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date: 15 January 2021

Augusto C. Sandino and the Mexican Revolutionfree

  • Alejandro BendañaAlejandro BendañaIndependent Scholar

Summary

Augusto C. Sandino (1895–1934) led a peasant rebellion against the armed forces of the United States which occupied Nicaragua between 1926 and 1932. While much has been written about Sandino’s military prowess in this 20th-century guerrilla warfare, less is known about the development of his political thought and intellectual formation. That issue necessarily takes historians to the Mexican Revolution, and specifically to the period between 1923 and 1926 when Sandino was an immigrant worker in the oil fields of the larger Tampico area. Radical labor unionism and anarcho-syndicalism were the principal currents that Sandino encountered, and that helped shape his outlook and subsequent political manifestos. Because Sandino did not directly refer in any detail to this period of his life in subsequent interviews and statements, an examination is made of the cultural and social roots of working-class formations in which he immersed himself. Fortunately, historians have explored the social aspect, labor union activity, economics, and politics of the oil fields in depth (Adleson, Alafita-Mendez, Alcayaga Sasso); Dospital and Hodges were among the first to point to Sandino’s early experience in Mexico including his encounters with the metaphysical schools and mentors who shaped the idealism underpinning his anti-imperialism economic, political, military, and cultural thinking. During a military campaign and at the peak of his fame, Sandino returned to Mexico (1929–1930) expecting that the “revolutionary” government, on the one side, and the Communist Party of Mexico, on the other side, as representative of the international communist movement (Comintern) would lend political, financial, and military support for the war in Nicaragua. Cerdas Cruz told that story well, although without the benefit of primary sources. But Sandino was mistaken and eventually felt betrayed by both sides that laid claim to the revolution. He returned to Nicaragua where he fought successfully until the US Marines’ withdrawal at the end of 1932. Months after signing a peace treaty, Sandino was assassinated (February 1934) in Managua by the leaders of the proxy military constabulary or Guardia Nacional left behind by the United States in Nicaragua. At that time, he was establishing communes in northern Nicaragua according to the teachings of his first intellectual and spiritual mentors.

Early Years

Born in a mud house on May 18, 1895, in the rural town of Niquinohomo, Augusto Sandino’s mother was a humble working woman and his father was the son of a wealthy landlord who abused her. He suffered a miserable childhood in a culture where “illegitimate” or so-called “natural” offspring were cast off, left unrecognized by the father. Sandino’s father abandoned him and remarried, but he finally took Sandino into the family household, when Sandino was an adolescent, albeit more as a servant than a full equal with his “legitimate” brother and sisters.

The young Sandino appeared to be prospering in the grain business and planning to marry his sweetheart. Fate intervened, changing Sandino’s life and with it the future of Nicaragua. He was twenty-five when he shot and wounded a young politically well-connected competitor over a minor commercial dispute. He fled the county and was considered an “outlaw,” an epithet that he never quite succeeded in shaking off, which bothered him immensely.1

Like his fellow Nicaraguan, poet Ruben Dario (1867–1916), leaving a parochial culturally Conservative homeland may have represented the best of all possible worlds because it meant they would come into contact with a formative foreign milieu allowing Darío to revolutionize the Spanish language and Sandino to become the precursor of anti-imperialist national liberation struggles in Latin America. Darío “fled” intellectually to Chile, Argentina, and Spain in search of literary recognition of his poetic prowess and daringness. Sandino fled north, making his way up the Central American Caribbean coast and to Mexico, to learn a trade as a mechanic and a revolutionary.

Sandino never finished secondary school, but once in exile and often depressed, he developed a strong multifaceted appetite for reading, and he picked up freely available literature often directed to literate workers. His modest correspondence from this period was characterized not only by atrocious spelling but by concerns about his own personal misfortune, “injustice” he called it, which led him also to question the discrimination and racism he encountered: a steady progression from “why me?” to “why us?” to “why them?” “Them” referred to what would now be called the “extractivists” (the US-owned banana-centered conglomerates operating on the Caribbean coast and the booming oil industry workers along the Mexican Gulf Coast), and the steady presence of US naval warships that seemed to accompany them all.2

The Mexican School (1923–1926)

Like many migrant workers, Sandino heard of the fabulous salaries being paid in the oil industry in Tampico and slowly made his way there. After two years of working in Honduras and Guatemala, he arrived in Mexico in early 1923, he was twenty-eight years old and still dreaming of going back to Nicaragua, clearing his name, and using his savings to reopen his grain business, marry, and settle down. He was also cognizant of and embarrassed by his limited education and the relative absence of intellectual or political inspiration, other than what he drew from magazines and pamphlets, from Jehova’s Witnesses literature to nationalist newspapers sharply critical of US expansionism. He was outraged by the overbearing and arrogant presence of US companies on the Mexican Gulf Coast, whose practices and privileges he had witnessed while working for US-owned companies in Honduras and Guatemala. These were years that Sandino and many of those who came to know him believed were crucial in his development. It was in Mexico where he first came into contact with anarcho-syndicalism, radical trade unionism, and anti-imperialist sentiment laden with socialist analysis and full of praise for the Mexican and Bolshevik revolutions.3 Also in vogue in Tampico were the freemasonry, theosophical, and anticlerical ideas Sandino was to incorporate into his belief system, as well as the popular ethnic identity politics exalting Latin America’s mestizo prophetic roots. This view was upheld by José Vasconcelos, the Mexican Secretary of Education between 1920 and 1924, who flooded the country with books and popular libraries.4 Sandino summed it up in the motto “Patria y Libertad,” which he employed in all Sandinista correspondence: those two words, he said, “embody my libertarian principle, spiritualized in the great love of our homeland and crystalized in the redemption of Nicaraguan artisans and workers the Sandinista official motto ‘Patria y Libertad’ (mismo idealismo que encarna mi principio libertario, espiritualizado en la grande amor a la nuestra patria y cristalizado en la redención de los obreros y artesanos nicaragüenses),” affirming also in this letter that he considered himself a member of a workers international.5

