Luis Sevilla Somoza, 52, who splits his time between Managua
and Coral Gables and is one of 46 grandchildren of family patriarch Anastasio Somoza
Garcia. "We know life is a roller-coaster ride.''

That almost seems too mild a description of the Somoza tribe's meteoric journey
through Nicaraguan history. Somoza Garcia started out as an outhouse inspector,
came to power in a 1936 coup and turned his family into one of Latin America's
most enduring -- and wealthiest -- political dynasties.

But Somoza Garcia was killed by an assassin's bullet before his 60th birthday. His
eldest son Luis visibly sagged under the weight of the presidency he inherited and
was dead of a heart attack by age 44. Younger son, Anastasio Somoza Debayle,
was only 54 when he was blown to pieces in Asuncion, Paraguay, by a communist
hit team's rocket after his presidency ended in a disastrous defeat by the Sandinistas'
Marxist insurgency in 1979.

 The 43-year Somoza reign was one long roiling controversy in Nicaragua. The
 dynasty transformed a feudal society dominated by local warlords into a 20th
 Century state that was so prosperous by regional standards it was known as "the
 breadbasket of Central America.''

 But the Somozas were also accused of milking Nicaragua like a family cow,
 bullying their political opposition and building the national guard into a tropical
 mafia that robbed and murdered with impunity.

 Their political shadow even reached into the united states. It was Somoza
 Garcia's ability to speak English -- and dance a mean tango -- that won him
 influential friends in the U.S. embassy in the 1920s, leading to his rise from
 outhouse inspector to commander of the American-trained national guard, which
 he eventually used to seize power.


 The Somozas were among Washington's most faithful allies during World War II
 and the Cold War -- so much so that part of the 1962 Bay of Pigs invasion of
 Cuba was launched from Nicaragua. Somoza Garcia loved to quote a remark --
 probably apocryphal -- about him attributed to President Franklin D. Roosevelt:
 "He's an SOB, but he's our SOB.'' Yet at the end, when the dynasty then led by
 Somoza Garcia's younger son was tottering under pressure from Sandinista
 guerrillas, Washington refused to come to its aid.

About 10 of Somoza Garcia's 46 grandchildren are the spearheads of a family
effort to reinsert itself into Nicaraguan life. They've been willing to take on just about
anybody -- from multinational corporations to the Catholic Church -- as they go about
reclaiming not just property, but what they say should be an honorable place in
Nicaraguan society.

"We want to clean up the family name,'' said Alejandro Sevilla Somoza, 44, the son
of Somoza's daughter, Lillian. "The Somoza record in Nicaragua is not all super-good,
but it's not all the pits, either. . . . It's part economic, too. They ripped us off. We want
our property back.''

 The family's efforts have revealed some startling reservoirs of support in a country
 where, during the decade following the dynasty's collapse, Somocista  became a
 dirty word:

 When the Somozas announced they were forming a new political party, nearly
 10,000 voters joined in the first few months. The party has since been folded into
 the National Liberal Party -- the family's traditional party -- which last month
 delivered the 60,000 signatures it needed to qualify for the ballot in November
 municipal elections.

 When two Somozas appeared on a phone-in show on Radio Sandino, the
 mouthpiece of the family's Marxist archenemies, 10 of the 15 callers cheered
 them on. After the 15th concluded his call with a shout of "Viva Somoza!'' the
 station abruptly ended the broadcast. The show's host was fired the next day.

 When Luis Sevilla Somoza paid a visit to the family's old beach house at
 Montelimar -- now a resort owned by Spain's Barcelo hotel chain -- several former
 Somoza employees came running over to greet him. "Tell these bastards to
 leave!'' shouted one. "This place is yours!''

 But if the Somozas' higher profile here has enthralled some Nicaraguans, it has
 appalled others. Their critics run across the ideological spectrum, from the
 Sandinistas to the conservative government of President Arnoldo Aleman.

 "There's no real room for the Somozas here,'' said Sandinista leader and former
 President Daniel Ortega. "Their government meant repression for the Nicaraguan
 people. . . . They still have a lot of enemies.''

 Adds presidential spokesman Gilberto Wong, whose family was close to the
 Somozas in the old days: "I hate to say this, because we were close friends. But
 their coming here is just making trouble. I don't think they should get their
 property back. It will create more internal problems in the country. This is the
 price of peace.''

 The government and the Sandinistas found themselves in a strange alliance last
 month when family friends announced that Anastasio Somoza Portocarrero, the
 son of the last Somoza to hold the presidency, was coming to Managua for a
 political rally, his first visit since going into exile in Guatemala.


News of the visit aroused fury among anti-Somoza forces. Somoza Portocarrero --
known to Nicaraguans as El Chiguin, the kid, and more prosaically as Junior
among his cousins -- had been the dynasty's political heir-apparent, as well as
commander of an elite national guard unit that was accused of widespread
 human-rights violations in the final days of the civil war.

