Nicaraguan students campaign against government, 1944

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Time Period:  
Time period notes: 
Beginning of campaign is unclear - scattered PLI activity existed before June 1944, but it began in earnest in June 1944.
27 June
14 July
Location and Goals
Location City/State/Province: 
Managua and León
To prevent Somoza from continuing to extend his presidency.

In 1936, Anastasio Somoza was elected president of Nicaragua. He ran under the the Liberal Nationalist Party, or PLN. He was elected with broad support among liberals in Nicaragua, although, soon after his election, small numbers of Nicaraguans started to gather in opposition to his presidency. In 1937, a small group of university graduates formed a dicussion group that was highly critical of Somoza; the members of this unnamed group would go on to found the Independent Liberal Party, or PLI - the organization that led the campaign against Somoza in 1944. Although this group of dissidents met throughout Somoza’s time as president, prominent organized resistance to his regime was negligible until 1944.

Although Somoza was elected to the presidency, he realized that the Nicaraguan constitution forbade him from seeking re-election. Unhappy with this, in 1939, Somoza encouraged the Constituent Assembly to vote to give him an eight-year term as president. The Assembly voted in favor of Somoza, extending his presidency until 1947. In Leon, a university town, students gathered in opposition to the Assembly’s act, but no strong anti-Somoza campaign resulted.

In early January 1944, three leading members of the PLI - Carlos Pasos, Carlos Castro Wassmer, and Manuel Codero Reyes - wrote an indictment of the Somoza regime, criticizing it on political, economic, and moral grounds. Their indictment was of Somoza’s dictatorship in particular, rather than a blanket moral indictment of dictatorship in general. Shortly after the three leaders wrote the document, Manuel Codero Reyes died. At his funeral, Carlos Pasos, Carlos Castro Wassmer and other liberal dissidents handed out leaflets denouncing Somoza’s regime. They signed the leaflets as the Liberales Independientes; this led to the official formation of the PLI.

The PLI consisted of a diverse group of Nicaraguans. Many people in the group were liberals formerly supportive of Somoza’s regime - including Manuel Codero Reyes, who served as Somoza’s foreign minister before his death. Others were liberal dissidents who were not initially supportive of Somoza. Another large segment of the organization was comprised of conservatives who were upset with Somoza for some of the same reasons as the liberals, but also for many different reasons. Because the PLI was comprised of people with so many viewpoints and perspectives, one of the few points of agreement between the organization’s members was opposition to Somoza’s attempts to hold onto the presidency of Nicaragua.

Within the PLI, there was one particularly important sub-group: the Democratic Youth Front, or FJD. The FJD’s role was to galvanize support among young people and students. Many of the students in the FJD – and in PLI in general – were from upper and middle class backgrounds, since higher education was not widely accessible to people in the lower classes at the time. The FJD was often the most radical part of the PLI; indeed, students catalyzed the initial campaign against Somoza in June 1944.

On June 27, 1944, university students in Managua held an assembly to demonstrate solidarity with students in Guatemala, who were organizing against the right-wing junta that took control over the country after Ubico fell from power (see “Guatemalans overthrow a dictator, 1944”). Although there were only 300 students at the university in Managua at the time, over 2,000 people gathered to support the students in their demonstration. The students rallied in the streets of Managua, and, in the early evening, protested in front of the military academy. The National Guard, which was directly controlled by Somoza, dispersed the protesters using tear gas and arrested about 500 of the demonstrators. The next day, most, but not all, of the protesters were released from jail.

Two days later, on June 29, 1944, a number of women - many of whom were relatives or friends of the arrested demonstrators - marched the streets of Managua demanding the release of all of the protesters. The march ended when the women encountered a counter-demonstration of Somoza supporters.

Also on June 29, 1944, a group of students, farmers, and professionals in Leon wrote and signed a letter to Somoza urging him to release the jailed protesters. Additionally, labor organizers - from whom Somoza was trying to gain support - met with Somoza and asked him to release 60 workers who were jailed following the protests.

