University struggles in Nicaragua (part 1) How we got to the 1959 student massacre
Today’s university students face
greater demands than those of the past.
They carry four hundred dead on their back
and are up against a dictatorship now proven
to be bloodier than that of the Somozas
Reviewing their predecessors’ history,
knowing where they come from
could help the current students
decide where to head.
José Luis Rocha
British historian Christopher Hill firmly believed that “history had to be rewritten in every generation because, although the past doesn’t change, the present does; each generation asks questions of the past and finds new areas of sympathy as it relives different aspects of the experiences of its predecessors.”
Leaving aside the third Somoza, who uniquely faced an experienced guerrilla organization and an armed insurrection, past student rebellions against the first two—Anastasio Somoza García and his son Luis Somoza Debayle—could shed some light on today’s university students who, to a large extent, led the unarmed April revolt. The premise of this review of history is that today’s university students are reliving some aspects of their predecessors’ experience and the similarities and differences could help us characterize what’s happening now.
“We need more forceful actions”
In April 1968, exactly half a century before the current uprising began: Carlos Fonseca Amador sent a message to revolutionary students. By then he had more than a decade of struggle under his belt, starting in high school classrooms, continuing on university campuses and ending up underground as a guerrilla. The explosive 13-page document was printed on a rickety mimeograph. Its core was a reproach to the student movement: “While student guerrillas have shed their blood, the revolutionary students have essentially stayed in the classroom with their arms crossed.” Faced with the deaths of student guerrillas, “the solidarity of the organized student’s movement was limited to offering simple proclamations of condolences.... At the origin of student inactivity is the revolutionary students’ lack of political discipline and the capitalist penetration of the nation’s two universities.”
Carlos Fonseca didn’t assess the university students as politically apathetic. He knew the organizations that had pulled them together and he was promoting the Revolutionary Students Front (FER) from within the FSLN. He claimed the problem was that they lacked activism and were using methods that were too bland. He wanted to spur them on to more forceful actions; particularly ones that were outside the law. Fonseca’s letter had noticeable effects on the FER’s growth, its victory in the National University’s University Center (CUUN) and increased sabotage actions against the regime.
The time of mimeographs
and words of greater value
They were times in which university students were up against a dictatorship: painfully interesting times like today. That’s why I believe studying them will shed some light on the current struggles if we pay attention to the contrasts and coincidences.
To begin looking at them I focused on the university movements during the time of the Somoza dynasty and collected information from more than a dozen sources. Only one source deals specifically with the university movement: “Masacre estudiantil” (Student massacre) by Rolando Avendaña Sandino, based on the student massacre of July 23, 1959. I thus had to put together a puzzle taking pieces from here and there, a kaleidoscope of discontinuous narratives. The most important and inspiring source was “Memoria de la Lucha Sandinista” (Memories of the Sandinista struggle) by Monica Baltodano, a meticulous and sifted three-volume transcription of radio interviews by the author, mostly with FSLN militants, some of which were dedicated to the student struggles of the 1960s and 70s. I also used Sergio Ramírez’s biography of Mariano Fiallos Gil and Matilde Zimmermann’s biography of Carlos Fonseca.
To speak of the April 2018 rebellion without mentioning Facebook and WhatsApp would result in a very incomplete narrative. By the same token, all the sources mentioned above and others I’ve cited used mimeographed and stenciled sources, as in their day all flyers, pamphlets, study documents, manifestos, proclamations and pronouncements were done on stencil and printed out with that noisy machine called a mimeograph.
Its disappearance marked the end of an era that began in 1887, when Thomas Alba Edison patented it, and went on for a century. Without falling into technological determinism, I believe that the amount of time, risks and money the mimeograph needed gave words a very specific weight and greater value.
The first universities…
In the early 1950s, only two universities existed in Nicaragua: the “Universidad de Oriente y Mediodia” in Granada and the National University in Leon. Granada’s university, founded in 1947, only lasted until 1951. León’s university was founded by decree from King Fernando VII in 1812 and elevated to the National University in 1947.
Between 1941 and 1946 there was the Central University in Managua, founded by Anastasio Somoza García, but annoyed at seeing its students become leaders of the anti-reelection and anti-Somoza movement, he closed it. Soon after doing so, he declared: “I had two daughters during my government: the Military Academy and the Central University. I considered both of them the apple of my eye. However, the second one turned out to be a whore.”