Sandino himself tells us precious little of his stay in Mexico, of his learning, and of how he arrived at his beliefs. He often stated that his life began in 1927 at the age of thirty-two, when he took up arms against the United States. But that was no spur-of-the-moment decision—it was more likely the product of reflection and experience framed in the spirit of the Mexican Revolution and its multiple strands of resistance to US expansion.6 It was putting his ideas into action but carefully contextualized to the still conservative Nicaraguan setting fearful of Mexican “radicalism.” He would later say privately that his Nicaraguan Revolution was the daughter of the Mexican Revolution. In the absence of direct testimony, historians can only surmise how Sandino was influenced and reconstruct what was available for him or for any curious worker of the period to read. But we do know, from newfound accounts of those who knew him, that Sandino was constantly searching for ideas and experiences he could develop for Nicaragua’s advancement. “As he told me, he did not have many years of school; his formation came from life, and his stay in Mexico helped him greatly,” recalled Alfonso Alexander, a Colombian member of Sandino’s army.7

Sandino’s teachers included the many revolutionaries and radical labor organizers who descended upon Tampico with its high concentration of rebellious industrial, transport, and dockworkers in the country. Individual “artisans” like Sandino became part of unions where they developed new levels of collective class consciousness and worker-directed education centering on their rights and, more often than not, supported by the law and government authorities in contesting the old practices of the foreign-owned oil and utility companies.8 Unions organized virtual universities for workers led by professional agitators, including Spanish exiles expelled from their countries, with long experience in struggle, training, conspiracy, gun-running, publishing, clandestine organizations, and general strikes. This was knowledge that Sandino put to good use upon returning to Nicaragua, albeit while in Mexico he kept a low profile given his migrant status.

He described his acquired outlook as “socialist libertarian,” roughly anarcho-syndicalist, shying away from pure anarchism or aversion to the state, political parties, and government, let alone the patriotism that was enshrined in Sandino’s thoughts and actions. Yet with it came not a hollow nationalism but a steady emphasis on the acquisition of freedom through collective organizing, education, and liberation from religious doctrines.9 This dovetailed with Sandino’s interest in metaphysics, which drove him to explore the working-class–oriented masonic schools, theosophy, and esoteric spiritualist currents (mostly derived from the French scholar Allan Kardec, who also influenced Francisco Madero, the first leader and Mexico’s president during the revolutionary period). Contrary to the argument by most scholars, Sandino’s spiritism was neither millenarian nor magical but rather an integral part of a belief system founded on the veneration of freedom—a philosophy more than an ideology founded on a shared critique of materialistic capitalism, the theory of class struggle catalogued derisively as “utopian socialism” by the realist or “scientific socialist” school expounded by Marxist Leninism.10

There was no shortage of debates and organized struggle to learn from. From mid-1923 to May 1926, Sandino moved between Ciudad Madero in Tampico and the connecting oil fields of Tuxpan, Alamo, and Cerro Azul, in the state of Veracruz, on the other side of the Panuco river, all burdened by agitation and recurring strikes or lock-outs. Union printing presses turned out newspapers, pamphlets, and booklets reproducing and interpreting the writings of major European and North American anarchists. Kropotkin was a favorite of the time, and phrases from Proudhon, Malatesta, and Bakunin were featured in banners. Workers’ barracks in oil camps were flooded with subversive literature, and in Ciudad Madero union halls sponsored lectures and rented out theaters for socialist dramas aimed at workers and their families; there were popular fairs on Sundays and activities meant to lure workers away from the cantinas, gambling houses, and churches, also inviting women to hear anarchist perspectives on free love and women’s rights. The government’s education ministry under the leadership of Vasconcelos opened popular libraries and published inexpensive editions of classical texts as part of the political commitment to uplift the nation, particularly peasants and workers, and take pride in the indigenous past and historical resistance to the United States. Masonic temples multiplied in those years and hosted reading rooms offering texts and talks on moral education, hygiene, and the historical search for truth and wisdom. Theosophists introduced anyone who would listen—no longer in tea rooms but in discussion halls—to the works of Annie Bessant and her introduction to Asian schools from Zoroaster to Buddha.

No one can prove that Sandino read any particular text, but many of his written references left no doubt that he dipped into the esoteric world. His reading is eclectic and wide-ranging, but Sandino tells us at one point that he frequented the masonic lodge in Alamo, state of Veracruz, where he took part in discussion groups. He claimed that his masonic instructor, Justin Barbieux, was a foremost specialist in cosmology, albeit he does not register as such in the literature.11

In his autobiographical narration, Sandino states that he was a labor union member, but he does not say which one. Philosophically we know he was closer to the anarcho-syndicalist outlook of the Confederación General de Trabajadores (CGT) and its Casa del Obrero Mundial (COM), although sentimentally he shared the nationalist outlook of the National Mexican Labor Confederation (CROM), less interested in social revolution than in bread-and-butter issues. Sandino was particularly impressed with Article 23 of the 1917 Constitution giving workers the right to strike, to receive a weekly rest day, to work an eight-hour day, and, for women, to receive equal pay for equal work. Years later he patiently explained to the miners and followers who formed his first military contingent about the importance of dignity, ethnic pride, autonomy, and defense of the community—values that resonated deeply with the peasantry of the Nueva Segovia in Nicaragua.