On July 1, 1944, Somoza held a press conference detailing that the protesters still in jail would be entitled to civil hearings, even though he believed their actions to be disruptive enough of the public order that they warranted court-marshaling. Around this time, Somoza also closed the universities, citing threats to the public order.

On July 2, 1944, Somoza released a number of jailed students. Upon their release, he spoke with them personally, telling them that he thought it unwise to criticize him personally when he had dedicated so much effort into building the universities at which they studied.

On July 3, the minister of education and an early Somoza supporter, Geronimo Ramirez Brown, resigns from his post in protest of the closing of the universities. A number of other government officials also resigned their posts.

Also on the 3rd, the PLI leadership met to determine their course of action. Some members of the leadership wanted to continue to apply pressure on Somoza to suspend his campaign to extend his presidency, while others encouraged moderation.

On the morning of July 4, 1944, protesters held a gathering outside of the U.S. embassy. Carlos Pasos gave a speech to over 20,000 demonstrators while the National Guard staged a counter-demonstration in a show of military prowess. Somoza desired to address the crowd from the balcony of the U.S. embassy, but the U.S. refused to let him do so; instead, Somoza spoke from a nearby grandstand. Both he and the National Guard were jeered by the protesters. The protesters then marched for a number of blocks before the National Guard dispersed the crowd. The demonstrators were in front of the Mexican embassy when the National Guard began to break up the protest; about 500 protesters sought refuge in the Mexican embassy. After the demonstration broke up, Somoza let most of the protesters in the embassy go, but held 20 of the organizers - including Carlos Pasos - in the embassy.

The following day, shopkeepers in Managua threatened not to open their shops in protest over the government’s response to the previous day’s demonstration. The government Junta de Control de Precios y Comercio warned business owners that any business closed on the 5th would be subject to seizure and liquidation by the government. Additionally, they warned foreign shopkeepers that they risked deportation if they did not open shop.

Around this time, two prominent Nicaraguan newspapers - La Prensa and La Notica - shut down in protest of the arrests of many of the newspaper’s staff members.

On July 7, 1944, Somoza declared that he would not seek re-election, and that he would veto the Assembly bill that would allow him to run for re-election. He also stated that following this concession, any further protests would be completely unwarranted and met harshly by the government.

On July 10, 1944, Leonardo Arguello - the minister of the interior - and Alberto Reyes - the mayor of Leon - both resigned in protest of Somoza’s autocratic decision-making processes after the demonstrations.

Following these events, Carlos Pasos met with Somoza to discuss a “liberal reconciliation” between the PLI and Somoza, but they reached no agreement. Small protests continued in the streets of Managua and Leon. On July 14, Carlos Pasos, Carlos Castro Wassmer and other liberal dissidents left for exile in Costra Rica. The next day, Somoza held a press conference indicating that the exiled dissidents could return soon, once the political situation cooled down. Nonetheless, Somoza would effectively run the Nicaraguan government until his assassination in 1956.

Research Notes
The initial student-led demonstration was held in solidarity with student organizing in Guatemala (see "Guatemalans overthrow a dictator, 1944"). (1)
Bethell, Leslie and Ian Roxborough. "Latin America between the Second World War and the Cold War, 1944-1948." (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1992).

Smith, Hazel. "Nicaragua: Self Determination and Survival." (Pluto Press, Boulder, CO: 1993).

Staten, Clifford L. "The History of Nicaragua." (Greenwood, Denver, CO: 2010).

Walter, Knut. "The Regime of Anastasio Somoza, 1936-1956." (The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill: 1993).

Nicaragua Papers Quit in Protest at Arrests. Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963); Jul 9, 1944; ProQuest Historical Newspapers Chicago Tribune (1849 - 1988), pg. 3.

Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Benjamin Bernard-Herman, 27/02/2012