As controversy over the visit raged in Nicaraguan newspapers, Aleman's office
issued a communique saying the government "rejected'' the visit. (Wong says now
that meant only that "the government did not welcome the visit,'' but wouldn't have
tried to block it.) The Sandinistas were even more direct. "A visit like that would be
dangerous,'' Ortega said. ``There are a lot of people who would like to execute him.''

 In the end, Somoza Portocarrero canceled his visit -- but only temporarily, the
 family says. "When the time is right, when conditions are right, he'll come,'' said
 Alejandro Sevilla Somoza. "Junior has the same right to visit as any Nicaraguan

 Visits of other Somozas have been less tempestuous. (Well, except for David
 Somoza Portocarrero, Anastasio's younger brother, who twice sneaked into the
 country on a bet during Sandinista rule. The second time he was captured. After
 giving him a tour of some of the old family estates -- many crawling with heavily
 armed soldiers -- Sandinista counterintelligence officers put him on a plane back
 to the United States.) None of Somoza Portocarrero's cousins was involved in
 politics in any significant way, and many of them spent little time in Nicaragua.
 Alejandro and Luis Sevilla Somoza grew up -- with seven brothers and sisters -- in
 Washington, D.C., where their father was Nicaragua's ambassador for 36 years.


 They visited often -- including a memorable trip as teenagers when they shared a
 marijuana joint on the beach with Mick Jagger, who was in Nicaragua to marry his
 first wife, the Managua-born Bianca -- but the Sevilla Sacasas admit that they
 sometimes felt like strangers in their own country.

 "We were always the gringo cousins, the ones who were made fun of because
 they couldn't speak Spanish,'' recalled Luis Sevilla Somoza.

 While Luis divides time between Managua and Coral Gables, Alejandro spends
 time in Managua and the Washington, D.C., suburbs. Together with 46-year-old
 cousin Javier Somoza Rivas, who lives here full time, they have been the point
 men in the battle to retrieve family properties, with other family members visiting
 from time to time and consulting closely by phone. (Another family member,
 Eduardo Sevilla Somoza, is Nicaragua's ambassador to Argentina.)

 Their target: 342 properties seized by the Sandinistas in the first few days after
 they took power in 1979. It's a complicated task -- much of the property has been
 sold, some donated to charitable organizations -- but the family won a major
 victory with the government's concession in 1997 that there were major legal flaws
 in the seizure orders. That has allowed the Somozas to go to court to fight the
 confiscations, one by one.

 They've had some success, winning back half a dozen properties including a
 family home south of Managua, houses in Panama and Costa Rica that were
 being used by Nicaraguan diplomats, and shares in instant-coffee and chemical
 companies. In some cases, the family has made small payments to get the new
 owners to abandon their claims.


 But the top Somoza objectives -- including the beachfront property now owned by
 the Barcelo hotel chain and the land under Managua's new Catholic cathedral --
 remain in other hands, despite long negotiations.

 "In the end, they're going to have to deal with us,'' predicted Alejandro Sevilla
 Somoza. "They've got imperfections in their land titles, and they'll never be able
 to sell that land or get loans to invest in development as long as there's a

 The Somozas bristle at the suggestion -- made frequently by their opponents --
 that the property they are trying to retrieve was stolen in the first place.

 "There's 342 properties, and we're going to go to court over every single one of
 them, so that will be 342 opportunities to prove the Somozas are thieves,'' said
 Alejandro Sevilla Somoza. "If somebody's got evidence we stole anything, let
 them bring it to court. So far, nobody has.''

 Last year, when the Managua daily El Nuevo Diario ran several stories accusing
 the family of looting the government while it was in power, Alejandro and his
 brother Luis filed a libel suit against the paper.

 The young Somozas are similarly combative over the records of the governments
 their families ran. "The people who hated our family were the rich business
 leaders who hated the things the Somozas did that cost them money,'' said
 Alejandro Sevilla Somoza. "They didn't like social security, they didn't like
 women's suffrage, they didn't like having a labor code. Every single one of those
 things was started by my family. The labor code my grandfather wrote in 1938
 was so liberal that when the Sandinistas got around to changing it, they actually
 took rights away  from the workers.''

 Even some of the family's critics concede that Sevilla Somoza has a point -- that
 Somoza governments achieved major advances in building infrastructure and
 creating government social programs that were previously unheard of in

 "Old Somoza Garcia had brilliant people around him,'' said Adolfo Calero, an
 opponent of the dynasty who was jailed during the regime's final days. "He
 attracted well-known people and distinguished professionals to his government,
 because he was so charismatic, no doubt about it.''

 But, Calero added, the dynasty became more greedy over the years, using its
 power in the government to leverage and protect its interests in almost every
 sector of the Nicaraguan economy, from banks to broadcasting to real estate.

 "That's why it was Nicaragua's wealthy people who financed the Sandinista
 revolution,'' Calero said. "That's true. But they weren't the only ones who turned
 against the Somozas. By the end, it was practically everybody: the rich, the poor,
 the middle class, the students, the professionals -- everybody.''