During the war against the Sandinistas, the US Marine command investigated Sandino’s record in Mexico in search of evidence of “bandit” training under the command of Pancho Villa or his radical bolshevism.12 Expecting to confirm this theory, US officials contacted Sandino’s former US employers in the Huasteca Oil Company. The company manager replied that Augusto C. Sandino was “industrious, sober, apparently of good character, and in every sense a most satisfactory employee.” Sandino would claim he carried similar reference letters from his other employers.13

Bolshevismo, Zapatismo, and Magonismo

Moscow-oriented Communist Party agitation was in its infancy in the Gulf region during the years of Sandino’s residence. What Sandino presumably read and heard about the Bolshevik Revolution from his anarchist friends was not flattering as Russia was now persecuting anarchists. And Pancho Villa (1878–1923) was murdered in the town of Parral, state of Chihuahua, some 1,000 miles away, about four months after Sandino’s arrival in Tampico, Tamaulipas.

US officials simply could not explain how Sandino had acquired his adroitness in leading military operations. Some claimed that he followed the tactics of Emiliano Zapata (1879–1919), the celebrated Mexican peasant commander. But the terrain and the nature of the war in Morelos was quite different.

Sandino, like most Mexican workers, was familiar with the Zapatista struggle in the state of Morelos. When one interviewer made the comparison, Sandino explained that the Nicaraguan rebellion was not as land centered as the Zapatista struggle. While both were also social in nature, Sandino explained his movement was not agrarista or agrarian, as land was not a great issue in the sparsely populated part of northern Nicaragua where he operated. Sandino, however, did believe strongly in Article 27 of the Mexican Constitution, largely generated by Zapata’s struggle, stipulating that the ultimate possession of lands, waters, subsoils, and minerals were vested originally in the nation, and in Article 27 allowing the government to seize property in the public interest.

There is one largely unexplored link between the Zapatistas and the Sandinistas. Sandino’s banner, “Patria y Libertad,” brought to mind the “Tierra y Libertad” slogan of the Zapatistas. Zapata we know—and Sandino we suspect—drew on the original Tierra y Libertad of the anarchists from Andalucía and Barcelona as well as Russia.

Ricardo Flores Magón and his followers greatly influenced both Zapata and Sandino. Magón died in Leavenworth federal prison in Kansas in November 1922. Buried as a hero in Mexico, he is considered one of the main intellectual and social leaders of the Mexican Revolution. Sandino took up the anarchist red and black flag and made it the official emblem of his army.14

One of Magon’s cellmates, Librado Rivera, joined with the Hermanos Rojos (red brothers) in Ciudad Madero to found the anarchist bimonthly periodical Sagitario, which also became the organ of the affiliated Huasteca oil workers union.15 The Hermanos Rojos were a unit of the Casa del Obrero Mundial in Tampico—an affiliate of the national Confederacion General del Trabajo—in charge of agitation and propaganda among the workers. The Hermanos Rojos became well-known because they organized plays throughout the oil region. An avid reader like Sandino could not have missed Sagitario, or the social dramas staged in Ciudad Madero by the Hermanos Rojos, usually featuring Magón’s agitational plays explicitly intended to increase class consciousness and cultural levels of industrialized workers.16 We know that tickets for the plays were sold in the oil camps to raise money for striking workers. Union members were urged to attend and support. We also know that Sandino often traveled from the camps to tumultuous Ciudad Madero for the company-owned gasoline distributing plant, or gas station, one of the first of its kind, which Sandino helped administer in Cerro Azul, state of Veracruz. The station has been preserved as a museum relic; it is presently located near the “Avenida Cesar Augusto Sandino,” (as his name is known in Mexico), which still crosses that part of town.

One need only review the cadence and phrasing of many of Sandino’s expressions and manifestos to detect the political libertarian and literary influence of the anarchists, particularly Magón. His integration is not dogmatic, however, because Magón, as a pure anarchist, rejected the figure of the state and of patriotism, which features strongly in Sandino’s thinking. But they shared a common distaste for priests, capitalists, and private property, believing in the historical mission of an internationalist-minded working class.17 Sandino was fond of quoting Proudhon’s precept “property is theft”; he swore he would never own property and he stuck to that promise, claiming also that he stood with oppressed peoples everywhere. He dreamed of cooperatives and communes that would gradually replace private estates, foreign-owned mines, and exploitative social relations that would genuinely free Nicaragua from the “yanqui” troops he regarded as Wall Street representatives. He privileged the countryside and said that cities were “octopuses,” an expression coined from the French anarchist polemicist and geographer Eliseé Reclus, whose writings appeared in Sagitario. As early as 1922, the same periodical featured articles critical of the Bolshevik Revolution, accusing it of becoming authoritarian and betraying true communist libertarian principles and attacking fellow anarchists.18 Years later, the journalist Ramón de Belausteguigoitia, who interviewed Sandino, observed, “Sandino has his social ideas defined, but he does not believe in any sort of reform on basis of the oppression of freedom.”19

