Duel Across the Border: Somoza’s Challenge to Figueres

On January 11, 1955 a group of roughly five hundred Costa Rican expatriates entered Costa Rica with the intent of ousting the then president Jose Figueres. For two weeks the insurgents fought government troops in northern Costa Rica until the Organization of American States intervened and put an end to the violence. Although he denied it, the insurrectionist force had received substantial support from the Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza Garcia. The previous spring the dictator had survived an assassination attempt and the Guardia Nacional – the Nicaraguan security forces loyal to Somoza – had defeated a small insurrection of Nicaraguan exiles that originated in Costa Rica. Somoza had also just aided in the overthrow of the Guatemalan government of Jacobo Arbenz, so seeking revenge and emboldened by his recent success in Guatemala the Nicaraguan dictator sought to remove another of his regional rivals, Figueres. Not only did Somoza supply the Costa Rican insurgents, he also provided use of his air force, which strafed and bombed targets in northern Costa Rica. Knowing that Somoza was the principal benefactor of the attacking forces, Figueres lambasted the Nicaraguan dictator in the press calling his relatives a “family of gangsters.” Somoza, who spoke fluent English and was known for his love of English curse words, responded by calling Figueres a “damn liar”and challenged Figueres to a duel at the Nicaraguan-Costa Rican border.

Figueres declined the invitation to duel, stating that Somoza was “crazier than a goat in the midsummer sun.”

Ultimately the crisis was defused by the intervention of the United States. Hoping to improve its image after the Guatemalan coup, the United States quickly stepped in and negotiated an end to the crisis, however tensions between the two countries remained high even after the assassination of Somoza the next year.

Although Somoza was the main aggressor against Costa Rica and Figueres, he was aided by the other dictatorial regimes of the Caribbean. Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican, Castillo Armas of Guatemala, and Marcos Perez Jiménez of Venezuela also provided resources or support to the 1955 insurgency. Along with Somoza, they represented a regional alliance bent on securing their own regimes and sniffing out any form of opposition be it democratic or communist. In 1957 Trujillo hatched a plot to assassinate Figueres and bring down one of the regions strongest voices for democracy. The plot failed but extraterritorial violence of the Caribbean dictators continued for decades to come.

Resources:

Charles D. Ameringer, The Democratic Left in Exile: The Antidictatorial Struggle in the Caribbean, 1945-1959 (Coral Gables: University of Miami Press, 1974).

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