237. Telegram 435 From the Embassy in Nicaragua to the Department of State1
435. Subj: Post Earthquake Political Developments in Nicaragua. Ref: Managua 267.
1. Background. When the December 23 earthquake struck, Nicaragua was being governed by a National Governing Council (NGC) composed of two members from the Liberal Party (PLN) and one from the Conservative (PCN) and a Constituent Assembly with sixty PLN and forty PCN members. This arrangement was all part of a political pact which Liberal leader General Anastasio Somoza and Conservative leader Dr. Fernando Aguero concluded in April 1971. In addition to division of the Council and Assembly, the pact provided for certain constitutional and electoral reforms and OAS supervised elections in September 1974 for a President and Congress which would take office December 1, 1974. While the Council would reign over the country during the interval, there was no doubt whatsoever on either side that General Somoza would rule because he possesses complete control over the two Liberal members, including the ability to remove them. Although PCN member Aguero periodically complained about being upstaged by Somoza’s exercise of his de facto power and threatened to abandon the pact, the arrangement has held together since its inaugural in May 1972 and the country has been governed fairly effectively.
2. Many observers now seriously question whether this bipartisan arrangement, which was designed to achieve democratic progress [Page 650] during a projected period of peace, prosperity and tranquility, can be maintained, in view of the enormous reconstruction challenge now facing the GON. This issue did not surface during the first week following the disaster because General Somoza simply took over, did what he had to do and no one complained. In addition, to make things perfectly legal and constitutional, Somoza obtained from the Council a declaration of martial law and the establishment of a National Emergency Committee with him as Committee President. By December 29, however, as the situation began to stabilize the Conservative Party began to chafe under this emergency arrangement. As reported Managua 267, it issued a declaration charging that Somoza was making an absurdity of the Council and calling for a resumption of responsibilities by regular civil authorities and legal institutions. Although PCN leader Aguero told an Embassy officer that he intended to press this issue because ignoring the Council threatened his and the PCN’s dignity, Somoza seemed anxious to carry on with the pact if at all possible. There appeared to be room for compromise and we therefore believed that Somoza and Aguero would reach some sort of agreement. Unfortunately since December 29 Somoza and Aguero have been unable to arrange a meeting, though each professed his willingness to meet with the other.
3. On January 6 the Liberals rocked their Conservative colleagues at the second session of the Constituent Assembly by introducing a law to establish a Super Ministry for National Reconstruction to be headed by General Somoza. The following is a translation of the operative paragraphs of this law, quote.
Article 1—There is created a new Ministry of State which is named Ministry of National Reconstruction. The head of this Ministry will have the qualifications required by the Constitution of the Republic and will have broad powers sufficient to plan, coordinate and execute all subjects and aspects necessary to comply with his responsibilities and which have a relation with the task of national reconstruction: being able to order all other Ministers of State, autonomous entities and any other governmental entity that he deems convenient in order to better perform his functions. He will likewise have the full and complete representation of the executive power, within and outside the Republic, in order to act and negotiate subjects related to national reconstruction.
Article 2. The Minister of National Reconstruction will have precedence over the other Ministers of State.
Article 3. This law modifies or derogates, whichever is the case, all legal dispositions which oppose it, especially those contained in the law creating Ministers of State and other dependencies of the executive power, of October 29, 1948 as amended. Unquote.[Page 651]
4. When the Liberals made clear their intent to immediately pass this law Conservative members retired en masse to caucus. The Conservatives decided to protest by not participating in the voting and denouncing the action as a “constitutional coup,” but when they returned the measure had already been approved. They then boycotted the remainder of the session, which passed several emergency economic laws (reported septel), although PCN leaders later said they favored these measures.
5. In meetings with Embassy officers evening January 6, PCN leader Aguero vigorously denounced the creation of the Reconstruction Ministry, maintained that it gutted what remained of the Liberal/Conservative pact and said he intended to resign his Council position in protest when the Council took action to approve the law. Aguero explained that he continued to appreciate that he had no real power on the Council. However, he said that heretofore all government measures had at least passed through the Council and this gave him the opportunity to examine them and protest if he wished. Now, according to Aguero’s interpretation, Somoza would have a carte blanche grant of all executive powers and the Council would be reduced to nothing; and even the facade, which preserved his and the PCN’s honor and dignity would be removed. Aguero professed to see no need for such a drastic measure since he thought the GON could function effectively without it and Somoza already had full de facto power to do anything he wished. He charged that this was merely a device to eliminate all opposition and take advantage of the disaster to further entrench the Somoza dynasty. Aguero insisted that this was a de facto coup in which he could not acquiesce and he would therefore resign. He said that he thought the PCN should continue in the Assembly because there they could at least protest and said a decision on this would be made at scheduled January 9 meeting of the PCN Directorate.
6. In subsequent discussions with the Ambassador, General Somoza charged that Aguero was merely trying to play cheap partisan politics during a time of national crisis and said he could not permit this. Somoza maintained that the powers being granted were limited and not as all inclusive as Aguero imagined and were definitely necessary to cope with the task of reconstruction. He said the new Minister would still constitutionally be under the Council and he saw no reason why the Liberal/Conservative pact could not continue to function. He acknowledged that the scheduled electoral reforms and elections would have to be postponed (something which Aguero also concedes) but vowed that they would take place when conditions permitted. He thought that Aguero was out of tune with the mood of the country which favored forceful executive action to deal with the emergency and therefore acting contrary to the true desire of Conservative Party members.[Page 652]
7. On January 7, Somoza confidentially informed the Ambassador that he had met for several hours with a group of Conservatives, including Aguero’s designated alternate on the Council Edmundo Paguagua Irias and millionaires Alfredo Pellas and Alberto Chamorro. According to Somoza, these Conservatives assured him that they had polled the PCN Directorate and Assembly membership and that, if Aguero resigned, a majority would vote to replace him with Paguagua and continue with the political pact. If Aguero agreed to abandon his intransigent position and go along, then Somoza thought he could remain.
8. Comment: A surprise revolt against Aguero is contrary to our assessments of the PCN and Aguero’s position within it prior to the disaster. However, the earthquake could have shifted political balances within the country and Somoza may well be right.
Summary: The Embassy reviewed political developments in the wake of a December 1972 earthquake, noting that the National Governing Council had responded to the disaster by declaring martial law and by naming Anastacio Somoza Debayle as the head of a National Emergency Committee.
Source: National Archives, RG 59, Central Files, 1970–1973, POL 2 NIC. Secret; Immediate. Repeated to Guatemala City, Tegucigalpa, San José, San Salvador, and USCINCSO. On December 23, 1972, an earthquake measuring approximately 6.2 on the Richter scale struck Managua, killing between 5,000 and 10,000 people and destroying an estimated 70 percent of the structures in the Nicaraguan capital. In telegram 1148, February 16, the Embassy reported that opponents of Somoza had become more vocal in calling for reforms since the earthquake, adding that prominent figures in business, the professions, and agriculture who had previously avoided involvement in politics believed that “the USG and international lending agencies should press for such reforms, if for no other reason than to assure that their aid is properly and efficiently utilized. They are currently pessimistic, but are prepared to draw encouragement from any signs of change or improvement.” (Ibid.) Telegram 267 from Managua was not found.↩