65. Telegram From the Embassy in Nicaragua to the Department of State1

408. Subject: Ambassador’s Meeting With President Somoza: January 26, 1978.

1. Ambassador accepted President Somoza’s invitation to lunch which had been planned for Asst. Sec. Todman and had two hour candid conversation.2

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2. Somoza began by describing the national work stoppage as something which the private sector had been planning since the earthquake.3 Business leadership collapsed with the earthquake, he said, and the business people could not forgive how he with a few soldiers and sergeants had taken charge and restored order. He said he would have acted more harshly or rashly against the promoters of the strike if it had not been for the fact the USG was behind these people.

3. Amb. replied this was a serious statement and asked for specifics. Amb. said he could not permit such a statement to go unclarified. He indicated there are two principal problems in Nicaragua: that there is a high propensity for rumors, and that there is a pathological desire to involve the U.S. in local politics. Amb. referred to two recently replaced Cabinet officers having claimed they were replaced because of the U.S. He said the President knew better; that our only comments had been general in terms of the advantage to the country to have turnover; that this invigorated the system. Amb. stated that as a corollary a lot of political groups came to tell us what they were planning and would be upset if we didn’t listen to them. He said the President knew that the instructions from Washington were for us to keep our doors open. He said that as an example the official conservatives usually came to see us, but surprisingly they didn’t inform us of their last political act: the demand for the President’s resignation.4 He further said that in no case had Amb. or his staff told the opposition that we supported them or were in favor of overthrowing the government. Rather we insisted on our neutrality.

4. President Somoza replied defensively that he was not complaining about the Embassy. (At no time did he provide specific backup to his assertion that USG behind opposition activities.) His problems, he said, were with the liberals in Washington—in the State Department—who allegedly have a direct contact with Somoza’s opponents.

5. The Ambassador stated he had been informed by Luis Pallais Debayle (the President’s cousin and political spokesman) and a Cabinet minister that the GON stated the Amb. and Embassy were responsible for the current problems. He said if the President believed this was not true he should clarify this to the people around him. It was clear these people were trying to make us a scapegoat; this is clearly what [Page 185] they are doing. The Amb. went on to remind President that he recently had met with young Somocistas and after the national work stoppage had begun had attended with Minister of Health at a government ceremony for a nurse’s course and another meeting on health programs presided over by Mrs. Somoza and that all three events had press coverage.

6. Somoza replied that he had told his people that the Amb. is only following official policy and that there was nothing personal in his meeting with oppositionists.

7. The Amb. described the present situation as presenting two principal alternatives for U.S. policy other than the current “correct” relationship. There could be a diminution of the USG presence or our relations could become warmer. For the latter to occur, in his personal opinion, it would require the conviction in Washington that President Somoza and his son or family would relinquish control of the government and National Guard in 1981.5 He said there is distrust in Washington of Somoza’s intentions. With regard to the first possibility, the U.S. would diminish its assistance programs to the point they were virtually nonexistent.

8. The President said he felt there was nothing he could do to convince people of his intentions to step down in 1981. The Amb. said he was sure that there were symbolic gestures which would contribute to such a belief.

9. The Amb. expressed concern regarding the possibility for escalating conflict in Nicaragua and said he felt there is a need to institutionalize mechanisms so that new political and business groups could contribute to the political life of the country by participating within legal boundaries. The President replied that everyone had a chance to be heard by his government.

10. The Amb. said he wanted to be very open, that he was not engaging in intrigue, that he wanted Somoza to know that there is a belief, not only in Nicaragua but in Washington, that Tachito (Major Anastasio Somoza Portocarrero, the President’s 26-year old son) is being trained to take over the National Guard (GN) in 1981 through retirement of more senior officers. Somoza said that is not accurate, that Tachito is very young and there is no way he could head the GN in the short term and that he would not be left in command in 1981. He implied, however, that Tachito would retain an active role in the GN. He added that he did not believe in exceptional promotions, that the GN wouldn’t stand for it, that Nicaraguans were not like that.

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11. Somoza said further he wanted the Ambassador to understand his position as a father. He had to help his son get established in a profession. He said Tachito was interested in the GN, not in business. He said his son had a lot of merit, despite his flat feet; he worked hard. The Amb. replied that our military personnel had been impressed with Major Somoza’s bearing and potential but that there is a problem of form. Amb. referred to the Colombian example of President Lopez Michelsen, an ex-President’s son becoming President but it was not a position handed down; it was not in a “forma burda” i.e., crass. The President said that he was precisely trying not to be crass and jokingly said, “well, maybe we’ll have to send Tachito to Timbuktu to please you.”

12. The Amb. expanded on his concern by stating that Nicaragua is not a monarchical system like Great Britain. If it were there would not be these problems: Tachito could be accepted at predeterminted ages to carry out various military roles. But that is not the form of government here. Somoza agreed that the basic problem was to find an adaptation between Nicaragua’s constitutionally mandated republican, democratic form of government and the reality in Nicaragua, which impeded the full implementation of the mandate.

