The MacNeil/Lehrer Report; Interview with Anastasia Somoza
ROBERT MacNEIL: Tonight, direct by satellite from his presidential office in Managua, a conversation with General Anastasio Somoza, the embattled President of Nicaragua, a country torn by a bloody insurrection against his regime.
Good evening. Nicaraguan National Guardsmen appeared today to be preparing a final assault to wipe out the guerrilla forces attempting to overthrow the Somoza regime. One by one, cities occupied earlier this month by opposition forces have fallen in the past week to the 7,500man force controlled by the fifty-two-year-old general and president. The cities of Masaya, Leon and Chinandega fell in heavy fighting, in which the Somoza forces attacked with artillery and aircraft. Today, according to the Associated Press, the town of Esteli remains the last rebel stronghold, and Somoza troops have flown north of the city to the town of Somoto in a flanking movement for an attack. But even if he defeats this latest uprising, can General Somoza survive the growing opposition from inside and outside Nicaragua? In a few moments we`ll hear his views. Jim?
JIM LEHRER: Robin, the roots of the unrest in Nicaragua are deep and go back many stormy months and years, but the current fighting began just ten days ago. It followed the successful takeover of the National Palace on August 22nd by leftist Sandinista guerrillas. The guerrillas held 1,500 people hostage, releasing them only after getting the release of fifty-nine political prisoners, $500,000 in cash, and safe passage out of the country to Panama. Apparently heartened by the guerrillas` success, other opponents of the Somoza government called a general strike. Then came September 9th and the guerrillas` armed attacks on National Guard posts in most major cities. Assisted by sympathizers, the rebels gained control of several cities and towns, most of which, as Robin said, have now been won back by the National Guard. The Red Cross estimates that at least 500 people have died in the fighting, another 3,000 or more wounded. Those are only rough estimates and do not include any casualties suffered by the National Guard. The guerrillas and their sympathizers, which now include some moderate and conservative businessmen and some members of the Catholic clergy, say their goal is to force President Somoza from office. President Somoza has steadfastly refused to step down; he has also thus far rejected suggestions from the United States and others that the conflict be submitted to mediation. Robin?
MacNEIL: President Anastasio Somoza, a West Point graduate, is the third member of a family dynasty that has personally ruled Nicaragua since the early `30s. Succeeding his father and elder brother, General Anastasio was elected president in 1967 and reelected in 1974, on a constitution of his devising. Like his predecessors, the general-president draws his power from the National Guard, or army. For years he also enjoyed warm relations and aid from Washington, but on human rights grounds the State Department has cooled its enthusiasm for his anti-Communism, and military aid has been cut off.
General Somoza, and Mr. President, thank you for joining us this evening. I`ve just been quoting American wire service reports; can you tell us from your point of view, how much of the country do your forces now control?
ANASTASIO SOMOZA: Yes. First let me say this: we have been, for quite some time, harassed by guerrillas outside in the bush. These guerrillas have been backed by Cuba, and therefore we`ve had to fight them to the point that last year we practically neutralized them and we have no more guerrilla in the bush. They have moved into the city. As of today, Nicaragua is at peace with the exception of a very small pocket in the city of Esteli. This is the situation in the country.
MacNEIL: Are you in fact, as reported, preparing an attack to remove the guerrillas from that city?
SOMOZA: We are not preparing an attack, we are engaged in a cleaning up operation in the city of Esteli, and I think this afternoon we should finish the last pocket of people who are resisting it.
MacNEIL: The fighting was quite heavy as we understood it in some of the other cities, like Leon, involving artillery and aircraft. Is the fighting as heavy in Esteli?
SOMOZA: Yes, because the insurgents made up barricades which obstructed the foot soldier from going into his areas; therefore, we`ve had to blast the barricades out of the way of the streets in order for our vehicles and people to penetrate the areas that they control.
MacNEIL: I see. Do you expect the loss of life there to be similar to that reported from the other cities?