As a former union man in Mexico, Sandino expressed sympathy with contemporary labor demands and unionism in general. He believed that cooperatives based on mutual aid should replace big private property, that secular schools should replace religious ones. He shared the anarchist’s belief in a strong, almost moralistic ethical code, denouncing liquor and gambling. He spoke of an international working class bonded by racial and cultural bonds in Latin America, an identity built around the fusion of indigenous and Hispanic peoples and the need to bend all moral and political corruption and unjust realities—personal, social, national, and international—to higher principles. In regard to religion, there is little doubt that Sandino sided with the Mexican government’s “state atheism” in contraposition to the Catholic Church.20 But there he also echoes the masonic insistence on the importance of free secular thinking and the stipulations of Article 3 of the Mexican Constitution stating that education should be free from religious dogma. “Religions are things of the past, we are guided by reason,” he once said. He was reluctant, however, to speak about his inclination toward spiritism and his eschatological beliefs because “I would be seen as crazy or a drunk,” which would probably have then been true in Nicaragua.21

What is clear is that many of his beliefs, not all consistent with each other or constituting an ideological whole, would appear repeatedly in his correspondence and statements. It is difficult, therefore, to speak of “Sandinismo” as a coherent whole clear to anyone other than Sandino himself. He skillfully enveloped his opinion in a language of values, idealism, and a sense of mission that not only the peasantry could understand and incorporate but also those abroad, allowing him to occupy a revered place in the history of Nicaragua and Latin America.

It would be misleading to continue to regard Sandino as more a fighter than a thinker, the way he is usually venerated in Latin America. Although no classical intellectual—or perhaps a genuinely “organic” popularly rooted intellectual—he insisted on the force of ideas in history, without necessarily indicating where and when they originated in his mind. But in a letter written on June 17, 1927, to a liberal politician Arnaldo Ramírez, Sandino indirectly acknowledges México: “I bless the hour that I emigrated to a country where I quenched my thirst for learning, drinking in new ideas, forged my spirit perfecting in a sentiment of love for the homeland. I won’t to say I went to Europe in search of a school for heroes to then learn how they [heroes] are formed . . . heroes are improvised by the circumstances of the moment,” he added in a tone of modesty.22

Yet Sandino acquired a mythological international standing in his own lifetime, stemming from his determination to lead a dogged and uneven resistance to the mighty US war machine. This could not have been the product of improvisation. He brilliantly devised military tactics without the benefit of formal military training. Historians are still seeking an explanation for such prowess matched only by the equal capacity to translate his beliefs and charisma into language and leadership skills that allowed him to gain the extraordinary loyalty of hundreds of a largely illiterate peasant Segovian population. Gramsci would have called Sandino an “organic intellectual” given his class background and trade school background.

The Military Uprising (1926–1929)

Figure 1. Nueva Segovia and Sandino’s principal zone of operations.

Upon his return to Nicaragua in May 1926, Sandino found employment in a US-owned gold mine enterprise, San Albino (see Figure 1), and began to plot how to incite the workers to join the liberal “constitutionalist” uprising against the Conservative regime. US forces had returned to the country determined to block the Mexican-backed liberal offensive led by Juan B. Sacasa and Jose M. Moncada. Miners were fed up with the abusive practices of the mine owners, and Sandino, along with his Salvadoran partner Teresa Villatoro, organized the uprising. Years later he recalled telling his workers that “he was a socialist, not a communist,” and explaining how Mexican labor codes benefited workers in ways virtually unimagined in Nicaragua, adding that the mines belonged to the nation and that the Conservative regime was mortgaging the country to the United States.23

The uprising began with the takeover of the San Albino mine on October 28, 1926. Sandino’s objective at this point was for him and his poorly armed men to be officially recognized by Sacasa and Moncada as part of the liberal army and given access to the weapons provided by the Mexican government to the rebels. He proved unsuccessful in persuading Moncada to supply his small peasant Segovian contingent which had proclaimed Sandino as their “general.” Moncada grew particularly suspicious when Sandino, in a rather naïve fashion, handed him a political and economic program for Nicaragua which concluded with the words “property is theft.” Moncada recognized the expression and in his memoirs branded Sandino a dangerous “acratic” or anarchist libertarian. He was not entirely wrong.24

Historians (and Sandino himself) distinguished between the military operations carried out by the Segovian contingent of the liberal army (July 1926–May 1927), when the fighting was directed against the Conservative forces, and the period from May 1927 to early 1933 when Sandino explicitly made the US military and the politicians his principal target. In May 1927, Henry L. Stimson, Washington’s specially appointed delegate to Nicaragua, brokered an agreement between Conservative and Liberal leadership. Sandino rejected the pact that left the Conservatives temporarily in power under the protection of US military forces and, thus, began what he termed “the anti-imperialist” phase of his war in Nicaragua. He renamed his contingent the “Army in Defense of the National Sovereignty of Nicaragua” (Ejército Defensor de la Soberanía Nacional de Nicaragua—EDSNN), reclused in the mountainous border area of Northern Nicaragua.

In sharp contrast to traditional armed groupings marauding in the region, Sandino forged a disciplined contingent, respectful of communities and peasantry, with a strong disciplinary code that punished rape, plunder, and abuse of the population. Thus, Sandino was able to build a strong social base which formed the basis of the guerrilla insurgency. It was more of an armed social movement than a formal army, where civilians played key roles and although women could not acquire an officer’s rank, many of them had authority. Sandino had been exposed to anarchist teachings on women’s oppression, and in a public proclamation, Sandino dared the regime to provide women with equal pay for equal work, as stipulated in the Mexican Constitution. Giving women the vote, however, as in Mexico itself, was decades away.

