Death of Somoza (Book Review)
“The Death of Somoza: The First Person Story of the Guerrillas who Assassinated a Nicaraguan Dictator”, #1880684268, c1996, by Claribel Alegria & Darwin Flakoll (originally published in Nicaragua & Venezuela; translated and published in English by Curbstone Press; the two authors are married, though this is not detailed in their work nor promotional materials; Flakoll passed away recently; Alegria is a well-known Salvadoran poet and journalist, who has authored numerous books, political and otherwise). [Info/Buy]
This same pair, Alegria & Flakoll, is responsible for a widely-read account on Peru’s anti-government revolutionary outfit MRTA (Movimiento Revolucionario Tupac Amaru), “Tunnel to Canta Grande: The Story of the Most Daring Prison Escape in Latin American History”. They gained access to Somoza’s killers based on this earlier effort. Unlike the Somoza volume, which covers a short period of time, in a setting with modest security, and with few key players, this earlier study describes in detail the guerrilla group’s work in freeing 48 “comrades” from the newly built, and allegedly impregnable Canto Grande prison fortress outside Lima - by taking 28-months to dig a nearly half-mile tunnel through what was believed to be one of the most secure areas in the country.
Both books came with high praise. They were mentioned in numerous news accounts, and were also chronicled on countless radio shows. Per the Somoza volume, due to the use of such summaries as “…insightful, powerful interviews woven into a true narrative that reads like a thriller…”, “…a gripping story of the planning and execution of an act of international justice rarely seen…”, “…the inside story of the private use of military precision in the bringing to justice of…”, it would be easy to have high expectations regarding the volume.
Such an account may be of interest for several reasons. One, it always seemed odd that post-Nicaragua Somoza barely merited a sentence or two in any serious book on the country. Two, it is always assumed (though certainly never proven) that the country was left bankrupt due to Somoza’s flight with the most if not all of national treasury, but if true what became of that money, and were the assassins interested in going after it? Three, there is the possibility that any investigation would reveal some facts regarding Somoza’s protection by Alfredo Stroessner, and that relationship might be insightful in itself. Four, there would surely be some insight into the interaction of revolutionary groups at a significant period in world history. And, five, it would hopefully be revealing to see what sort of non-Nicaraguan would tackle such a mission, for no fame and apparently even less money.
The big problem with the book is that it never addresses any of these interesting tangential stories. What became of Somoza is often a footnote in books, and is perhaps best summarized by Walter LeFeber in “Inevitable Revolutions: The United States in Central America”, when he maintains that, "In 1980 bazooka shells shredded Somoza, his armor-plated Mercedes, and a US businessman riding with him. Several suspects were arrested, but the killers were not found". The basic problem is that LeFeber is wrong, on several counts. One it was not bazooka shells plural, but one shell, and that is not what killed Somoza anyway, and more importantly, his Mercedes Benz was not armor plated, and wasn‘t even fitted with bulletproof glass. The details do matter, and in Somoza‘s case they are often ignored or incorrect.
The self-appointed assassins were apparently in Nicaragua, when Somoza fled the country for Florida. Later, in 1982-83, via Julio Courtezar, the authors ultimately met with and interviewed PRT (Argentinian Revolutionary Workers' Party) leader Ramon, and with his assistance they were able to interview all the survivors from the operation (book publication was delayed a decade, due to Argentine politics and the subsequent unexplained roles of some of the assassins). The interviews are put together in a narrative, at times using direct quotations from the various parties. While the book in not poorly written, much of the first half is hardly a gripping account (maybe it is simply the translation; doubtful, but possible).
The authors cover the plan from the outset, how it was originally discussed in a Managua bar, and came into the control of Argentinian Basque Enrique Haroldo Gorriaran Merlo (a.k.a. Ramon). Training (including some work in Colombia), arms selections and shipments (also from Colombia), funding (surprisingly easy access to a Swiss bank account), and most of the details of the operation in Asuncion, Paraguay. There is in the details the revelation that the plan was not a sure-go from the outset (locating Somoza wasn‘t easy, and trying to identify a schedule for him nearly impossible), and that various things went wrong (for example, one member of the hit team breaks an ankle, another becomes pregnant), and at the last minute, several things went horribly wrong. The group was not a trained unit with an impressive resume of past deeds, though all were committed to revolutionary communism and had political and operational credentials.