13. The Amb. stated he would be seeing Asst. Sec. Todman tomorrow, January 27, and would be willing to explore with him the type of gestures which might contribute to more cooperative U.S.GON relations. This elicited no active interest by President. Amb. also said that one of the apparent problems with the current human rights policy is that it does not establish precise parameters as to what we expected other governments to do. President agreed and returned to this point at close of conversation. Somoza expressed concern regarding U.S. voting against IFI loans for Nicaragua.6

14. The Ambassador said that the U.S. was not going to insist that the liberals yield power to the opposition if the opposition did not have majority support. Somoza replied that the opposition is a minority [Page 187] and that he never would give them power. He asked the Ambassador to tell the opposition he is in good health;7 that he is not going to let himself be screwed; that he plans to be around for another thirty years. He said he is now ready to start using the Liberal Party to show counterforce to the opposition and that he was going to get tough with opposition businessmen who were his political opponents. He said that when they had problems they came to the GON to help them and this is how they repay that help. He referred to INDE President Robelo as a smart kid, but misguided. He said Robelo wanted to be President but that not everyone can be President.

15. The Ambassador counseled taking it easy against the business groups on strike,8 that it was preferable to be democratic, that after all he was a West Point graduate. The President said that basically the strikers were Conservative Party businessmen who resented his progressive social policies and taxes. That he knew that the U.S. was reducing its foreign assistance to all countries because of its own balance of payments problems that consequently he had to increase taxes on business enterprises. He further indicated that he is going to strengthen his hand in the economy by expanding the public sector. He said that although his control of Nicaraguan Government entities plus the Somoza private interests gives him a comfortable margin for neutralizating the private section opposition, it deserves to be punished.

16. Somoza, in parting, asked the Ambassador to tell Asst. Sec. Todman, that the U.S. should let him know privately what our human rights concerns are, that although President Carter was not his friend, Somoza was a friend to the U.S. and that our current policies were only making enemies for the U.S.

17. Comment: President Somoza revealed that even though his present intention is to step down as President in 1981, he will not commit himself to surrendering family control of the GN. Moreover, he feels that the Somozas must continue to play the paramount political [Page 188] role in Nicaragua. He continues confident of his power and in his view of the political process there are no basic legal constraints to Somoza rule. He continues to resent public criticism of his rule by USG (e.g. negative votes in IFI, leaks of demarches) believing that these encourage escalation of opposition activities, including illegal revolutionary activities. Despite our continued insistence that we are not attempting to destablize GON, Somoza clearly believes that some of our actions in fact have that effect.

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D780041–0500. Confidential; Immediate; Exdis.
  2. Todman cancelled a planned visit to Nicaragua following the Embassy’s recommendation. Telegram 306 from Managua, January 24, reported that Somoza’s “clear preference” was to postpone Todman’s visit and that “key private sector representatives opposed to Somoza regime” thought that a visit by Todman would be “inappropriate at the present time in light of a planned general lockout and demonstrations.” (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D780034–0769)
  3. A major earthquake struck Managua on December 23, 1972. See Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, vol. E–11, Part 1, Mexico; Central America; and the Caribbean, 1973–1976, Documents 237238.
  4. Telegram 392 from Managua, January 26, reported that the Union of Democratic Liberation, “the oppositionist coalition formerly headed by Pedro J. Chamorro,” and “other political parties have demanded Somoza’s resignation.” (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D780039–0650)
  5. Somoza’s Presidential term ended in 1981.
  6. In telegram 288402 to Managua, December 2, 1977, the Department stated that on November 14, 1977, the Interagency Group on Human Rights and Foreign Assistance (known as the Christopher Committee for the Chairman Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher) met to consider pending International Financial Institution loans to Nicaragua. The group approved favorable votes “on basic human needs grounds” for water supply, rural sanitation, and public health services loans. The group also decided to ask Nicaragua to seek a 3–6 month postponement of the Inter-American Development Bank’s consideration of loans for animal health, agricultural research, and road construction, “so that we may further observe and evaluate the human rights situation in the country.” Finally, the group decided to ask Nicaragua to request a postponement of the Inter-American Development Bank consideration of a dam project grant “and abstain on that loan when and if the GON brings it forward for consideration.” (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D770448–0514)
  7. Somoza suffered a heart attack on July 25, 1977, as the Embassy reported in telegram 3496 from Managua, July 26, 1977. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D770265–1132) In telegram 4364 from Managua, September 20, the Embassy reported that “Somoza returned to Nicaragua on September 7 after spending about six weeks in the Miami Heart Institute.” (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D770344–0312)
  8. In telegram 441 from Managua, January 30, the Embassy reported that Nicaragua had reinstituted the state of emergency declared after the 1972 earthquake and commented that “the resurrection of the state of emergency is aimed at providing the GON with the appearance of legality for any steps it may decide to take against the firms and unions that are engaged in the national work stoppage,” and that “the GON appears to be unwilling to declare martial law. The imposition of martial law might be perceived as an admission of weakness and cause negative international repercussions.” (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D780044–0661)