It would be difficult to speak of a “Sandinista” ideology at this point, other than Sandino’s repeated insistence on the moral character of his struggle, the importance of freedom, justice and sovereignty, and the recognition of the historical complicity of elites and capitalists with the United States. The framing and contents of his proclamation underscore his Mexican influence. For example, in his San Albino Manifesto of July 1, 1927, perhaps the most forthright summary of his political thinking, Sandino speaks of his internationalist calling, his working class, and his indigenous background, and he denounces the political, economic, and cultural role of the United States in the region and in Nicaragua. He rejects the US banker-driven expansion and the historic aspiration to build a canal across his country, of imposing loans and customs receiverships, and maintaining a humiliating military presence to enforce its interests. And, curiously, the manifesto ends with the quote often attributed to Abraham Lincoln about fooling the people all or some of the time.25

Thanks to his able Honduran propagandist, nationalist writer Froylan Turcios, Sandino’s proclamations and military engagement reports, embellished by Turcios, rapidly spread through Latin America and Europe, making use of literary and political networks.26 Over the course of 1928, Sandino was transformed into the champion of Latin American resistance, the embodiment of a long-awaited forthright resistance to an arrogant US expansionism. In the United States, left-wing organizations, including unions as well as key senators such as William Borah, blasted the Hoover administration for its policies in Nicaragua and for the steady reports of Marine casualties attempting to end “banditry” in Nicaragua. If this was a fight against banditry, said one critic, the Marines should be taking on gangsters in Chicago.

The Return to Mexico

International fame did not translate into desperately required material support. In the Segovias things were going from bad to worse, as hundreds of Marines poured in to capture Sandino and eliminate the rest of the “bandits.” They succeeded in overrunning the chief Sandinista stronghold, El Chipote, at the end of 1927. Shortages plagued the rebel army, now split up and carrying out hit-and-run attacks on Marine contingents and driven into situations of hardship and desolate locations.

Early in 1929, Sandino made the decision to travel to Mexico to obtain weapons and equipment from the Mexican government. He also hoped to use Mexico as a base to enlist the support of other governments in a continental effort to support Nicaragua, to stand against the US construction of the canal, and to take steps to materialize Latin American unity in defense of a collective sovereignty. Inspired by Simon Bolivar, to whom he was often compared, Sandino drew up a “Plan for the Realization of the Bolivar’s Supreme Dream”: a Spanish American customs union, a single currency and citizenship, a continental army, and common action to stop US encroachments upon the smaller countries of the Caribbean basin.27 Sandino’s proposed motto for a new Latin American Court of Justice was “The Spirit Will Speak for My Race,” taken directly from Vasconcelos. The invocation of “race” was criticized by most of the orthodox left as was the appeal to governments that did not have much in common with the democratic aspirations of their populations.28

Volunteers appeared in the Segovias from the rest of Central America, Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia, and Peru. Poets and publishers lavished praise. But rhetoric aside, no government was willing to openly side with Sandino against the United States, let alone the dictatorial regimes at odds with the pro-Sandino student movements, labor unions, and socialist currents. Sandino wrote to most of the presidents in Spanish America and only Pio Romero of El Salvador took the time to acknowledge the letter.

More gravely yet, Sandino also misread the changing political situation in Mexico. He probably envisioned a repeat performance of President Plutarco Elias Calles who in 1926 defied the United States by providing weapons, cash, and diplomatic recognition to the Liberal faction in Nicaragua. Although no longer president, Calles remained the power behind the throne—the period Mexicans called the Maximato—and Sandino trusted that Calles and the interim President Emilio Portes Gil would surely live up their purported revolutionary credentials. But Calles had changed, and so had the course of the power struggles in Mexico. The country was recovering from the disastrous “Cristero” rebellion between catholic and government partisans and Calles and the ruling cohorts were desperate to create and stabilize the ruling apparatus.29 This meant arriving at a détente with the United States and cracking down on left-wing radicals on the other. Sandino was high on the US agenda with Mexico and rumors persisted that Mexican support was flowing to his forces in extraofficial fashion. There was no denying that Sandino was immensely popular and venerated across all of Mexico, avenging past humiliations inflicted by the United States.

As US forces failed to contain the Nicaraguan rebellion and instead managed only to boost Sandino’s continental prestige, the US government developed another option: if Sandino could neither be captured nor killed, perhaps he could be lured to leave Nicaragua once and for all. In early 1929, intercepted rebel communications revealed that Sandino was in poor health, suffering recurrent bouts of malaria, and was avid to travel to Mexico to recover and enlist vitally needed support. Washington concluded that a one-way travel for Sandino and his key officers was not a bad idea.

Appointed in 1927, Dwight W. Morrow, was President Coolidge’s crafty and charming ambassador to Mexico. He had a different style and preferred doing business with Portes Gil and Calles by sharing occasional breakfasts instead of sending notes. Portes Gil had received an ambiguously worded letter from Sandino expressing his desire to visit. Pretending to have no first-hand knowledge of Sandino’s request, Morrow raised no objections when, in one of the “ham and eggs” breakfast sessions (as they were dubbed in the Mexican press), Portes Gil brought up the Sandino petition. Morrow signaled approval stipulating only that Sandino should stay away from Mexico City and away from adulating Mexican masses who would undoubtedly welcome him as a conqueror and embarrass the United States in the process.