SOMOZA: I don`t think it`s going to be as light, because those people had many days for the civilian population to move out of the way, unless the guerrillas have held the civilian population as hostages.
MacNEIL: I see. Can you tell us -- we`ve had no estimate of what losses your forces have suffered; what have they been?
SOMOZA: Up to date we have had forty dead, between officers and enlisted men, and about 140 wounded.
MacNEIL: There are reports, Mr. President, that hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Nicaraguans opposed to you are joining the Sandinista guerrillas. Is that true?
SOMOZA: If that were true we would have a very large corps of people out in the forest constituted as a force. There is no such thing. These people who were in the city have evacuated and have moved over the frontier to get safe haven, either in Honduras or in Costa Rica.
MacNEIL: Are you still determined, in view of all the bitterness and the bloodshed of the past two weeks, to remain in power through your full term, which ends in 1981?
SOMOZA: It is not a thing of personal choice, it`s a thing of constitutional abidement. Our constitution, which I heard you say that I made -- I`d like to take an exception to that. The constitution of Nicara gua was rewritten in 1973 with the help of the Conservative Party of Nicaragua. Between the Liberal Nationalist Party and the Conservative Party we make about ninety-five percent of the Nicaraguan opinion, so the constitution is not of my making, it`s a making of both the largest parties there are in Nicaragua. So what I`m doing, I`m telling the Nicaraguans, is that I would serve out my term, because the country needs some time to organize itself to go to the election; it needs also to debate the electoral law, and it needs many things that have to be put in objective for the next election for me to hand the presidency to an organized group of people who might win the election.
MacNEIL: Does it occur to you that if you remain to fill out your term that in view of all the fighting you may have to hold power simply by force for the remainder of that term?
SOMOZA: Well, this is a good question, but I don`t think so. The Nicaraguan people are peaceful people, and this incident has shown it, that the great majority has not wanted to take part in this insurrection, and especially all the people who live out in the farmland. All the farming people are at peace; there has been no sign whatsoever of rebellion. It`s been exclusively cities, that they have been worked out by the opposition and the guerrillas with a very limited number of people who have the guns in their hands.
MacNEIL: Thank you. Jim?
LEHRER: Mr. President, the Organization of American States, the OAS, has called a foreign ministers` meeting for Thursday, as I`m sure you know, to discuss a proposal for mediating the dispute in your country. Would you agree to OAS mediation?
SOMOZA: Nicaragua is a member of the organization of American States. Therefore we are bound to take the decisions of such a supranational body in the way that it can be helpful to Nicaragua. I don`t think mediation is contemplated within the Organization of American States.
LEHRER: What is contemplated, do you know, Mr. President?
SOMOZA: The OAS has contemplated to settle disputes between states. It has not contemplated to settle disputes within a state, because then we would have the suprastate interfering into the internal affairs of any one whenever there was any kind of strife. Say, like in the 1960s you had strife in the cities of the United States. The OAS could have gotten together to intervene into your internal affairs. So it`s a very touchy and delicate situation.
LEHRER: I take it then by your answer, Mr. President, that what you are saying is that you would not agree to an OAS proposal for mediation, is that correct?
SOMOZA: I would not be the first Latin President to accept intervention from a supranational organization; I would not be the first one to agree to that, because it`s a terrible precedent in the face of a history of interventions in the Americas.
LEHRER: What about the mediation of an individual country, say Mexico, which has been suggested by some? Would you agree to that, sir?
SOMOZA: One has to accept mediation when you are dealing with equals. Here, the state is dealing with his opposition. This is not a court of law; this is a constitutional erected government that has to deal with subversive people. Therefore we`re not dealing with another state.
LEHRER: So in other words, you would not agree to mediation by any third party, is that correct? Is the way I read you, sir, correct?