The book never details any elaborate debate over the necessity of the deed, at this particular point in time. The best that is offered -and in some respects maybe that is all that is needed, but an interviewer is certainly expected to get more- is one agent’s claim that "It would be a historic disgrace to permit that murderer to die peacefully in his bed." From a historical analysis, the book is somewhat of a curiosity. The authors never mention whether or not they confirmed any of the things they were told (or tried to), nor do they even hint at that possibility that some members of the hit-team might recall things differently than did others (one of the most common occurrences in interviewing people about past actions, and motives). The book seems to start and finish in a vacuum; there is no real analysis of anything else in the world, prior to or after the successful killing of Somoza. It is the near-complete lack of reflection on the part of those involved, and the unwillingness of the authors to question a single thing told them, which undercuts the book. Somoza’s assassins are unabashedly self-appointed, and the book proceeds without any reflections, assessments, or justifications, Nicaraguan or otherwise - which in many respects is disappointing.
Beyond the basic criticisms of the work as a piece of history, there are the countless questions regarding the killing, as a military operation. The book comes across -as do comments by most other reviewers- as if this were the work of serious, professional revolutionaries, with an assortment of unique skills, all of which were needed to pull off such a precise military operation. But the facts hardly confirm this. Just some of the operational mistakes include: (1) One key member, when it matters, having an M16 with an empty clip; (2) They could not use the RPG-2 as originally planned because an operative was directly beyond the line of fire, using his firearm - and the first RPG-round was a dud; (3) They were inadvertently using the same radio frequency as used by a neighborhood house-construction team; (4) The use of a getaway vehicle which didn’t run on all cylinders and later failed (and which was abandoned and probably contributed to some agents being identified so quickly); (5) One agent was “trapped” in Paraguay after Stroessner locked-down the borders, and is off taking tourist pictures when apprehended in a general police raid, and in her pocket is cash, consecutively numbered following the money police had already seized from their Paraguayan safe house; (6) An operative who waits until after she returned to Paraguay following the assassination, to alter her appearance - and when she does, she more closely resembles a woman mistakenly apprehended by Paraguayan secret police and whose photo was being used on television; (7) For unexplained reasons, a leader is gunned down in the safe house long after he was supposed to have both changed his appearance and identity, and relocated within the city; (8) They didn‘t know where Somoza lived, nor the security details of his residence, nor even if the car was armor plated or bulletproof, or if he was in the process of moving to another city or country. While hindsight may be 20-20, given the circumstances it is far from obvious that these Argentines are true “professionals”. What they proved is that it doesn’t take seasoned experts to pull off such an operation. Military precision was not in evidence in Asuncion, nor was it required. Though armed with RPG-2‘s, the hit squad was overly concerned with Somoza’s security detail, which was never in the same car with him, and were always in one of the most recognizable cars in Asuncion - the famous bright red Ford Fairlane.
We are expected to believe that the entire operation was done without the knowledge of consent of the Sandinista hierarchy. This might well be the case, but it seems questionable, and an unnecessary move - and at odds with their stated goals, since the Sandinistas quickly abolished the death penalty, and were well into the extradition process (which probably would have failed anyway). The Sandinistas were kept in the dark, we are told, because "The mere fact of telling them would compromise them. They aren't a guerrilla movement any longer; they're running a state, and for reasons of state they wouldn't approve". While this might be true, it is hard to believe they thought they could kill Somoza anonymously, and not have people simply assume the Sandinistas had done it - and that assumption would be akin to tacit consent or even action, viewed publicly and internationally (which is perhaps why they would not have approved; so, why put them in that spot?).
Nevertheless, for all its faults and failings, it is a decent book, and the only account in English of what became of Somoza, and under who’s hand (for a Spanish account of this and much more see agent “Ramon‘s” autobiography, "Memorias de Enrique Gorriarán Merlo", c2003; he died in late 2006; see http://www.nicaliving.com/node/6537). “The Death of Somoza” is well worth reading for the opposite reason offered in many reviews. Namely, it is worth seeking out because more than anything it reveals how many things can go wrong, and yet a mission on the international level can still succeed. It could be argued that anyone with an automatic weapon could have killed Somoza; the only hard part was getting out of the country, or blending in - and the book does cover this. The hit-team surely deserves some points for humor, for renting Somoza’s neighbor’s mansion using forged documents declaring them agents of singer Julio Iglesias. The last (or first) great book on Somoza has yet to be written, but when it is written, Alegria will have to be credited repeatedly in that final chapter, because she got a story countless people wanted.