Somoza family seeking comeback
Dynasty's heirs fight to regain seized Nicaragua property
BY GLENN GARVIN
MANAGUA -- More than 20 years after its four-decade dynasty was toppled
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
"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
When the Somozas announced they were forming a new political party,
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
When two Somozas appeared on a phone-in show on Radio Sandino,
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
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,
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
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
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.
ANGER OVER VISIT
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
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
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
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.
WITH MICK JAGGER
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
they couldn't speak Spanish,'' recalled Luis Sevilla Somoza.
While Luis divides time between Managua and Coral Gables, Alejandro
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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.''