It would be a stretch to speak of a university movement or even of university organizations before the National University obtained its autonomy. A Nicaraguan Liberal Youth was founded in 1941 and gave birth to a female wing in 1955, while a Conservative Youth was born in 1952, preceded by the fascistic Blue Shirts Movement.
These organizations’ activities essentially happened on the margins of the university, which was not favorable soil for any type of political or other activity… including academic. In 1957 when Mariano Fiallos Gil became rector of the National University, students hardly put in an appearance in the classroom. They would register and take exams after several years of studying at home. “During those years,” recalls Rolando Avendaña, a student who arrived shortly after that period, “the so-called professors would show up three or four times during the whole course. Professors and students were strangers to each other, only maybe meeting each other at some point. Any students who wanted to get ahead had to study on their own, as occasions to hear lectures on the subject being studied were few. Students would come to final exams and a high number of students would fail.”
…and the first university students
Given that students hardly set foot on campus, one couldn’t even speak of a student body. This dynamic corseted any organizational possibilities.
This same thing had also happened in other sectors and other countries. The workers’ movements in England only arose after the Industrial Revolution, when a sizable group of workers found themselves in one place for a long workday and over long periods of time, creating an opportunity for conversations to transform into conspiracies. Nicaragua’s university students didn’t achieve these benefits of daily contact until the late 1950s.
This doesn’t mean, however, that they didn’t gather occasionally before that or were strangers to political expressions. University carnivals and farcical parades with political allusions have long been a tradition. According to Sergio Ramírez, they started in 1930. Two years later authorities made futile attempts to suspend them, fearing that the students would use them to express their rejection of the US military invasion and occupation of Nicaragua.
Ramírez writes that after this sanction the students simply turned to other strategies to express their discontent. The US forces insisted that a list of costumes be prepared so it could be reviewed before participating in the carnival parade to avoid any allusions to political issues or government officials. The students’ committee, finding this unacceptable, decided there’d be no parade, and instead held a solemn funeral for the political Constitution, in which the students all marched with handkerchiefs tied across their mouths.
There are unmistakable signs that the university students also paid attention to political events in other countries of the isthmus. On June 27, 1944, students from the Central University demonstrated their solidarity with students from Guatemala’s San Carlos University, whose campus had been closed down.
The theme of their protest was the rejection of Ubico’s reelection in Guatemala and of Anastasio Somoza Garcia’s in Nicaragua. Ubico had been ousted, but a rightwing junta had taken his place and the old general was waiting behind the scenes for the results of its last political move. Two thousand protesters against reelections marched through the streets of downtown Managua, a good number given that the total number of university students couldn’t have been more than 600 and the country’s population was barely 900,000.
As they went by La Loma prison, the National Guard tear gassed them and detained more than 600 people. The next day, women dressed in mourning organized a march to protest the large number of leaders imprisoned and persecuted. They were attacked by a mob of Somoza supporters armed with sticks and stones. At the same time, Somoza organized a counter-protest, but its poor turnout frightened the dictator. His response to this correlation of forces was to close down the Central University.
The short-lived JUS
In 1955, the Somocista University Youth (JUS) was founded to work among the students of higher education. Their first task was to guarantee Anastasio Somoza García’s reelection.
The JUS was introduced into social life with a warm reception in which Julio Centeno Gómez recited a poem in honor of the dictator. The new youth organization immediately clashed with the University Center, the highest youth authority in the university. The next year, only 154 of a total of 930 students signed a letter backing the JUS. Starting in 1958, the JUS began functioning as an organization outside of the university as it was considered an organization supporting a party whose activities could damage university autonomy.
According to historian Ricardo Baltodano, “the JUS didn’t make it past being an acronym during that first period, a way to make itself visible to the regime; its activities were dispersed, unsystematic; it didn’t defend the student body’s most felt problems, such as university autonomy, and it never had its own project, vision and analysis. That’s why it had a relatively short life span.”
The massacre of July 23, 1959, put the JUS out of circulation. Its members lost all credibility due to their complicity. In the CUUN’s first presidential elections the following year, 778 of the by then 1,200 registered students voted. The Liberal (pro-Somoza) candidate only got 78 votes. The anti-Somoza sentiment was a majority. Rolando Avendaño recalls: “When I got to the university it didn’t surprise me to hear, see and feel the continuous anti-government effervescence. It didn’t surprise me to see that of 1,000 students, 900 were opposing the government.”