With the approval of Calles, Portes Gil set the plan in motion and in early 1929 Sandino received funds and documentation.30 As the “radical” Mexican government did not enjoy positive relations with those countries, US diplomatic staff in Tegucigalpa, San Salvador, and Guatemala quietly assured the acquiescence of local governmental authorities for safe passage of Sandino and his men.31

Sandino crossed into Mexico from Guatemala on June 24, 1929. After an initial mix-up when no one met his party in the border town of Tapachula, orders came from Mexico City to receive Sandino with top military honors. He was then dispatched on a special train to Veracruz where he was given a rousing welcome by a population that still remembered the humiliating 1924 occupation of their city by US troops which the Nicaraguan rebels were considered to be avenging. Accompanying Sandino as his official secretary was his chief political aid, Salvadoran Farabundo Martí, along with officers born in Colombia, Haiti, Venezuela, Peru, and Mexico itself, chosen by Sandino to underscore the Latin American character of his rebellion.

Sandino believed that from Veracruz he would proceed to the capital to meet with the president. Much to his surprise, however, a message arrived informing him diplomatically that the visit was not opportune at that moment and asking whether Sandino and his party could proceed, as guests of the Mexican Government, to Merida in the far-off Yucatan peninsula. US agents—who followed and reported Sandino’s every move—condescendingly noted that the government could not have picked a more geographically and politically remote end of Mexico.32

A modest pension and a henequen estate were set aside for the Nicaraguans to assure them all a peaceful and productive retirement, while US Marines attempted to liquidate remaining Sandinista fighters in Nicaragua. After five months of waiting for confirmation of a presidential audience, Sandino decided to attempt a secret return to Nicaragua as he could no longer trust the Mexican authorities. Portes Gil caught wind of the plan and sent word to Sandino confirming an appointment albeit just a few days short of the presidential handover, thereby rendering the encounter politically meaningless. Once in Mexico City, another meeting with former president Calles and President Pascual Ortiz Rubio also came to nothing save for the offer of a valuable estate which Sandino turned down. He did, however, have the deed placed in the name of an aide. True to the spirit of Proudhon, he refused to join the thieving landlord class.

In the end, Sandino received nothing more than a few pistols from the authorities. However, during his brief time in the Mexican capital, he was sought out by the Mexican press, received standing ovations in bullfights and theaters, including one stage drama depicting his struggle in Nicaragua. An assassination attempt on newly elected President Ortiz Rubio clouded the atmosphere, setting off a new wave of anticommunist repression in which Sandino himself no longer felt safe. Several of his men, including Martí, were picked up in a sweep by the Mexican secret police. Sandino hurriedly returned to Merida, now virtually penniless, and prepared to exit Mexico.33 His faith in the Mexican Revolution might have ended altogether had it not been for Governor Adalberto Tejeda of Veracruz State, a major populist reformer who provided Sandino with the indispensable funds and cover to get to Nicaragua. In April 1930, Sandino left under a false name, never to return to Mexico. His agents remained in the country entrusted with secretly raising funds and shipping weapons.34

The Machete and Sycle

It may have occurred to Calles and Portes Gil that inviting Sandino to Mexico could conveniently reestablish the elite’s tarnished revolutionary credentials with the Mexican left, while serving the purposes of the United States. Similarly, the incipient international Communist movement believed it highly desirable to capitalize on Sandino’s global popularity. Claiming deeds and not words, the Partido Comunista Mexicana (PCM) and the Comintern dispatched a top young Latin American cadre to join Sandino in Nicaragua. Latin American and Caribbean exiles in Mexico City, organized through the PCM, formed the Hands Out of Nicaragua Committees (MAFUENIC) as part of the Latin American Anti-Imperialist League (LADLA) network. In addition to sending the cadre, MAFUENIC raised funds and propagandized for Sandino and other forces across central, eastern, and western Mexico, focusing on trade unions and student circles and filling theaters, public arenas, and streets with thousands of sympathizers.35

But the PCM and the Comintern were outraged to learn that Sandino would be arriving as the guest of the same government engaged in repressing the left and breaking relations with the USSR. Sandino’s timing could not have been worse. The Portes Gil government turned sharply to the right, closed communist papers, and forced that movement underground in 1929 and 1930. Sandino tried to bridge the unbridgeable, maintaining an open communication with the PCM and expressing appreciation for its support to the struggle. But solidarity, as expected by Sandino, was one thing and what the PCM was expecting was another: a strategic alliance and a clear ideological lineup with the Moscow line. The leftist goal was to bring Sandino formally into its ranks, that is, to have him renounce his romantic brand of socialism, adopt a Marxist-Leninist creed, and reframe his discourse and strategy in Nicaragua.36

Sandino was not one to be pushed into any camp, but neither could he afford to break with either camp. His staff was also divided: Pedro Zepeda, his representative in Mexico City with close ties to the Mexican ruling elite, argued with the more doctrinaire officers, including Martí, who lobbied for the PCM positions. The PCM believed that Sandino was “ideologically confused” by a mystical nonscientific view of communism. Upon arriving in Mexico City, Sandino requested a secret meeting with the PCM and MAFUENIC leadership. Sandino felt a need to clear up a malicious rumor, one he suspected was spread by the PCM elements, that he was receiving funds from the United States. Sandino demanded an investigation and a retraction. The PCM demanded that Sandino publicly attack the Mexican government for its complicity with the United States. Moscow, for its part, through its Anti-Imperialist Congress floated the idea of Sandino taking a European tour and visiting Moscow.