SOMOZA: In the past, when we`ve had differences in Nicaragua, we have had people be the intermediary and more or less the mediator between factions, but they are Nicaraguans, they were not foreigners. In the history of Nicaragua, I have the reputation of dealing and talking with the opposition and then arriving at a solution that has made life bearable for them and life bearable for the people that I represent. So we are not against any kind of a bridge or any kind of a good, shall we say, fellow who can put us together; we`re not against that. We are against a mediator, because the mediator pretends the power to put any of the parts in its place by force. So we`re not allowing any force to come into Nicaragua. We do things here on the good will that we all have to keep the peace and the welfare of the Nicaraguans.
LEHRER: Are attempts being made now, Mr. President, to form that bridge between you and those opposed to you, within the country?
SOMOZA: I think so, and since the day of the rebellion in the past I`ve talked, my face really to tell the opposition that we should discuss this. But apparently they had this rebellion in hand, they were deadly sure that they would defeat me, so they never wanted to talk with me.
LEHRER: The reports we get here in the United States, Mr. President, from the opposition say that they do not want to talk as long as you`re the President. Is that what you`ve been told as well?
SOMOZA: That is correct. They are afraid to talk with me, probably because I have been an able negotiator in the past.
LEHRER: The United States has officially urged you to agree to mediation, is that correct?
SOMOZA: They have told me that it would be a good idea to have a cease-fire in order to let the people leave the communities. I have heard them, and we`ve been contemplating that; it takes a little time for us to make up our mind.
LEHRER: Let me make sure I understand: the United States has asked for a cease-fire, is that right, and then mediation, and you are contemplating the cease-fire aspect, is that correct?
SOMOZA: Yes. I have not been told in writing anything of what you said. It`s been verbally suggested that there be a cease-fire to give the people a chance to get out of the afflicted areas. And I have said I`ve listened to them and I`m going to answer them.
LEHRER: All right. And this information was transmitted to you verbally by an official of the United States government?
SOMOZA: Yes, by the ambassador.
LEHRER: I see. Robin?
MacNEIL: Mr. President, does the fact that you are, as you put it, doing a mopping up operation in Esteli mean that you`ve decided to complete removing the guerrillas, or the rebels, from the cities before you contemplate a cease-fire?
SOMOZA: No, it was a situation that we were already in the stage of removing them when we were asked to contemplate a cease-fire, which would put my people at a disadvantage.
MacNEIL: I see. So in other words, you will complete the removing of the rebels before you contemplate a cease-fire, is that it?
SOMOZA: There wouldn`t be any cease-fire necessary.
MacNEIL: There would be a de facto cease-fire.
SOMOZA: That`s right.
MacNEIL: Do you feel abandoned by the United States now, Mr. President?
SOMOZA: No; no, I don`t. On the contrary, the United States has always been a country that has looked for the good auspices of Nicaraguans, whether there is some assistance or not. However, the administration has taken different attitudes which people take as being adverse to my government. It might be. But I also have a lot of friends in the United States within and outside of the administration.
MacNEIL: You were quoted in an American newspaper interview recently as saying that recent U.S. policy had triggered the current wave of violence. How dial you mean that?
SOMOZA: I have stated time and time ago that the human rights policy of this administration has given the opposition in many countries the idea that they can overthrow their governments by force. And the Nicara guans, very sorry for me to say, were elated by this policy and they took on to make public demonstrations in the streets, provoked the authority, and finally delivered an armed attack against my government--things that have been very difficult for me because we`ve been at this for months, with a great deal of temperance and a great deal of patience.
MacNEIL: Does that mean you hold President Carter responsible for your present troubles?
SOMOZA: Not entirely, and I wouldn`t even hold him responsible. We are all responsible people in this. We have opposition; we recognize that. But since the Nicaraguans have been so close to the United States, it means a great deal of the attitudes of the administration, let`s not get away from that. All of the Nicaraguans, in their great majority, are friends of the United States.
MacNEIL: I see. Where are you getting arms and military assistance from, now, Mr. President, that American military aid has been cut off?
SOMOZA: The United States supplying of arms was not really supplying any arms for us, there were credits given for us to buy armaments in the United States. So since President Carter took office, the export of arms was cut off to Nicaragua. So since then we have been purchasing our arms in a worldwide market.