1956: Year zero
1956 was a milestone year. Not only was it the year Rigoberto López Pérez executed Somoza García; it was also the year Carlos Fonseca entered the National University of Nicaragua in León as a law student. At the time, the struggle for university autonomy was in full swing. Two years later, success would give it a new name: the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua (UNAN).
The first Marxist studies cell was founded almost immediately. Fonseca got involved with a group of students linked to the Nicaraguan Socialist Party (PSN) who shared the desire to end the already-20-year-old dictatorship. Some of these young people also participated in the Nicaraguan Democratic Youth, which broke up in 1959 and later in the Nicaraguan Revolutionary Youth (JRN). Both were an attempt to include the large mass of uneducated youth into the struggle.
After the successful attack on Somoza García, the grounds surrounding the university became a military camp. Hundreds of students were detained, including Carlos Fonseca, who was imprisoned even though he didn’t know López Pérez and knew nothing about the plot. He was only there for seven weeks, however, because his father, who administered the Somoza family’s assets, intervened on his behalf. Tomás Borge, another FSLN founder, was also imprisoned, and not released for two years.
1958: University autonomy
and the first student strike
In 1957 Carlos Fonseca participated as a PSN delegate in the VI World Congress of Students and Youth for Peace and Friendship, which was held in Moscow. He wrote about his experiences in the Soviet Union in “Un nicaraguense en Moscú” (A Nicaraguan in Moscow), written in early 1958, the same year university autonomy was achieved. Fonseca started his second year in law and was elected by the rector, Mariano Fiallos, and Carlos Tünnermann, a professor, to give the welcoming speech to the students. On October 15 of that same year, Fonseca and other students met with President Luis Somoza to demand the release of the students imprisoned since his father was killed.
Their pressure mechanism was the first national student strike in Nicaraguan history. The strike was also a platform to get high school students involved and to found a student organization among them. The university students gave lectures in the public high schools to stimulate the participation of the future graduates.
1959: Cuba shows a way
In this environment of constant agitation against the regime, the news of the Cuban revolution’s triumph in 1959 was celebrated in several Nicaraguan cities, above all in Managua where, according to La Prensa, the opposition newspaper, fireworks were set off all day. Conservative Party, Independent Liberal Party and Social Christian Party youth organized a march where people shouted Long live freedom! Long live free Cuba! and Long live Fidel! The National Guard broke up the march, but couldn’t extinguish the spark that lit the way to change.
The triumph of the Cuban revolution filled many students with enthusiasm as it offered them the lesson that armed struggle was the way to access power. They came to that conclusion slowly, as the Kremlin had been advising Latin American Socialist and Communist parties, including their clandestine versions in Nicaragua, that it was not the correct path.
The impact of the Cuban triumph led a group of youth to found the Nicaraguan Patriotic Youth (JPN), in which CUUN president Joaquin Solís Piura, Fernando Gordillo, Manolo Morales and other university students were activists, along with young laborers such as Julio Buitrago and Jose Benito Escobar, all of whom would become early members of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN). The regime’s security organs considered the JPN a group of Communists who had infiltrated the university.
An economic crisis
and an armed option
The happenings of 1959 were bracketed by an acute economic crisis. Many shops closed and there were massive layoffs by even well-established businesses. Bank credits were hard to come by and the cost of living was the highest in the region.
When the situation reached a critical point, the Catholic bishops offered to mediate negotiations between the government and the disgruntled groups to seek solutions, but their proposal was ignored. Spain’s ambassador was alarmed because a large group of Spanish residents in Nicaragua—the majority of them directors of schools and/or priests—was ready to support the anti-Somoza movement.
In this economic context, the regime’s corruption aroused mass repudiation, inflamed even more by La Prensa’s revelations that 23,000 córdobas had been spent to furnish the Nicaraguan embassy in Washington and 25,000 more just to transport the furniture.
The discontent simmered several more years and frequently erupted into demonstrations. Between 1960 and 1964 close to a million wage earners participated in 28 strikes. Faced with the mounting protests, Luis Somoza’s reaction was repression, but he combined the stick with a few carrots: he created the Nicaraguan Housing Institute in 1959 and the Central Bank in 1960. He also established a minimum wage, announced an agrarian reform and legalized the right to strike in 1962. But businesses rejected even those measures; they didn’t respect the minimum wages and they persecuted strikers.