Things came to a head when Moscow insisted on shifting its global strategic thinking to a “class against class” approach, meaning full-fledged class warfare under the exclusive leadership of a worker-peasant alliance against the bourgeoisie. Sandino refused to accept this approach and in April 1930, as he was exiting Mexico, the PCM turned against him publicly, thereby forcing the reluctant international communist machine to follow. Sandino went from hero to villain—from liberator to an “adventurist petite bourgeois nationalist and a traitor to the proletarian cause” who shied away from the task of building a Communist Party as the precondition for liberation. The PCM never forgave him and even sent agents into Sandino’s ranks with instructions to remove Sandino from the leadership and convert his liberation army into the Communist Party of Nicaragua.37

Sandino did not live long enough to witness how his national front strategy would eventually be echoed in the Stalin’s “great patriotic war” against the Nazis, or in the national liberation front movements of decades later.

Victory in Defeat

Abandoned by both the Mexican government and the Comintern while still persecuted by the United States, Sandino returned to Nicaragua in May 1930. He was politically more isolated than ever, but also clearer in his ideals, plans, and strategy. Within a few months, he regrouped and redeployed his forces while enhancing his campesino support network and his logistical rearguard in Honduras. He then launched daring offensives across northern Nicaragua and reached the Caribbean coast. Further political impetus resulted from Washington’s decision to withdraw its troops by the end of 1932. In its place, the United States left the national constabulary force known as the Nicaraguan National Guard, turning over its leadership to Anastacio Somoza García—known as the “last marine”—and founder of the Somoza family dynasty that was to rule Nicaragua until 1979.

True to his promise to quit the military struggle once the Marines withdrew, Sandino signed a disadvantageous armistice agreement on February 3, 1933, proceeding to demobilize most of his army and refusing to be drawn into Nicaraguan politics notwithstanding an invitation from many quarters. Rather than retiring to the landed estate offered to him, he set out to build an agrarian communal regime as envisioned by the 19th-century anarchist thinkers and his Mexican mentors. He called on workers of all nationalities to join him but insisted that no alcohol or clergy were welcome.38

Sandino was by this time is an ardent believer in the Universal Magnetic Spiritual School of Joaquin Trincado, whose writings and followers he also encountered in Mexico. Little doubt that Sandino found himself reflected in Trincado’s spiritist “magnetic” doctrine which gathered socialistic, metaphysical, and theosophical principles, along with rejection of private property, a critique of US expansionism and of the Catholic Church, and a belief in a destiny of Hispanic America, all of which resonated deeply in Sandino.

Yet the Nicaraguan elite, Somoza’s National Guard, and the US Embassy viewed Sandino’s continued presence as destabilizing. He was lured to meetings in Managua and on February 21, 1934, following a dinner in the presidential palace, he was arrested and executed along with his three aides. His remains were never found, but his name became the fulcrum of Nicaraguan politics for decades.39

Discussion of the Literature

There is a great deal of literature on the Mexican Revolution, and much of the recent scholarship has correctly emphasized the dynamics of regions and currents. Social, political, and economic developments in Tampico and Veracruz during Sandino’s time there are critical to understanding his intellectual formation and sociopolitical consciousness. Most useful is S. Lief Adleson, Historia social de los obreros industriales de Tampico, México (1982). Gregorio Selser’s pioneering biography of Sandino, El general de hombres libres (1960), mentions the importance of Tampico in Sandino’s formation, but it was Donald C. Hodges who first made the connection in the Intellectual Origins of the Sandinista Revolution (1986) and with less success in Sandino’s Communism (2013). Sandino himself does not refer much to this period, obliging historians to extrapolate from his writings.

German historian Volker Wünderich reviews that context in his political biography of Sandino (1995), as does the French historian Michelle Dospital (1996), whose fieldwork in Mexico allowed her to interview some of Sandino’s contemporaries and receive an explanation of the organized labor scene. Unfortunately, neither work has been translated into English. A good account with an accent on the military campaigns continues to be Neil Macaulay’s The Sandino Affair (1967), the first to draw on US military records. Alan McPherson’s masterful The Invaded (2014) provides a scholarly account of the US entanglement in Nicaragua and draws on important Nicaraguan and international sources.

Most of the hagiographic treatments of Sandino, beginning with that of Carlos Fonseca (1985), the founder of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional, or FSLN), purposely gloss over Sandino’s esoteric side as well as his fallout with the Comintern. Conversely, anti-Sandinista publications go to the other extreme, beginning with Somoza’s El verdadero Sandino (1934) which ironically contains valuable documents and data. Giulio Girardi (1987) presents Sandino as the precursor of the theology of liberation. Alejandro Bendaña’s Sandino Patria y Libertad (2016) is the first thorough attempt to reconstruct how Sandino was influenced by the Mexican setting. The current historiographical effort led principally by Michael Schroeder (1996) centers on the cultural setting of the Segovias and the networks created and tapped into by Sandino.

Primary Sources

Sandino’s own writings and first-hand accounts were first compiled by the Instituto de Estudios del Sandinismo in Managua during the 1980s and his correspondence, well edited in Sergio Ramirez’s Pensamiento vivo (1984), is still an indispensable source though now incomplete with the appearance of new documentation. During the 1980s, the Instituto de Estudios del Sandinismo interviewed survivors from Sandino’s time and published extracts in Ahora sé que Sandino manda (1986). The actual transcriptions of the interviews along with copies of Sandino papers are found in the Fondo Sandino of the Instituto de Historia de Nicaragua y Centroamérica at the Universidad Centroamericana in Managua. The original Sandino papers remain sealed off by the Nicaraguan military. A much-quoted source is the valuable extended interview that Sandino gave to Jose Roman, Maldito pais (1983), and Ramon de Belausteguigoitia, Con Sandino en Nicaragua (1934).