MacNEIL: Who are your principal suppliers?
SOMOZA: I`d rather not say.
MacNEIL: I see. There are also reports that some American citizens have been recruited to support your National Guard effort. Is that correct?
SOMOZA: Partially; we have three people who are teaching karate to our recruits, and that`s all we have as recruited people. We have not recruited any other people.
MacNEIL: I see. Thank you. Jim?
LEHRER: Mr. President, news reports say that the fighting has slowly but surely destroyed many of the towns, villages and cities of your country. How extensive is the damage?
SOMOZA: Let me explain. In the cities of Masaya, Leon, Chinandega and Esteli the insurgents closed into the police precincts, took some of them over and finally came to the headquarters of the police. Then they held these headquarters at bay for one, two, three, four, five days, and up to now. During that time, the insurgents decided to burn the establishment of the poor people in the market; and after that they called the people to loot it. So in the process of burning the markets and those places and looting the merchants` place, they have caused a tremendous amount of destruction, a destruction that I think you are aware of if you take as an example the Stuyvesant area of New York and the Bronx after the blackout. You didn`t fire one shell, and the destruction was there. I remember seeing the photographs. Something similar like that. In order for us to establish order into the city we`ve had to fire into the barricades to open up the barricades and also to neutralize individual snipers. We have not caused the destruction that you would see in a World War II bombing, because we don`t have that many bombs and the towns have not been subject to perhaps fifty or sixty shots from small, 37-mm cannons. But the destruction was done by the fact that these people burned the marketplace and then looted and burned the small merchants` places around the marketplace.
LEHRER: One of the American news magazines came out today and suggested that in the process of controlling the insurgency that the country was on the verge of being destroyed and that when it`s all over you may have very little to govern. Is there any possibility of that? Is the damage that extensive?
SOMOZA: Absolutely not. The damage is only limited to the places where the small merchants sell their fruit and the small merchants sell wares. The rest of the infrastructure of the country is in complete sustainment.
LEHRER: There have also been reports, Mr. President, including some eyewitness accounts by U.S. reporters, of government troops killing innocent civilians; the Catholic Church issued a statement saying that there had been indiscriminate machine-gunning of civilians; there also have been charges of the National Guard rounding up teenagers by indiscriminate means. Are these charges true, are you investigating them, or what is your feeling about them?
SOMOZA: In any civil strife in any country, when the lines are not drawn and you have to go after insurgents, some people get hurt without cause. As far as recruiting, we don`t recruit anybody in Nicaragua because there`s no draft here. The National Guard is composed of voluntary service. So that is a lie.
LEHRER: I spoke incorrectly. I didn`t mean to imply that; that they were rounding up teenagers thinking they might be insurgents, not that they were rounding them up to put them in the National Guard. I`m sorry, I didn`t mean that.
SOMOZA: No, we haven`t done that. We don`t have a massive arrest policy.
LEHRER: Are you satisfied that your troops are conducting themselves properly under the circumstances?
LEHRER: All right. Robin?
MacNEIL: Mr. President, you`ve repeatedly accused your opposition of being Marxist-or Communist-inspired. I wonder how you maintain that, when so many leaders of the Roman Catholic Church and business leaders in Nicaragua and wealthy Nicaraguan families now demand your resignation and have joined forces with the opposition, at least in spirit.
SOMOZA: I would qualify them as democratic opposition.
MacNEIL: And to what extent do you still maintain that the people fighting you are Communist-inspired?
SOMOZA: To the extent of the organization that they have. You see, the Right and the Left have made an alliance here, and the Left is the one that has the organization and the guts to fight.
MacNEIL: Does that not send you a message, that the Right and Left have combined against you?
SOMOZA: Surely. So we do have a Liberal Party who has a right and a left, too.
MacNEIL: I saw the Secretary of the National Institute of Development in Nicaragua, Mr. Valle, quoted as saying that you, President Somoza, yourself foment Communism by merely remaining in power. What is your comment on that?