Carlos Fonseca left the university to travel to Havana, where he signed up for an expedition against Somoza. In an ambush by Honduras troops and Nicaragua’s National Guard in El Chaparral, Honduras, on June 24, 1959, six rebels, most of them university students, were killed and Fonseca’s lung was perforated by a bullet. He was given up for dead at one point, but survived.
His choice of the armed path meant the end of university life and of his militancy in the Socialist Party. The victory of the Cuban revolution and his interpretation of the reasons for the massacre in El Chaparral convinced him that armed struggle was the only way to overthrow the Somoza dictatorship. His decision would have overwhelming consequences for organizational work at the university.
July 23, 1959: A historical cay
In solidarity with those killed in El Chaparral, the university students suspended the usual farcical “parade of the bald men”—university freshmen—that year. In its place was a silent mourning parade on July 23, with boys wearing white shirts and black ties and women in mourning suits. It provoked Somoza enough to trigger repression.
According to Avendaña, an assembly was held before the march in which Fernando Gordillo, a second-year legal and social sciences student and a brilliant speaker, gave an emotional speech courageously laced with pronouncements opposing the regime. The program proposed by the University Center members as a posthumous tribute to the university students killed in El Chaparral was then put to a vote. The program’s first step was that all students would wear some sort of black rosette or black ribbon as a sign of the sorrow that had overcome the whole university. Next the assembled youth wrote messages that were cabled to the OAS, UN and then-President of Honduras Ramón Villeda Morales.
With that the student protest went out into the street. It had no fixed route. “Those were things that didn’t concern us,” recalls Fernando Gordillo in a chronicle distributed as a mimeographed pamphlet, “Someone—it’s hard to personify the details in a multitude of happenings—proposed that we head for the barrio of Subtiava, which was immediately accepted. At that time, Subtiava, with its rebellious tradition, seemed the best place to express ours.”
How the massacre started
From Subtiava the march headed towards the Law School with the idea of gathering up law students. It was a route that passed close to National Guard headquarters. The protesters had only gone a short way when they were confronted by a National Guard contingent led by Major Ortiz, the same officer who during a previous protest on July 2 had warned the students: “Boys, don’t get me in trouble because I have orders to ‘shower’ you.”
Gordillo recalls that “we were a group of about 15, some still breathing hard from running... As always, the Guardsmen were aggressive and sour-faced, maybe because like Gorki says, deep down they didn’t like what they were doing. They wore steel helmets and had bayonets fixed to their rifles. They were accompanied by some traffic police with their guns drawn, who, contrary to the Guards, tried to act cynically by making fun of us.”
Avendaño wrote that “as the Guard were reinforcing their weaponry with arms on tripods and tear-gas bombs, the students adopted the stance of a sit-down strike. They sat on the pavement singing the national anthem and shouting ‘Freedom!’, an activity they kept up for an hour.”
“We’ll break up the protest!”
Finally, the students and the guards agreed on a simultaneous retreat: “For every step back we took, the Guards would do the same and afterwards there would be no detentions or reprisals,” wrote Gordillo. The protest had retreated several blocks along Calle Real when CUUN leader Joaquin Solís Piura communicated that several students had been detained near the Sesteo restaurant. He asked the group to hold their position at that point while he tried to dialogue with the departmental commander. The commander refused to hand over those detained until the protest broke up. He warned the leaders: “If you, as university student leaders, can’t break up the protest, the Guard will break it up with tear gas and bullets.”
The march continued towards the National Institute of the West, where it stopped to ask for student support. Bad news continued to come: more university students had been detained. A multitude boiling with indignation had gathered by the San Francisco church and together they walked towards the university until a squad block their path to La Merced park.
There Gordillo saw that “a drunk Guardsman had wandered into the multitude... He didn’t try to do anything and when any of those who wanted to punch him would threaten him, he would raise his eyes, I would say almost humbly, and shrug. Seeing that something could really happen, we decided to get him out of harm’s way.”
“They rattled their machine guns”
Sergio Ramírez also remembers those moments: “My memory of Fernando that afternoon is fixed: shortly before the massacre, I saw him grab a private who was just hanging out in La Merced park and try to take him as a prisoner towards the university, with help from other students. His idea was to use him as a hostage to demand the release of his classmates detained in the Guard’s departmental headquarters. A squad of Guardsmen armed with Garand rifles came running, shooting into the air; they recovered the hostage and ordered Fernando to move. I can still see him with his hands on his head as they took him away. As a gesture of solidarity other students followed single file, also with their hands on their head. I followed them too, but lost sight of them when we got to the street of the massacre. They say Fernando has been released as well as those detained in the headquarters...
