On December 23, 1972 a violent earthquake rocked Managua, Nicaragua, killing approximately 10,000, wounding another 20,000, and leaving over 250,000 people homeless. Nicaraguan strongman Anastasio Somoza Debalye immediately reached declared martial law and called out for international assistance. The international community responded quickly, sending millions of dollars for relief, as well as tons of food, clothing, and building materials.
Among those who sprang to the aid of the people of Managua was future Hall of Fame baseball player Roberto Clemente. Clemente, who spent his off seasons working for charities in Latin America and the U.S., led efforts in Puerto Rico to raise money, as well as collect clothing and food for the victims of the quake.
Planes loaded with supplies flew from Puerto Rico to Nicaragua, where the Somoza controlled military, the Guardia Nacional, locked the relief aid away in warehouses around the destroyed city of Managua. Holding a monopoly on the incoming aid, Somoza Debalye used it to enrich himself and secure the system of patronage that kept him in power. Guardia officers received the first cut of all relief supplies, with much of the remainder being sold for the benefit of the Nicaraguan dictator.
Although unaware that Somoza Debalye was behind the graft, Celmente caught wind of his supplies being intercepted by profiteers, instead of making it to the people of Managua. Determined to ensure that his supplies made it to those who needed them, Clemente traveled with the second flight of supplies to Nicaragua; however, shortly after take off his plane crashed into the Caribbean, killing all on board.
Clemente, Pirates’ Star, Dies in Crash of Plane Carrying Aid to Nicaragua
The tragic death of Clemente resulted in an outpouring of grief in the United States and Latin America. Although many suspected Somoza Debalye’s involvement in the misappropriation of relief aid, it was not until many years that the true extent of the dictator’s corruption became widely known. Because of the dictators greed, Clemente took that fateful flight to Nicaragua, and ultimately became another casualty of the Somoza regime.