SOMOZA:I think that`s a pretty good clich‚ for a young man like him to say that. If he knew how much I and my administration have done to upraise the standard of living of the poor Nicaraguans, he certainly would retract.
MacNEIL: Other people have wondered whether the longer you remain in power in the face of this seeming increasing opposition the more likely any successor to you would be to be very radical. In other words, the longer you stay, the more radical the successor. What is your comment on that? Along the Cuban model, in other words.
SOMOZA: Well, there are two possibilities in Nicaragua. One is that I hand over the government to a duly elected man, whether he be pro-Somoza or against Somoza, on the basis of my democratic ideals. And the other one would be if I chickened out and ran out and left a power vacuum in the face of an opposition that has no leadership, it has no organization, and certainly has no control over its forces. For if I were the leader of this coup and I had control over the forces, I would certainly have told my people to stop fighting because this is a lost cause. On the contrary, they have let these people fight without any instructions or without any guidance from the leadership of the opposition. Now, can you imagine a country left without any leadership, in the hands of an army without a leader? It would be chaos. I have a moral responsibility to all the people who follow me, and even the people who adverse me. That is why I`m sticking around here until we can devise an election and hand over the power to the man who wins.
MacNEIL: If that could be devised before 1981, would you agree to it?
SOMOZA: If you can find a way to reform the constitution without violating it, I would.
MacNEIL: All right. Thank you, sir. Jim?
LEHRER: How are you holding up personally through all of this, Mr. President?
SOMOZA:I would say that I`ve been very preoccupied, I`ve had a lot of worries and sleepless nights; but thank goodness to the program that I have had after my heart attack, I feel very well.
LEHRER:I understand that you spend most of your time in a well-guarded headquarters building within the National Guard compound. Is that correct?
SOMOZA: If you want to call the presidential office the well-guarded headquarters, yes.
LEHRER:I see. Do you feel free to move around within the country now, or have you just got a lot to do right there in your office?
SOMOZA: As a matter of fact, two days ago I went out to the airport to take a look at all of Nicaragua by air; I made an air inspection of Leon, Chinandega and Estelf. I came back, I`ve gone around the city. I have no inhibitions to go outside of my office.
LEHRER: Looking back to eleven years ago when you became President, General Somoza, what were your hopes and goals then for your country? What did you want to accomplish, and where do you feel you are now, eleven years later?
SOMOZA: What I wanted to accomplish was to raise the standard of living of the small people in Nicaragua. I have done partly that, and I have left the institutional organizations in Nicaragua for these people to obtain the better standard of living. I have made political progress by making laws which give the opposition parties the right to political defension, because we had a very powerful Liberal Party that was like a steamroller, and Nicaragua needs political defension against this powerful party because we need the opposition to be defended. I am now running this country because of the earthquake; I had no idea to run in 1974, but there was no one capable or no one out in the forefront with enough popular backing to run in 1974, so I ran again.
LEHRER: All right. We have to leave it there. Thank you, Mr. President. Robin?
MacNEIL: Yes; thank you very much, Mr. President; and good night, Jim.
LEHRER: Good night, Robin.
MacNEIL: That`s all for tonight. We`ll be back tomorrow night. I`m Robert MacNEIL. Good night.
- The MacNeil/Lehrer Report
- Interview with Anastasia Somoza
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- This episode features a interview with Anastasia Somoza. The guests are Anastasia Somoza. Byline: Robert MacNeil, Jim Lehrer
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- Chicago: “The MacNeil/Lehrer Report; Interview with Anastasia Somoza,” 1978-09-19, National Records and Archives Administration, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed February 24, 2024, http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-507-ks6j09ww8s.
- MLA: “The MacNeil/Lehrer Report; Interview with Anastasia Somoza.” 1978-09-19. National Records and Archives Administration, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. February 24, 2024. <http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-507-ks6j09ww8s>.
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