US diplomatic and Marine Archives relating to the period in Nicaragua are now housed at The National Archives at College Park, Maryland. The captured internal correspondence of Sandino’s army is in the US Marine Archives records and is of value as it sheds light on the nature of the insurgency and relation with the local population. Many documents are now online in www.sandinorebellion.com Mexican governmental archives have yet to be fully tapped, including the now available records of the Foreign Ministry (Archivo Histórico Genaro Estrada, Secretaría de Relaciones Exteriores, Mexico City) and the Interior Police (Archivo General de la Nacion, México City). Also of value is the Mexican Oral History in the Archivo de la Palabra in the Biblioteca Manuel Orozco y Berra in the Direccion de Estudios Historicos of the INAH (Tlalpan, México City). It contains the texts of interviews with oil workers in the Tampico región. Mexican historians traveled to Moscow to collect documentation on early México-Soviet Union relations, including the dealings of the Mexican Communist Party and Comintern with Sandino. These microfilm records are found in the Colección Rusa de la Biblioteca Manuel Orozco, Dirección de Estudios Históricos del INAH.

Gregorio Selser’s papers form part of the collection of the Centro Académico de la Memoria de Nuestra America at the Universidad Autónoma de Ciudad de Mexico. It contains materials employed by Selser for his two biographies of Sandino. Of extraordinary importance in the Selser collection was a misplaced file containing interviews with oil workers who actually remembered Sandino, carried out in 1980 by Marta and Gregorio Selser. Bendaña’s biography was the first to draw on those records and provide a picture of the young Sandino as an oil worker in Mexico. The three most informative published interviews granted by Sandino were given to the journalists Emigdio Maraboto, José Roman, and Ramón de Belausteguigoitia; the texts have been conveniently compiled by Aldo Díaz Lacayo, Augusto C. Sandino, Entrevistas-Reportajes (Managua, Nicaragua: Aldilá, 2010) and can also be found online.

Links to Digital Materials

There is no better documental compilation of the person, the military operations and the cultural history of the Segovias, the Caribbean Coast, and US Marine operations during the period than the one organized over the course of decades by Michael C. Schroeder of Lebanon Valley College, PennSylvania. Regularly updated with new findings, it is a gold mine of primary documents drawn from a diversity of sources in the US, including personal papers and extraordinary photographs made by Marine officers in the 1920s. It also contains one of the most comprehensive bibliographies on Nicaragua and the Sandino period.

Further Reading

  • Adleson, S. Lief. “Cultural Roots of the Oil Workers’ Union in Tampico, 1910–1925.” In The Mexican Petroleum Industry in the Twentieth Century. Edited by John C. Brown and Alan Knight. Austin, TX: University of Austin Press, 1992.
  • Alafita Méndez, Leopoldo. “Trabajo y condición obrera en los campamentos petroleros de la Huasteca, 1900–1935.” In Centro de Investigaciones Históricas Anuario. 4th ed. Veracruz, Mexico: Universidad Veracruzana, Xalapa, 1986.
  • Beals, Carleton. Banana Gold. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1932.
  • Bendaña, Alejandro. Sandino, patria y libertad. Managua, Nicaragua: Anama, 2016.
  • Buchenau, Jürgen. In the Shadow of the Giant: The Making of México’s Central American Policy, 1876–1930. Mobile: University of Alabama Press, 1996.
  • Carr, Barry. “Pioneering Transnational Solidarity in the Americas: The Movement in Support of Augusto C. Sandino 1927–1934.” Journal of Iberian and Latin American Research 20, no. 2 (2014): 141–152.
  • Cerdas Cruz, Rodolfo. La hoz y el machete: la internacional comunista, América Latina y la revolución en Centro América. San José, Costa Rica: EUNED, 1983.
  • De Belausteguigoitia, Ramón. Con Sandino en Nicaragua: La hora de la paz. Madrid: Espasa-Calpe, 1934.
  • Díaz Lacayo, Aldo, ed. Augusto C. Sandino, Entrevistas-Reportajes. Managua, Nicaragua: Aldilá, 2010.
  • Dospital, Michelle. Siempre Más Allá, el movimiento sandinista en Nicaragua 1927–1943. Managua: Centro Francés de Estudios Mexicanos y Centroamericanos, Instituto de Historia de Nicaragua, 1996.
  • Hodges, Donald C. Intellectual Foundations of the Nicaraguan Revolution. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986.
  • Kersffeld, Daniel. Contra el imperio. Historia de la Liga Antiimperialista de las Américas. México D.F.: Siglo XXI, 2012.
  • Macaulay, Neil. The Sandino Affair. Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1967.
  • McPherson, Alan. The Invaded: How Latin Americans and Their Allies Fought and Ended U.S. Occupations. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014
  • Sandino, Augusto C. “Introducción, selección y notas de Sergio Ramírez.” In El pensamiento vivo. 2nd ed. Managua: Editorial Nueva Nicaragua, 1984.
  • Schroeder, Michael J. “Horse Thieves to Rebels to Dogs: Political Gang Violence and the State in the Western Segovias, Nicaragua, in the Time of Sandino, 1927–1933.” Journal of Latin American Studies 28, no. 2 (May 1996): 383–434.
  • Selser, Gregorio. El pequeño ejército loco: operación México-Nicaragua. Havana: Ediciones Imprenta Nacional de Cuba, 1960.
  • Somoza García, Anastasio. El verdadero Sandino o el Calvario de las Segovias. Managua, Nicaragua: Tipografia Robelo, 1936
  • Wünderich, Volker. Sandino: una biografía política. Managua: Editorial Nueva Nicaragua, 1995.

Notes