“In front of me were banners and a squad of Guardsmen closing off the corner in front of the Social Club. There were shouts of protest, slogans, someone gave the order to return to the university, the soldiers formed three rows, the first one lying down, the second one kneeling and the last one standing. They draw back their rifle bolts abd throw the red canuster of tear gas.... They also rattled their machine guns.”
“It was mass murder “
Gordillo was detained but released immediately with a message from the commander: “He was to tell the boys to retreat and disperse, and he would free the prisoners. They shouldn’t be afraid because he wasn’t going to do anything to them.” Ten minutes later the students were machine gunned.
Literally while the students had their backs to the Guardsmen, listening to Joaquín Solís Piura and Fernando Gordillo communicate the commander’s message, they were machine gunned from behind. Four students, a woman and a little girl were killed, and more than 80 were wounded. Avendaña qualified it as “mass murder.”
Fernando Gordillo wrote a poem titled “Why?,” from which I quote a part:
“Why do brothers burn with hate and impotence?
I await the answer from anyone…
Why from behind?
Why when they were fleeing?
Why if they were young and happy?
Why that afternoon?
If someone can answer me, answer me.
If not, may each do what they have to do.”
At first, the National Guard didn’t let the ambulances through to the place where the massacre occurred to treat the wounded students. Later Luis Somoza offered all the blood needed and financial support to assist the wounded, but his offer was rejected. The hunting down of students began immediately and the prisons quickly filled with them. Groups of National Guardsmen and members of Leon’s Security Office surrounded the students’ homes all night.
National repudiation of the massacre
Repudiation was immediate and even included grassroots Somoza supporters, according to Avendaña: “The Nicaraguan people knew it had been a cowardly and treasonous act. Somocistas, public workers, opposition and the general Nicaraguan population all repudiated the killing. They knew the students had no other weapons but their words.”
The funeral procession was joined by 12,000 people. A national strike was declared. Priests launched condemnations from the pulpit. Bishop Calderón y Padilla of the diocese of Matagalpa headed a protest demanding the release of Matagalpan students and threatened the National Guard that if they refused he would climb the steeple and ring the bell as an alarm to call in the “Indians from the ravines.” The National Guard yielded to the priest’s demands.
A fifth of the university students dropped out of school and many left the country. Those who stayed would leave the classrooms any time a student from the National Guard entered, and many professors did the same in solidarity.
The thorny issue of the military students gained relevance and reached its crowning moment when several students—among them Manolo Morales and Joaquin Solis Piura—went on a hunger strike to pressure for their expulsion. The strike lasted five days and encouraged a large group of students to take over the university, at the time surrounded by the National Guard. The university’s board of directors finally decided to expel the National Guard students.
A failed attempt to initiate armed struggle ends in a national state of siege
The Somoza family regime always responded to the university struggles with repression. When it would heat up in León, the city would end up in a de facto state of siege. On July 1, 1959, less than a month before the student protest ended in a massacre, the entire country suffered a de iure state of siege, decreed by Somoza in the wake of an attempt by over a hundred armed, largely Conservative anti-Somocista rebels headed up by Pedro Joaquín Chamorro, Luis Cardenal and Reynaldo Téfel, inspired and supported by Cuba, to set up a focal point of armed struggle against the dictatorship. Flying in from Costa Rica in two planes, one landed in the grasslands rural district of Mollejones, Chontales, while the other made an unplanned landing in Olama, Boaco, and got stock in mud, so couldn’t take off again and was quickly discovered by the National Guard, which quickly hunted down and captured all the rebels. They were accused of treason and imprisoned.
Avendaña recalled that the state of siege meant that “at any hour of the night there would be a knock on the door of a house.” He added that “anybody who disturbs the calm sleep of a home is unquestionably a group of Guards asking for the head of the family, checking all corners of the house and detaining the head of the family for any amount of time, be it a month, six or even a year. Long-suffering Nicaragua resembles those times of Hitler’s Germany.”
(to be continued…)
José Luis Rocha is an associate researcher at the Institute for Research and Social Projection on Global and Territorial Dynamics of both the Rafael Landívar University of Guatemala and the José Simeón Cañas Central American University of El Salvador.