In the predawn hours of October 4, 1912, several hundred U.S. Marines scrambled up a hill overlooking the Nicaraguan town of Mesaya. At the top stood a small fortification defended by a smaller band of rebels. The rebel commander, General Benjamín Zeledón, who had been jefe supremo del gobierno en rebelión since the former leader surrendered to U.S. forces less than two weeks earlier. Zeledón and the other rebels had spent the summer fighting against the U.S.-backed government of Adolfo Díaz Recinos, whose constabularios were joined by the over 2,000 U.S. Marines deployed to Nicaragua in August. The Marines took Coyotepe Hill in less than hour but discovered the rebel general had already fled sometime earlier. Later that day Zeledón was ambushed by Nicaraguan government troops, his body carried to the nearby town of Catarina where he was buried. The United States occupation of Nicaragua would last for nearly two decades.
A 17-year-old Augusto Sandino lived less than five miles from where General Zeledón was shot and in fact had heard the gunfire and explosions rumbling like thunder from Coyotepe. Years later he would recall the day that earlier revolution met its bloody end:
Our young and patriotic heart felt hopeless concern, but could do nothing for the sake of the noble and wonderful cause supported by General Benjamín Zeledón; at five in the afternoon of the same day, that apostle of freedom had died and in a cart pulled by oxen his corpse was driven to the town of Catarina, neighboring mine, where up to today, under a headstone muddied and semi-destroyed by the inclemency of the weather, are the remains of our maximal hero and great patriot General Benjamín Zeledón.
Satisfied with the results of the 1924 presidential election, the United States withdrew most of its forces from Nicaragua. The government was soon overthrown by Emiliano Chamorro, the general who had fought against Zeledón in 1912 and later became president. But when Washington refused to recognize the new government, power was eventually handed back to former President Díaz. This in turn led to a revolt by liberal soldiers led by José María Moncada, marking the start of the Constitutionalist War.
Sandino had returned from his exile in Mexico shortly before the new war began, having been forced to flee the country in 1821 after he shot and wounded the son of a prominent conservative. Settling on the Gulf Coast after stints in Honduras and Guatemala, it was in Mexico that Sandino had been introduced to anarcho-syndicalism and anti-imperialism. Now in his thirties and working the mines back in his homeland, he quickly organized an armed group and sided with General Moncada’s men. Backed by the Mexican government, the rebels began their march on the capital city of Managua in April 1927.
Then, to Sandino’s surprise and disgust, Moncada agreed to a peace treaty that allowed President Díaz to remain in power and established the National Guard. In a July manifesto addressed to “the Nicaraguans, to the Central Americans, to the Indo-Hispanic Race,” Sandino declared the start of his own revolution:
Come, morphine addicts, come and kill us in our own land. I await you before my patriotic soldiers, feet firmly set, not worried about how many of you there may be. But keep in mind that when this happens the Capitol Building in Washington will shake with the destruction of your greatness, and our blood will redden the white doom of your famous White House, the cavern where you concoct your crimes.
For the next six years, Sandino would wage a guerrilla war against the Nicaraguan government, whose forces were reinforced (yet again) by U.S. Marines on the ground. This the Marines combined their campaign with aerial bombings by U.S. planes, a first in the history of warfare. Following a second exile in Mexico, Sandino resumed his revolutionary activities, even after President Díaz was succeeded by the former rebel commander Moncada in 1929. Sandino opposed the U.S.-trained National Guard and especially its U.S.-imposed director, Anastasio Somoza García. In his “Plan to Realize Bolivar’s Supreme Dream,” he also called for the foundation of a united federation of Latin American countries to ensure the region’s future would be shaped, not by the United States, but by its own hands.
In February 1934, Sandino would meet with Juan Bautista Sacasa, the newly elected president who had been the president en rebelión during the Constitutionalist War. Unbeknownst to both men, director Somoza had order his guardsmen to assassinate the revolutionary general. On his way out after the meeting, Sandino was stopped at the gates by the National Guard and taken a short distance away, where he was promptly executed.
A little over two years later, Somoza would overthrow the Sacasa government, establishing a dictatorship that would last for 43 years. Then, in 1979, Somoza’s son would be overthrown by a socialist guerrilla movement, whose members called themselves the sandinistas.
Remembering Sandino — and that one loss can inspire a dozen future victories — is how we celebrate our heritage.